President Trump spent his first year in office attacking institutions that are fundamental to our democratic system. His inflammatory rhetoric about “fake news” media and courts that dared to challenge the legality of his decisions continued themes established during his 2016 campaign. But since becoming president, Trump has also begun bashing another target that’s equally critical to our democracy: the people who work for the federal government.
Derided by Trump advisers as “Obama holdovers” and vilified by the president as members of a nefarious “deep state,” federal employees are clearly perceived by the White House and its allies as a threat. Many Trump Cabinet officials are openly hostile to the legislated mandates of their agencies and are slashing budgets and ousting personnel. Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services have entered truly Orwellian territory as Trump appointees attempt to ban terms such as “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “diversity” and “climate change.”
Long before the chaotic shutdown last weekend, public servants throughout the federal government were struggling with an agonizing dilemma. Many have already resigned . Those who remain are questioning how, in the current administration, they can continue to bring professionalism, nonpartisanship and a clear sense of purpose to their vital work. Public servants must loyally serve every administration with discipline and dedication. They must carry out the orders of their agency heads, even ones they disagree with. At the same time, they are also duty-bound to refuse instructions that are illegal, immoral, or based on false or destructive premises.
From 2011 to 2017, I worked to cultivate the ranks of these public servants. As director of the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and as senior vice president of the National Defense University, I was responsible for training military and civilian officers from more than 50 agencies throughout the federal government. Of all the things I have done in my 30-year career in public life, including serving as an ambassador overseas and as a policy adviser in the White House, it is this work supporting the next generation of government employees of which I am most proud.
The vast majority of federal employees are highly qualified and deeply committed to serving this nation and its elected leaders. And when the tragic saga of the Trump administration ends, they are the people who will rebuild our institutions. With Trump careening ever further outside the norms of good governance and the rule of law, here is how civil servants should navigate the ethical and professional minefields that lie before them.
The controversy, chaos and surreal quality that defined Trump’s first year will increase. As they do, it is critical that federal employees uphold the most exacting standards of personal and professional integrity. No matter how bizarre the circumstances become or how flagrant the violations by the president, his family and his cronies appear to be, there can be no justification for employees’ failure to observe all applicable rules, regulations and laws. Many “normal” restrictions will feel increasingly ludicrous, such as the requirement to conduct an annual financial disclosure while the president continues to violate his promise to reveal his tax returns, or the prohibition on accepting any gift that costs more than $19.99 while the Trump family profits by marketing its brand. But the more this administration transgresses, the more scrupulous the federal workforce must be. Civil servants should remember that every small step matters and should never allow themselves to further enable the corrosion of ethical norms and accountability standards.
Many career officials have extensive and positive experience working under both Republican and Democratic administrations. All are well-versed in the legal restrictions on partisan activity in the workplace imposed by the Hatch Act, and they consistently observe the cardinal rule that politics don’t come to the office. So it was shocking when this administration attempted to impose partisan litmus tests, with transition officials telling me directly of their intent to root out “liberal Democrats” and “Hillary supporters” from the federal workforce. More recent allegations of a “deep state” and suggestions that an “anonymous bureaucracy ” is conspiring to undermine the president’s agenda are blatant efforts to discredit and delegitimize the workforce. Career officials, especially those in more senior positions, should blunt these manipulations by showcasing the loyal, and in many cases courageous, service of their colleagues and subordinates. They should also call out the inappropriate nature of these attacks, which are naked attempts at fear baiting.
Take notes and names .
This administration is attempting to affect widespread changes in policy, programs and personnel, often without documenting the rationale or the intended outcomes. From civil rights enforcement to scientific research on climate change, long-standing government practices requiring written instructions and comprehensive record-keeping are being brushed aside in favor of word-of-mouth directives that are impossible to accurately source or effectively track. All federal employees, especially those with management responsibilities, should extensively document decisions and their ramifications. In agencies experiencing budget cuts and workforce reductions, it will be crucial to document lost capacities and discontinued services. Taking copious notes and maintaining thorough records have always been encouraged in the federal government, and chances are high that these practices will become increasingly vital, both to understand ongoing changes and to retain institutional memory.
It is a federal crime to leak classified information, and civil servants should not do it. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to expose misconduct and mismanagement. On the contrary, federal employees are expected to call out illicit, illegal and destructive activity — including by their agency’s leadership. If a government worker sees wrongdoing and chooses to look the other way, he or she becomes complicit. Most agencies have an independent inspector general responsible for investigating allegations of fraud, abuse and illegal activity. There is also a separate agency, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, whose primary mission is to safeguard federal employees from whistleblower reprisals. Feds with knowledge of misconduct can reach out to employee associations and seek private legal counsel.
This administration is obsessed with loyalty and defines it as obsequious and unquestioning obedience. Trump’s alleged personal demands for loyalty from FBI officials, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s assertion that one-third of his workforce is disloyal, reports that the EPA is scouring personnel lists and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s warning that civil servants should “either get with the program or they can go” make this excruciatingly clear. This deeply flawed approach is guaranteed to produce bad policies. It will also engender a climate of fear. Career officials must push against this destructive trend by respectfully and openly expressing their views and fostering frank debate whenever possible. Disagreement is not disloyalty. On the contrary, it is the only way to facilitate a full examination of various policies, the potential consequences and possible alternatives. Going beyond internal debate, it is important — and a long-standing practice — to maintain dialogue about current developments with counterparts in other agencies, relevant groups in civil society, affected congressional committees and reputable journalists. Transparency is a hallmark of good governance.
A key feature of federal training for crisis management is the development of “trip wires” or “red lines.” The idea is to identify in advance — before circumstances overwhelm individual and institutional capacity for nuanced analysis — those factors or events that would signify a qualitative shift requiring a different strategy. Soldiers, diplomats and intelligence officers around the world routinely use preestablished red lines to guide their decision-making in the face of chaos and crisis. Public servants need to employ the same approach now, clarifying the red lines of principle and policy that they will not cross. When those lines are approached, they will then have a clear path: Refuse to comply and if necessary resign.
A strong moral compass and personal values of patriotism and integrity are what draw most individuals into federal service. These same values can sustain them now as they continue to fulfill the vital functions of government and serve the American people. Every federal employee takes an oath of office and swears to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Rarely have those words echoed with more resonance than right now.
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