Public employees have had to play a lot of defense lately.
At the state level, conservative governors and legislatures have made a pinata of employee unions. In Washington, federal workers have seen a stream of proposals to freeze their pay and cut their retirement.
On Tuesday, it was time to play offense, and a high-powered team took the field.
Five top-level Obama administration officials gathered to praise federal employees and mark the annual Public Service Recognition Week during a town hall program, held in a building named for a man known for his put-downs of government. Showing their appreciation were Secretaries Kathleen Sebelius of Health and Human Services, Shaun Donovan of Housing and Urban Development, and Ray LaHood of Transportation; General Services Administration head Martha Johnson; and John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.
One big take-away from the meeting for Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which organizes the annual recognition week, was the importance of having agencies’ top leadership focus on talent issues.
“If we don’t have leadership in government investing in the workforce, nothing else will succeed,” Stier said. (The Washington Post has a content-sharing relationship with the Partnership for Public Service.)
The town hall was one of a number of events and proclamations happening around the country this week. Missing this year, because of the budget crunch, are the booths and displays that federal agencies have often set up on the National Mall.
The rotunda of the Ronald Reagan Building turned out to be a fine setting for a capacity crowd of federal workers who heard the officials praise their lot. In addition, the partnership released a letter from more than a dozen administration officials demonstrating their appreciation for government employees.
The program began with a video from first lady Michelle Obama, whose concern for federal workers has been demonstrated by her visits to more than 20 agencies and bases since her husband took office.
“Folks like you devote your lives, and sometimes risk your lives, to serve this country, often with little fanfare or recognition,” Obama said on the video. “Your work is vital, and it’s worthy of the passion that you show.”
While praise like that is important, it was the facts and figures offered by the OPM’s Berry that presented a picture too often missed.
Consider these tidbits:
l The size of the workforce is smaller today than when Lyndon Johnson was president, yet there are about 110 million more Americans now.
l In the past 10 years, 100,000 federal civil servants have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
l Since 1992, 2,965 federal civil servants have been killed while on duty, including 24 in war zones. “Their sacrifice is just as dear” as the sacrifices by those in the military, Berry said.
With facts such as these, federal workers have something “to fight back with,” he added.
Berry said there should be a way to honor civilian employees who die on duty, something like the Purple Heart for members of the armed services. “We need to be thinking about how we can best honor them,” he said.
The focus on federal employees continues on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when the Senate’s federal workforce subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), holds a hearing on “Inspiring Students to Federal Service.” On the agenda is the executive order designed to facilitate the recruitment and hiring of students that President Obama signed in December.
Several of the town hall speakers lamented comments by politicians that undercut federal employees. Most of those remarks have come from congressional Republicans, but one of the speakers Tuesday, LaHood, is a former Republican congressman, and he strongly backed federal workers and the president’s support for them.
“I despise that,” LaHood said of attacks on employees. The “easiest thing” for a politician to do, he added, is to take potshots at government workers.
Though going after government workers is easy, politicians love to be seen praising veterans. They should know, as Berry pointed out, that 30 percent of the government’s new hires last year were vets. Furthermore, hiring of vets increased by 2,000 last year compared with the year before, even as overall hiring dropped by 11,000; and 25 percent of civil servants are veterans.
“As politicians are making cheap potshots, they also are attacking veterans,” Berry said.
LaHood made it clear that he is not in the cheap-shot crowd.
“I have the highest respect for people who work in government,” he said. “They aren’t doing it for the money. They are doing it because they are making a difference in peoples’ lives.”