Federal workers play key roles for the nation

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By Max Stier
Saturday, May 8, 2010

Recent polls from the Pew Research Center and others have shown a troubling amount of distrust in our federal government, indicating that the public does not believe government is working for them or meeting their needs and concerns. This distrust has been magnified by economic uncertainty and no doubt reinforced by bickering politicians, reports about federal salaries or government missteps such as lax regulation of Wall Street and the mining industry. It was capped by a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch that unmercifully lampooned public-sector employees.

While such anxiety and frustration are real, I am afraid the public sometimes misses the fact that every day civil servants are finding solutions to serious problems, assisting Americans in need, keeping us safe and advancing our national interests.

There is a disconnect between what Americans hear about their government and what takes place -- the routine successes, innovative initiatives, cutting-edge science and other amazing work being done behind the scenes.

Take, for example, Pius Bannis. After an earthquake devastated Haiti in January, Bannis, a U.S. immigration officer, stepped into the breach to help hundreds of orphans -- babies to teens -- escape the tragedy and find safety with families in the United States. Bannis selflessly logged 20-hour days, seven days a week, to identify and screen eligible children and to ensure that the system was not exploited by child traffickers. He set up a makeshift day-care center at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, where more than 50 children could be found at any one time, and even drove some children to the airport for evacuation flights.

There is Peter Wilhelm of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland. He has been involved in the development, deployment and operation of more than 95 satellites that have strengthened the nation's defense and intelligence-gathering capabilities.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado, scientist Susan Solomon led internationally acclaimed atmospheric research that helped save the ozone layer and demonstrated the long-term harm to the environment caused by global warming.

Sara Bloom of the U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts led an investigation that documented how the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was illegally marketing prescription drugs for uses that had not been approved for their safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer agreed to pay $2.3 billion in fines and penalties, the largest health-care fraud settlement in history.

Robert Benzon has spent more than two decades at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington investigating aviation accidents, including that of US Airways Flight 1549. When that flight hit a flock of geese in January 2009, the plane lost power and crash-landed in the Hudson River. Benzon's work has led to aviation improvements that have saved countless lives.

These are just a few of the thousands of outstanding federal employees -- individuals who have dedicated themselves to the public good. They are not isolated cases but examples of the people of our government whose accomplishments take place day in and day out without fanfare.

Yes, our government can and should improve. As with any endeavor, problems arise, things go wrong and some employees fail to make the grade. But as a nation, and particularly during such difficult times, it is in everyone's interest to play a part in making our government more effective, not tearing down its workers or resorting to stereotypes.

As Public Service Recognition Week comes to a close, we should reflect on the importance of the people working in government and the roles they play in so many areas we often take for granted -- defending the homeland, caring for veterans, ensuring elderly and disabled people get their Medicare benefits, and protecting our food and drug supplies.

We need to reconnect Americans to their government. People need to better understand that public servants are their friends and neighbors who are helping address our collective challenges here and abroad.

It is easy to characterize public servants as paper-pushing bureaucrats. Yet in so many cases that is far from the reality. The workers I mentioned, like many others in government, have answered the call to serve our nation and have placed public service over personal gain. They deserve our support and thanks -- not our distrust.

The writer is president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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