Week provides relief from month of scandals

Public Service Recognition Week in early May provides a welcome relief from the embarrassments of Federal Employee Scandal Month, which was April.

Although General Services Administration, Secret Service and other distractions continue to draw attention, they are offset, at least temporarily, by this week’s well-crafted events designed to demonstrate appreciation for federal and other public employees.

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

It also allows the Obama administration to showcase its commitment to a federal workforce that has been battered not just by recent scandals but also by a flow of Republican proposals and, in some cases, administration actions employees don’t like.

President Obama is not expected at any of the week’s events, but he did write a perfunctory note. More important, Cabinet members are participating and Michelle Obama recorded a video praising public employees.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and GSA acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini spoke at a Public Service Town Hall on Tuesday sponsored by the Public Employees Roundtable and the Partnership for Public Service. (The Washington Post has a content-sharing relationship with the Partnership).

The big-shot panel shows the administration understands the significance of the week. Talk of the scandals didn’t rule the forum, but there was no avoiding the obvious.

“The news about government has been dominated of late by the story of the $800,000 GSA conference and the escapades of a handful of Secret Service agents in Cartagena,” said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive. “What’s been missing entirely is the positive side of the ledger — people such as Service to America Medal finalists.”

The finalists, nominated for federal work that is at once extraordinary and routine, will be honored Wednesday. My colleague Lisa Rein wrote about them this week.

There was a sense of frustration at the forum because work that the finalists and many others do can be overshadowed by the actions of a few federal employees generating so much negative attention. No one feels that more than GSA and Secret Service staff members.

“The people who are most upset are the other Secret Service agents,” Napolitano said.

Negative attention can create a “corrosive effect” that makes people less willing to invest in government, Stier said.

“We will not get what we want out of government if all we do is tear it down and fail to recognize and reward all the good things that public servants are doing,” Stier said as he opened the event. “Government will need to change and adapt to the new demands and constraints we face, but we will only succeed in this venture if we treat our public servants as a national asset and not an unnecessary cost.”

As he spoke, the House was getting ready to vote on legislation that would require federal workers to pay an additional 5 percent of salary toward retirement with no boost in benefits. The increase would be phased in over five years. Those hired next year and later and with fewer than five years of previous federal service would pay the full increase from the start of their employment.

This won’t make it any easier to get folks to join Uncle Sam’s staff.

It is harder to recruit and retain good people when federal employees are “trashed day-in and day-out,” Sebelius said, without reference to the bill.

The trashing frustrates people such as Kathleen Murphy, a 32-year federal employee who works for the National Park Service. “We’re an easy constituency to speak badly of,” she said.

She told the panel that the public’s attitude toward federal workers sometimes makes her hesitant to acknowledge her employer. “I don’t think that we’ve got a great environment out there to be advertising public service,” she said later.

Two weeks ago, she took a road trip from Arizona to Montana. During those 1,400 miles she heard so much federal bad-mouthing, she said, that she decided “I don’t think I want to tell them where I work.”

Much of the talk was based on bad information.

“The misinformation is deep,” she said.

Murphy has always been proud to work the mission of her agency, but talking about her three decades with the government isn’t “something that in general conversation people would say, ‘Isn’t that great.’ ”

That’s a shame.

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

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