A call to federal service, in President John F. Kennedy's memory

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 8:09 PM

"Government service must be attractive enough to lure our most talented people. It must be challenging enough to call forth our greatest efforts. It must be interesting enough to retain their services. It must be satisfying enough to inspire single-minded loyalty and dedication. It must be important enough to each individual to call forth reserves of energy and enthusiasm." - President Kennedy's Message to the Federal Service published in the Civil Service Journal, January-March 1961

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, an event that began a robust period for the civil service.

"Let the public service be a proud and lively career," he said in his first State of the Union address, 10 days after taking office. "And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: 'I served the United States government in that hour of our nation's need.'"

To help us remember what Kennedy meant to the federal service, the Harvard Kennedy School organized a roundtable at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday.

The event was as much a celebration of public service as it was of Kennedy. There was talk of President Obama's desire to "make government cool again."

Although some federal workers might feel betrayed by the two-year federal pay freeze he initiated, Obama, probably more than any president since Kennedy, has worked to inspire Uncle Sam's workplace with the kind of energy the 35th president represented.

Yet, while the federal service remains a "proud and lively career," government workers also can be an easy target - "living on the bull's-eye" as Kennedy once said - for those who confuse a preference for small government with the need to take small-minded potshots at the people who make government work.

They would do well to heed Kennedy's words in a 1962 message to Congress on federal pay reform: "The success of this Government, and thus the success of our Nation, depends in the last analysis upon the quality of our career services. The legislation enacted by the Congress, as well as the decisions made by me and by the department and agency heads, must all be implemented by the career men and women in the Federal service. In foreign affairs, national defense, science and technology, and a host of other fields, they face problems of unprecedented importance and perplexity. We are all dependent on their sense of loyalty and responsibility as well as their competence and energy."

Lots of good information was exchanged at the roundtable, though there was much preaching to the choir. It's too bad some radio talk program hosts, tea party activists and certain members of Congress weren't there. With the show some make of fidelity to the nation's Founding Fathers, some may have learned a thing or two from Linda J. Bilmes, a Harvard public policy professor.

"When it comes to public service, we really don't pay attention to the Founders, but we should," she said. Alexander Hamilton, she said, believed the public should feel attached to the federal government so residents would have a vested interest in its success.

But today, rather than feeling attached, many feel distant from government, even while enjoying its benefits. The nonsensical cries to "keep your government hands off my Medicare" heard during the health-care debate illustrate the difficulty the Obama administration has as it tries to promote the feelings of attachment Hamilton envisioned.

Hamilton's ideas also are relevant to today's debate over federal pay.

"Hamilton argued that inadequate salaries would make the government staffed by two types of people," Bilmes said, "either people who were . . . 'capable dishonest men,' who would seek to profit themselves or . . . 'incapable honest men' who couldn't find any other work."

Kennedy was aware that people who find government work aren't seeking riches.

"There is no career that could possibly be open to you in the 1960s that will offer to you as much satisfaction, as much stimulus, as little compensation perhaps financially, as being a servant of the United States government," he told interns in June 1962.

Finding capable, honest women and men remains a challenge. It's a challenge because of a hiring system that retains a reputation for discouraging, rather than inviting applicants, even while it is being fixed. And it's a challenge because of mean-spirited comments that debase government work and discourage the best from seeking it.

Young people "are discouraged by the fact that . . . government workers are often scapegoated, blamed when things go wrong, not always respected," Bilmes said.

Over lunch, before the roundtable discussion began, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a story about a woman who approached him when he was governor of Iowa. A single parent, she signed up for a government health program for her daughter, just weeks before the girl shattered her wrist in an accident and needed multiple surgeries.

"This woman was literally crying" as she spoke with him, Vilsack recalled. Without the government program and the care it paid for, the girl would have lived with a deformity, the mother said.

"This stuff matters," Vilsack said. "It matters."

Kennedy's quotations and information about him are available at www.jfklibrary.org, the Web site of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The recording of his remarks to interns can be found at www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHA-107-005.aspx.

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