The breakfast banquet honoring federal workers was appropriately held in the Russell Senate Office Building’s grand Kennedy Caucus Room. What a relief it was.
After a string of stories about a proposal to mass punish senior executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer feds donating to a charity campaign and IRS training and service cuts, it was good to be surrounded by good news for a change.
The occasion was Public Service Recognition Week and the annual Partnership for Public Service’s introduction of the 43 finalists for the Service to America Medals, better known as the Sammies. These federal employees represent the finest in public service. The services they and many others provide are impressive and make life better not just in the United States, but worldwide.
Here are a few examples:
Miguel O. Román is a research physical scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He and his colleagues use their space skills on Earth to provide information on wildfires, storm damage and energy consumption to countries around the world.
“We put things in space, that’s our job,” Román said just outside the Caucus Room. “But one of our co-missions is to develop the technologies necessary to monitor and understand our planet.”
The range of problems facing the federal workforce, including falling morale following pay freezes and furloughs, hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for working for the federal government, even though he probably could make more money in the private sector.
“To have all this access to resources allows you to actually make a big impact, to study long-term changes,” he said. “Sure, I could work for a contractor and make some more money, but the privilege of [having] firsthand access to these data, you just can’t put a price tag on it.”
Susan M. Hanson is an FBI agent who had to break the blue code of silence to solve a killing. When an inmate at Ventress Correctional Facility in Alabama died at the hands of correctional officers, the officers concocted a coverup.
“It is a fact that there was a culture of corruption in not just this prison, but the whole Alabama prison system, and a culture that they can do whatever they wanted,” supervisory special agent William Beersdorf told the Partnership. Hanson “was a bulldog,” a compliment in law enforcement circles, he said. “If she ran into an obstacle, she’d go around it and go over it.”
As a result, a corrections supervisor, the main culprit, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Three additional officers received sentences of five to seven years.
Like many feds, Rana H. Hajjeh, a physician and epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could be making the big bucks if she chose to work for someone other than Uncle Sam.
Instead, he sends her to remote places to show governments why they should vaccinate their nations’ children against Hib, the shorthand name of a bacterium that can lead to meningitis and pneumonia. The Partnership said “using a remarkable combination of gentle force, science and cultural sensitivity, she led a global campaign that convinced 60 countries to adopt the vaccine’s use.”
“We all go into medicine thinking we will save lives,” Hajjeh said, “but you really do it on a large scale when you are working on interventions at the population level—especially in many of the developing countries.”
The winners, in eight categories of the Sammies, will be announced in September.
In further recognition of government workers, a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs federal workforce subcommittee hearing examined “cultivating the federal workforce.”
Needing quick cultivation, according to the employee representatives who testified, is the workforce’s morale. Public Service Recognition Week, which is organized by the Public Employees Roundtable, is a good thing, but the workforce leaders complained that federal employees have been recognized too much in the wrong way.
“How do we cultivate the federal workforce when that workforce endures years of stagnant wages and lives under constant attack on their benefits and bad and misleading press?” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, asked in her prepared statement.
Another question came from American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr.: “How could morale be anything other than extremely low under these circumstances? The answer is that federal employees are a devoted and resilient bunch. They despise what the politicians have done to them.”
Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, lamented the level of support those politicians have shown federal workers.
“Regrettably,” she said, “there has been limited visible support emanating from the Administration or Congress in defense of federal workers, especially Senior Executives, despite their selfless service and noteworthy accomplishments.”
The Senate did pass a resolution honoring public servants in March and visible administration support will be on view Thursday morning during a Public Service Town Hall, hosted by the Partnership and featuring three Cabinet secretaries and the director of the Office of Personnel Management. Also, every member of President Obama’s Cabinet signed a letter thanking public servants.
That’s cool, but it’s a message feds would like to hear more than once a year.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.