President Obama entered office eight years ago optimistic that he could “make government cool again.”
Now he’s preparing to leave the White House to Donald Trump and his cynical “drain-the-swamp” approach to governing.
As his administration develops, we’ll continue to examine Trump’s plan to freeze federal hiring and efforts by Republicans to cut employee benefits while disemboweling civil service protections.
But with one week to go in Obama’s presidency, we take a look at his federal workforce legacy through the words of employees and retirees who lived it and experts who studied it.
He was praised for supporting diversity, gay rights, improved labor relations, telework, streamlined hiring procedures, employing veterans and people with disabilities. His work-life balance programs and stand against Republican attacks on staffing were applauded.
But feds remain upset with the three-year pay freeze he initiated and cuts in performance awards. Yet even for most critics, the Obama administration shines compared to the trepidation Trump brings.
Nearly all who responded had positive comments, but their verdict was mixed. That extends to whether Obama did make government cool again.
John Palguta, a civil service expert with decades of federal employment: “Actually, during much of the first two years of his administration he did ‘make government cool again’ as evidenced by the upswing in positive attitudes towards government and a huge surge in the number of people interested in working for government. Unfortunately, the last six years of his administration saw a major erosion of both that support and interest as congressional gridlock, partisan sniping and antigovernment rhetoric took a toll.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.): “President Obama’s approach to the federal workforce was Kennedy-esque. He sought to reinforce the nobility of public service and inspire a new generation of people to serve in government.”
Carol Bonosaro, Senior Executives Association (SEA) president emeritus and Federal Executive Talent president: “President Obama’s promise to ‘make government cool again’ inspired great hope and optimism. Regrettably, although the intent was admirable, the administration fell short in that regard, particularly when it came to the federal executive corps … the most disappointing failure was the unwillingness to push back against essentially ‘at-will’ employment for [Department of Veterans Affairs] executives.”
Bill Valdez, a retired senior executive and current SEA president: “Not only did President Obama not make government cool again, all signs point to the fact that millennials are less inclined than ever to consider a career in the Federal government following the eight years of the Obama administration. A major reason why this occurred is the premise of the ‘cool again’ slogan, that somehow government service was once “cool” … The Obama administration missed a real opportunity to inspire young folks to enter public service by appealing to their sense of purpose, not a desire to be ‘cool.’ ”
Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service: “The financial crisis as well as budget cuts and sequestration imposed by Congress affected federal hiring and sidetracked President Obama’s early plans to re-energize the federal workforce and ‘make government cool again.’ However, the president took a number of constructive steps during his second term that helped improve government and the ability of its employees to do their jobs. In addition, Obama improved employee engagement across government and strengthened the Senior Executive Service, focusing new attention on how agencies recruit, retain and develop their leaders.”
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon: “President Obama made clear that he respected public service and that his administration was willing to listen to the views of federal unions on employee issues … President Obama showed that he believed that the mission of federal agencies was to safeguard, protect and serve the American people and he consistently advocated for more funding and resources for federal agencies . . . Despite his stated efforts to make public service cool again, continued attacks by Congress on federal employee rights, benefits and contributions thwarted that effort.”
Diversity, creating a workforce more reflective of the nation it serves, was high on the administration’s agenda. Obama issued an executive order Thursday promoting “a diverse and inclusive Federal workforce practicing public land management.”
Wanda V. Killingsworth, president of Federally Employed Women: “Throughout President Obama’s eight years in office he has been a champion for federal workers with disabilities, women and diverse ethnicities … Under President Obama we witnessed for the first time at the highest level a directed attempt through executive order to remove long-standing biases in hiring practices and promotions, whether subtle or overt.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: “I thank President Obama for being a steadfast bulwark against … Republican attacks and for preventing some of the most harmful federal workforce legislation from becoming law.”
Randy Erwin, National Federation of Federal Employees president: “It is clear that President Obama has respect for federal employees and the work they perform. Obama views the federal workforce favorably and has shown them respect over the years.
“I do hope that President Trump will show the federal workforce the same respect that Obama has … A lot of federal workers have been disappointed with President Obama on issues that relate to the federal workforce, but I have a feeling a year from now those same federal workers will be wishing he was still in office.”