Award winners save federal government billions

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 1, 2012

With so much news about federal employees on the wild at a casino hotel outside Las Vegas and with prostitutes in Colombia, it’s a pleasure to learn about public servants who are more reflective of the whole.

The Senior Executives Association honored 54 recipients of the 2011 Presidential Distinguished Rank Awards with a formal banquet at the State Department last week. It was the 27th annual affair.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“Every year, I think they can’t get any better, and every year, I’m just astonished at what these people have done,” said Carol Bonosaro, the association’s executive director.

The awards, the highest government honor in the federal service, are limited to just 1 percent of those in senior level positions. Recipients are nominated by agency heads and vetted by an outside panel and the Office of Personnel Management (except intelligence agency employees) before being approved by the White House. They receive a payment that equals 35 percent of their rate of annual basic pay, a framed certificate signed by the president and a gold SES keystone pin.

Though only a few are chosen for the honor, they represent many.

By honoring the few, “we recognize the contributions of the entire career executive corps,” Bonosaro said at the banquet. The event provided an opportunity, she added, to “renew our pride in federal service — and thank the families whose support makes possible their accomplishments.”

With the recent news about scandals in the General Services Administration and the Secret Service, along with allegations of corruption among a few transportation security officers, the notion of “pride in federal service” hasn’t even been an afterthought.

Instead of thanking federal employees, the news of the past month has been a regular drumbeat of bad news about them.

“I do believe that we as a country are conflicted about the value we assign to public service, and so we communicate a mixed message,” said Teresa W. Gerton, an honoree who was a Defense Department official until July. “Our government makes a difference for good in so many ways, and the opportunity to be a part of that can change a life.”

Gerton was an Army officer for 20 years before joining the department’s civilian Senior Executive Service for eight years. She “led the Army’s largest Base Realignment and Closure move, involving approximately 11,000 employees across 25 states,” according to the association.

“We worked very hard to make the moves as easy as possible for our employees by maximizing their relocation support, automating and speeding their reimbursement claims, and improving our ability to support telework and virtual work environments, and consequently we had some of the highest ‘move rates’ in the Army,” Gerton said by e-mail.

She is proud of her work on behalf of 70,000 other government civilians who served “in Iraq and Afghanistan providing daily life and logistics support to soldiers in the toughest environments, without much fanfare,” Gerton said. “We worked hard to get both recognition of their accomplishments but also recognition that they often suffered the same kinds of combat stress that soldiers did and so needed access to similar mental health treatment options.”

Senior career people provide a critical link in the ongoing operations of the government. They remain on the job as short-term political appointees come and go.

“In many ways, each of us in the Cabinet is a caretaker of the agencies we lead,” Small Business Administrator Karen G. Mills said in remarks prepared for the banquet. “But what you are is the heart and soul.

“You provide the continuity and sage counsel not only to those running your agencies, but to those just embarking on a career in public service. You are the mentors and role models.”

They also save Uncle Sam money.

“Their accomplishments are inevitably awe-inspiring, and you will be stunned to learn not only what they have accomplished, but that the savings and cost avoidance documented in their nominations total over $36 billion,” Bonosaro said. “If the American people only knew. Actually, if the Congress only knew.”

What the honorees do — from coordinating multi-agency relief efforts in Haiti to making mattresses much less fire prone, from protecting endangered wildlife to running a spinal cord injury center — is the everyday work of government employees.

“Your work changes lives and transforms communities,” Mills said. “Your actions may not always make headlines, but collectively, they make our government and our country a shining example around the world.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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