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Obama says ‘we should praise’ government workers

Columnist

Did you hear what President Obama said about federal employees at a town hall meeting in Minneapolis on Thursday?

The last question he took was from Katie Peterson, who works for the Defense Contract Management Agency.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

“My coworker here and friend, we’ve been working for the federal government for almost 29 years. And we feel really privileged that we’ve been able to serve that way,” she began.

“It’s been a great career, we love it, but lately, as you know, there’s been a few rough patches with three years of pay freeze and sequestration and furloughs. And we’re just kind of wondering what you foresee for the next fiscal year for government workers,” she asked.

Obama replied at length. It’s not every day that federal employees get this kind of boss-in-chief attention, so we’ll let you read his answers yourself. They were taken from a transcript on the White House Web site.

Obama started by praising federal workers and taking a swipe at those who don’t always seem to fully appreciate the workforce.

“Well, let me make a couple of points. First of all, folks in the federal government, the overwhelming majority, they work really hard doing really important stuff. I don’t know when it was that somehow working for government — whether the state or local or federal level — somehow became not a real job .

Everyone might not realize the many services feds provide, so Obama reminded them.

“We’ve got floods right here right now. The federal government is coming in and it’s going to be working with local communities that are overwhelmed to try to make sure that people get help rebuilding. Those are federal workers. If they weren’t around after a tornado or a hurricane, communities would be in a world of hurt.

“When you check the weather, even on your smartphone, that information didn’t just come from some Silicon Valley office. That came from the National Weather Service.

“The folks who help our men and women in uniform make sure that they’ve got proper equipment, those are federal workers. Fighting fires — a lot of times those are federal workers in the Forest Service.”

The president doesn’t like it when public employees, and not just those at the federal level, are disparaged.

“It frustrates me when I hear people acting as if somebody who’s working for the federal government somehow is less than somebody working on the private sector — if they’re doing a good job and carrying on an important function, we should praise them.

“The same is true, by the way, at the local level . . . I don’t know a job more important than teaching. Those are all government workers.”

But as we all know, and as the scandal over long wait times and cover-ups in the Department of Veterans Affairs demonstrates, there are serious problems that need correcting.

“Are there programs that the government does that are a waste of money or aren’t working as well as they should be?” Obama asked. “Of course.

“So my job as President, working with Congress, is to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and efficiently. We shouldn’t be wasting a dime. And where we see waste, where we see things not working the way they should — like recently, these long waits for folks trying to get in the VA health care program — we’ve got to crack down and we’ve got to reform it. But we can’t paint in a broad brush and just say somehow stuff is not working — because even in the VA health care system, once people get in, the quality of care, the satisfaction rates for customers are actually better than in private-sector health care.”

The people in Minneapolis applauded. That’s not something federal employees always hear.

Senior executives leaving

Members of the federal Senior Executive Service (SES) are leaving government at an increasing rate, according to a new study.

They cite pay as one of the reasons.

A report released last week by George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy said “in recent years, there has been a notable increase in the separation rate of SES members.”

The study, done by a group of graduate students in cooperation with the Senior Executives Association (SEA), said from fiscal 2009 to 2013, “the overall SES turnover rate increased from 7.2% to 9.8%, while the raw number of SES employees leaving government rose 44%.”

The researchers said pay issues often are mentioned as “a disincentive for joining the Senior Executive Service and/or as a primary reason for separation from the federal government. While there has been a persistent gap in wages between SES positions and executive jobs in the private sector, the divide has widened in recent years partly due to government pay freezes and salary compression. As a result of pay caps on SES positions, there is a financial disincentive” for General Schedule (GS) employees “to apply for senior executive positions.”

Mixing an increasing exodus of senior executives with top GS workers discouraged from joining the service could result in a troubling future for the SES.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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