The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The hollowing out of the federal workforce

The Office of Personnel Management building in Washington. (Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency)

These are not good days for those who have devoted their lives to government service. The State Department is demoralized, seeing a steady stream of departures, facing a raft of positions held by “acting” officials with no nominee even in the pipeline and losing visibility in an administration that favors hard-power solutions. A top official at the Environmental Protection Agency leaves with a blistering resignation letter. Meanwhile, “Nearly 400 workers have left the Environmental Protection Agency in recent days, the agency said Tuesday, a wave of departures that soon could take the agency’s staffing to its lowest point in almost 30 years.” At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, top posts are unfilled, morale is rotten and we see “a stream of committed career employees quitting.”

President Trump said he was committed to shrinking the government, but if the most capable and experienced federal employees are fleeing from what they see as a hostile administration, then the quality of the government that remains will go down. Put it this way: If the most capable people who can get jobs elsewhere decide to leave, we may wind up with a smaller, worse workforce that feels less committed to the mission of serving the American people. Moreover, a very high percentage of the most senior civil servants, the senior executive service (SES) and number about 7,600, are retirement eligible. We may well see an exodus of these employees, who stick to their mission even when able to retire. Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service tells me that if those who have “stuck around because of mission commitment,” no longer have that “that’s when they leave.”

For anti-government conservatives who think government is inherently bad this is actually good news. Getting rid of government employees! Losing the bad apples! The problem is that it may be the good employees who leave. In addition, when through our elected representatives we have decided to fund a function of government, we expect political employees to hire, retain and lead a competent workforce. If you care about the quality, honesty and dedication of the people who work for taxpayers, then shrinking the workforce by chasing out the most re-employable should be distressing.

That’s where an interesting project called “Uphold the Oath” comes in. The website offers federal employees the chance to “celebrate civil servants and the 2.7 million hardworking patriotic people who have dedicated their careers to helping improve the daily lives of all Americans, regardless of party affiliation or personal ideology.” Employees can video themselves taking the oath of office and have it posted at the site. One would think this totally nonpartisan effort would be noncontroversial. But in an administration wheere the president expects loyalty to him, some federal employees now live in an atmosphere of fear when loyalty to the law or the department’s mission is seen as subversive. As a result, some employees choose not to identify themselves by name or even department on the Uphold the Oath website.

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Yascha Mounk, a New America fellow, recently wrote that it’s concerning when “any attempt to stand up for the neutrality of state institutions will by highly contentious at a time when the president is regularly attacking civil servants as disloyal or traitorous. But that makes it all the more important for defenders of the Constitution to insist that a contentious act need not be a partisan one.” He continued, “A partisan act would be for civil servants, in their official capacity, to oppose policies of the Trump administration of which they happen to disapprove. Even liberals should be horrified by such behavior: For once civil servants feel emboldened to act on their partisan preferences, no elected politician would be able to enact his or her political program.” However, he argued that “civil servants who recommit themselves to basic democratic principles in the face of concerted attacks on their independence are taking a bold public stance in the best sense. Even conservatives should applaud the courage to do so: For once civil servants become willing to do the president’s bidding even when his commands violate the Constitution, any elected politician would gain the power to turn himself into a tyrant.”

Stier agrees. “It has to be a good thing when people remind themselves why they are in the job and what their commitment is.” And so far, it seems to have had that effect.

The website put me in touch with a couple of participants. Greg Guthrie, a federal employee, says, “It actually felt really good to say this again out loud and know others would see me saying it. It had been years since I read the oath and I was reminded why I chose a career in the federal government.” He added, “After I recited the oath, I felt proud of what I achieved over my career serving my country.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.” Steve Lenkart, a former SES employee now with one of the groups sponsoring the project, echoes that sentiment. “Federal civil servants have so few outlets available to publicly express their pride and dedication to the country and Constitution,” he said. “The Uphold the Oath project is a simple yet brilliant way for the public to see the faces and hear the voices of the wonderful people who make the country work every day.  It is about good people doing great things, and it the direct product of a modern, free and democratic government.”

One, but certainly not the only, distressing aspect of  Trumpism is the anti-government animus and disdain for expertise the president and his fans display. That attitude breeds ludicrous policy positions, such as climate change denial. In Trump’s case it has also skewed the government away from civilians and toward military and ex-military figures (whom Trump respects), which has serious national security implications and ramifications for a system that prides itself on civilian control. But most of all, Trump’s assault on his own branch and his insistence on personal loyalty (as he did with former FBI director James B. Comey) is deeply undemocratic. The executive branch may report to the president but it is there to serve the American people. When the best people won’t do that — either because they are forced to leave or cower in fear of political repercussions, it’s the American people who are the real victims.