Another Public Service Recognition Week comes to a close with praise for federal employees, vows to boost their low morale and pledges to improve workplace hiring and diversity.
Those songs have been sung before. Yet four top Obama administration officials, all rookies, represented new energy focusing on old problems at a town hall meeting Thursday.
Time will tell how effective this new crowd will be.
The Partnership for Public Service and the Public Employees Roundtable convened the meeting as one of the week’s main attractions. The secretaries of commerce, labor and homeland security — Penny Pritzker, Thomas E. Perez and Jeh Johnson, respectively — and Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta participated. Each has been on the job less than a year, although all but Pritzker have long government experience.
Speaking of old problems, “I’m on a mission to turn the morale situation around in the Department of Homeland Security,” Johnson told the fourth annual Public Service Town Hall.
During its 11-year history, DHS has always ranked at or near the bottom of similar-size agencies in the Partnership’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government list, giving Johnson a particularly tough job. Other agencies have their own, sometimes very similar, concerns.
Issues include the relatively low percentage of young federal employees and the continuing need to improve diversity. Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive, said just 7 percent of the federal workforce is under 30, compared with 23 percent in the private sector. Uncle Sam converts 6.6 percent of his interns into full-time employees, according to the Partnership, much less than the business world’s 48.4 percent.
To attract the young, Pritzker said, the government needs to offer better career pathways, greater training opportunities and a 21st- century work environment “that often doesn’t look like the work environment that we’re providing.” Young workers today, she said, want the latest technology, a creative ambiance and opportunities for collaboration.
And they don’t want to collaborate only with people who look and think like themselves.
Diversity is important to Anthony Cotton, 31, an Agency for International Development employee and a finalist for this year’s Service to America Medals (Sammies) given to outstanding federal workers. He reminded the officials about the value of generating ideas by collaborating with a diverse group of people.
“My generation values diversity and inclusion,” he said. “On my team we have men and women who are black, white, Latino, Asian American, gay, straight, members of many faiths and no faith, people from every region of the U.S. and naturalized citizens. We have seen firsthand that this improves results as the diversity of our backgrounds, experiences, and views enriches our decision making process, fosters innovation, and keeps us away from group-think syndrome.”
Archuleta strongly agreed. “Diversity is really. . . a leadership issue,” she said. “It’s a personal passion of mine.”
Johnson encouraged government leaders to mentor women and people of color and to recruit from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like his alma mater, Morehouse College. “I think the federal government can find some remarkably motivated, talented people at HBCUs,” he said.
Recognizing public servants is what this week is about. Recognizing exceptional service is a big part of the week, too.
“We brought back awards, which were mothballed for years,” said Perez, not long before he had to dash to a Labor Department awards ceremony.
’Tis the season to be jolly — if you are among the federal employees being honored with awards this week.
While the finalists for the government-wide Sammies were introduced by the Partnership Tuesday, agencies also honored their employees with awards this week.
Perez presented more than 100 medallions to recipients of the department’s “Honor Awards.” The awards recognize work in such areas as helping veterans find employment, improving workplace safety and protecting the rights and wages of vulnerable workers.
The medallions get almost as much attention as the recipients. Each 3.5-inch bronze-plated award is engraved with the department’s seal and set in a velvet-lined oak, apple or pecan display case. The awards were designed and crafted by 16 machining and carpentry students at the department’s Gary Job Corps Center in San Marcos, Tex.
“The skill and craftsmanship that went into making these medals epitomizes the array of opportunities provided by the 125 Job Corps centers across the country to young people eager for training that leads to bright futures,” Perez said in a news release. “All of us at the department thank the talented students at the Gary Jobs Corps Center for creating the awards and giving renewed meaning to the importance of public service.”
At the Agriculture Department, Secretary Thomas E. Vilsack honored 15 employees at the 30th Annual Unsung Hero Award program Wednesday. Apparently taking the unsung part seriously, officials kept the program closed to the media.
Rachael Dubinsky, the department’s deputy press secretary, said the awards are given to employees “who have demonstrated extraordinary effort in performing their duties, have gone above and beyond their job description to help others, and in some cases have even saved lives.”
That fits a lot of feds, even some who don’t get awards.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.