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Can activists thrive in the government workforce?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with Shirley Sherrod in his office Tuesday. Sherrod declined to return to a job at the USDA.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with Shirley Sherrod in his office Tuesday. Sherrod declined to return to a job at the USDA. (Bob Nichols/usda)

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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Does the federal government welcome activists? If you want to change the status quo, does it make sense to join a mammoth institution that sometimes is a protector of the way things are, rather than the way they ought to be?

Shirley Sherrod was a longtime activist before she enlisted with the Obama administration as an appointed official in the Agriculture Department's rural development program in Georgia.

"I only lasted 11 months," she said Tuesday, after announcing she would not accept an invitation to rejoin the agency, at least not now. "But I did enjoy that work and would want to see that work continue."

Yet enjoying the work and sharing its mission was not enough to coax Sherrod to return to the department whose leader took her through an emotional wringer. Secretary Tom Vilsack fired Sherrod on the basis of incomplete remarks she made about race that were taken completely out of context.

He has repeatedly apologized, but it wasn't enough to make her resume her old job or accept a new one he offered.

"When you look at everything that has happened over the last four or five weeks, it makes it very difficult to go back . . . ," she told CNN. "So I just felt at this time I could do more to try to help advance the issues not as a full-time employee of USDA."

That raises a question -- can advocates do more for their cause outside the government? Does Uncle Sam's deep bureaucracy and intensely political environment take too great a toll on the passionate and make it too hard for them to make a difference?

Sherrod questioned her ability "to really be effective" in government, in part because of congressional politics.

But John Berry says Sam really wants committed do-gooders.

"The federal government, we need to welcome passionate people, particularly highly skilled passionate people," said Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. "There are many places where people can match their passion and skills with a job."

Yet he concedes that the federal government might not be the place for everyone.

"Some activists have a narrow ideological bent," he said. That could be a problem if they carried those attitudes into the federal workplace, he added, because federal employees have responsibility to serve all Americans.

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