Shutdown dampens enthusiasm for some prospective government employees

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 16, 2013

In some ways, Uncle Sam is one lucky dude.

Sure, he must contend with a recalcitrant group of Republicans who would rather hang an “out of order” sign on his house than allow the Affordable Care Act to work. Rather than undermining Obamacare, however, the Republican tactics have eroded confidence in Sam’s government, torpedoed the party’s ratings and wasted much time and money.

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

Yet, he also has loyal, talented and long-suffering staff members eager to get back to work after a government shutdown kept them off the job for more than two weeks. Many other workers demonstrated their allegiance by continuing to work with only a promise of being paid eventually.

But Sam suffers from chronic dysfunction. It’s not contagious, but it can infect the morale of those he needs most. That’s not just his veteran staffers, who have come to know his strange ways, but — important for the future — young people who have looked to him for a career.

Several students, interns and young government professionals contacted by the Federal Diary had good things to say about government service. The shutdown, along with earlier budget cut furloughs and three years of a freeze on basic pay rates, has not soured all of them on federal service. Their enthusiasm, however, has been subdued by the cold reality of Washington politics.

“The shutdown has not called into question, for me, the value of federal service,” said Kathryn David, who currently works for GovLoop, a social network for federal employees. “Instead, it has me wondering why so much partisan bickering is forcibly putting a stop to all of this great work.”

Soon she’ll be a research assistant at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and, until recently, anticipated a career with the Foreign Service. “However, now,” she said, “I am leaning more toward a career in academia where most of the time partisanship does not affect your ability to work. I have not lost faith in the power of public service; instead I fear that politics are putting detrimental constraints on the ability of federal employees to do their job.”

Sam can’t put that on his recruiting posters.

Tim McManus, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a good government group, said the shutdown and other factors could hurt recruiting efforts particularly among prospective candidates whom government really needs, but for whom government is not their first choice, like IT specialists.

“They are not even looking at government now out of the corner of their eye,” he said. (The Partnership has a content sharing relationship with The Post).

Charlie Gress is working on an economics degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Starting in high school he looked forward to working with the Treasury Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission because the “government offers an excellent platform to be able to drive change.”

That’s still the case, but it’s no longer enough.

“The shutdown is just the most recent in a string of happenings that dissuade me from wanting to launch a career in the federal government,” he said. “Sensing the disarray in Washington, I’m much more interested in working for a private firm.”

Another one lost.

Sharon McCoy, a GovLoop research fellow from Evans, Ga., remains focused on a federal career, as she has been since high school. She said she’s “drawn to issues related to U.S.-Latin American relations and social policy, especially in the areas of immigration, human rights, and foreign language education.”

Yet, “recent events have been sobering for me,” she added. For so long, “I saw a federal government career as something very stable and safe. I now realize that may not be the case.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the federal service.

Miriam Archibong is among those who remain gung-ho. She’s a graduate of Spelman College, holds a master’s degree from Harvard, had a Fulbright fellowship, a White House internship and now is in law school at the University of Pennsylvania.

She looks forward to a career in public service and the shutdown has not dampened that. “While I understand that the U.S. government is currently facing great difficulties, I also understand that does not mean we should give up on it,” she said. “In fact, to some degree, I believe it means we must fight harder.”

Kara Dunford, a student at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and a fellow with Young Government Leaders, sees a bright side in the shutdown’s cloud. While “the overall picture of the shutdown is certainly discouraging,” she said “the shutdown has also resulted in greater awareness of the truly inspiring work and personal stories of our federal workforce.”

We’d like to think so.

Cara Bumgardner is a young fed. She’s 27 and was accepted into the FBI’s Honor’s Internship Program in 2011. But just before she was to start, “they canceled the program due to lack of funds.” Then she was told she could be an unpaid intern.

Her lifelong dream to be a member of the FBI was so strong that she worked for free, surviving, she said, on wages from work as a hostess, server, bartender “and sometimes as a babysitter on weekends.”

The Bureau finally hired her in February. A few days later “I was handed my furlough letter” related to the sequester budget cuts. Then she was told the FBI student loan repayment program was defunct. That was a major blow because she was counting on the benefit to help her repay the $25,000 she owes.

With two master’s degrees, in criminology and public affairs, Bumgardner probably isn’t hurting for options. But even with all Sam has put her through, she remains in a committed relationship with him.

“The people who work for the bureau do so because they believe in the mission we serve,” she said. “Everyone here has been ‘called’ in some way or another to serve their country, and they make countless sacrifices to do so.”

She’s not happy with Congress, but she’s also not down on government.

Federal employees “have to keep our heads high and remind ourselves of why we joined our respective organizations in the first place,” she said. “The last thing we need after a shutdown is a bunch of disgruntled employees — especially if they’re disgruntled toward the wrong people.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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