DONALD TRUMP’S newly shaken-up transition team has begun working in overdrive to fill the top ranks of the next administration. But for all the political appointments Mr. Trump will make, there are many more career civil servants, men and women on the front lines of executing federal laws, who will remain in their jobs after the transition — if, that is, they decide to stay.
Some of those people are asking themselves if they can work in a Trump administration. The president-elect has signaled abrupt policy changes across a range of issues, from redefining global relationships to upending immigration policies to ending climate change programs — a dramatic turn for civil servants who have for years worked hard to advance these in other directions. More than that, Mr. Trump’s pre-election tone did not suggest he has a strong sense of restraint or the limits on executive power.
Yet one shift guaranteed to damage the nation would be an exodus of smart, experienced and civic-spirited people from federal service . If good lawyers leave the Justice Department, less-experienced and less-principled ones may take their place. If seasoned diplomats leave their posts, those who will fill their shoes will have to conduct the nation’s foreign policy with less knowledge and fewer relationships abroad. Federal civil servants are not responsible for making policy, but they are responsible for lending their brains and expertise to the process of applying it, so that the wisdom of experience filters up even as policy comes down. More than ever, the country needs that process to continue.
None of this means that civil servants must blindly obey if they are ordered to do something they feel is beyond the pale. If they stay with the government, they will be in a position to explain their concerns about what they have been asked to do. At least that is how the process is meant to work.
Those who are about to be tapped to lead these civil servants, meanwhile, must consider what the federal workers’ willingness to serve means. It means that they care about the country and its welfare; they have devoted their careers to it. It means they respect the nation’s democratic process and norms, the peaceful transition of authority and the awesome power of the federal government to help — and hurt — people. It means that, as much as they must listen to you, you ought to listen to them.
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