June 30, 2013

IN APRIL, 124 federal executives received the Presidential Rank Award, a distinction that confers a salary bonus. Among the awardees were an official who led U.S. efforts in Japan for 11 months after the Fukushima nuclear plant accident; another who found more than $3.6 billion in false Medicare bills, which led to charges against 1,200 individuals; and one who helped write passenger protection rules that limit tarmac wait time to three hours. The winners’ accomplishments saved the federal government an estimated $94 billion.

Next year the equivalent bureaucrat-heroes won’t receive the same recognition. President Obama has put the award program on hold, reasoning that at a time of pay freezes and furloughs, bonuses can’t be justified. But the administration’s appearance-conscious cut — this year’s winners received at most $2.2 million in bonuses — is pound foolish.

A report released last week found only four out of 10 federal employees believe they will be rewarded or promoted for doing good work. Drawn from a survey of more than 700,000 federal employees, the finding by the Partnership for Public Service (a nonpartisan nonprofit that regularly contributes profiles of federal workers to The Post’s Federal Worker page), warns that an increasingly derisive discussion about government has harmed public servants’ perceptions of how their work is valued. Mr. Obama should be looking for ways to reinforce the respect these employees are due.

Examples of dysfunction in government often get plenty of attention, justifiably: Witness the IRS troubles in Cincinnati, the National Security Agency’s inability to keep its secrets, the security breakdown at the U.S. outpost in Benghazi. The good work that thousands of employees do every day, and the extraordinary work that the presidential award winners and others perform, receives far less attention.

In a sour economy, there are limits to what any president can do to maintain morale; the government doesn’t have the money for generous raises. Politicians who demean government service make the task more difficult. That makes it all the more important for Mr. Obama to do what he can: talk up employees’ value, pay small bonuses that signal the country’s respect or meet (as both President Bushes did but Mr. Obama has yet to do) with the government’s 7,000 senior executives all at once.

The kind of low morale reflected in the Partnership’s survey will cost the government in the long run. Good people will leave or decide not to come in the first place. No one in government expects to find rolling carts of Pinkberry frozen yogurt in their workplace, as they might in a downtown Manhattan start-up, or to receive the six-figure starting salaries commonly found in consulting firms and investment banks. But it is up to each administration to defend, reward and recognize federal employees who every day tackle our most complex problems.