The Washington Post

The shutdown is over, but federal employee morale still suffers


Uncle Sam is recovering from nonessential surgery done with a dull, dirty blade.

The partial government shutdown ended Thursday, but it opened a slow-healing wound that has corroded trust and confidence in the political process and Sam’s ability to stay on the job.

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

It also seriously infected employee morale.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 82 percent of participants in a random public survey said the budget dispute leading to the shutdown damaged that workforce’s morale. Eighty-six percent said it damaged the nation’s image in the world.

Are the House Republicans who led us into this morass happy now?

Shutdown damages Republicans, with plenty of pain to go around

At the same time, the shutdown demonstrated the strong desire and need for the many services government and its employees provide.

It’s an unnecessary dichotomy, but perhaps it takes a shutdown to remind those who scoff at government and its workers of their importance.

“I think one probably needs to distinguish between trust and faith in the political system and trust and faith in the federal employees and the day-to-day running of government. I would say those probably went in opposite directions” as a result of the shutdown, Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell told the Federal Diary on Friday.

“As [President Obama] said, I think the American people are frustrated with the way their political system has or has not been working. However, at the other end of the spectrum, there is at least more appreciation for the fact that federal government employees and the government itself does many things people care deeply about on a day-to-day basis.”

Obama alluded to both the erosion of trust in government and the appreciation for federal employees generated by the shutdown in remarks delivered hours after the government reopened.

“To all my friends in Congress, understand that how business is done in this town has to change,” he said, “because we’ve all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people, and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust.”

But while that trust has been eroded, Obama said he hopes the shutdown shows that “smart, effective government is important. It matters. I think the American people, during the shutdown, had a chance to get some idea of all the things large and small that government does that make a difference in people’s lives.”

He profusely thanked federal workers, saying, “What you do is important, and don’t let anybody else tell you different.”

They needed to hear that because that’s not the only message the workforce gets from elected leaders. Speaking Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the shutdown “a two-week paid vacation for federal employees.”

Comments like that undermine morale and show a lack of understanding that should be surprising for someone with McConnell’s experience.

“I resent that attitude,” said Katy Scheflen, a Justice Department lawyer. “Being furloughed was not fun. I know that many of us felt very anxious, not knowing when we would be permitted to return to work, whether we would be paid for the time we were not allowed to work, and wondering how we were going to pay our bills without our usual paycheck.”

For Bruce Andersen, a Labor Department policy analyst, “it was disheartening how unsympathetic some of the American public was to the plight of the federal workers.”

All of this took a major toll on the morale of Ruthie Jefferson, a Federal Aviation Administration management and program assistant in College Park, Ga.

“I am very grateful for my job at this point, but I have lost my confidence in government after this furlough,” she said by e-mail. “I have 16.5 years of government service and am now for the first time ever considering leaving the federal government.”

Burwell acknowledged the shutdown’s “negative impact on employee morale.”

The damage is particularly offensive because it stems from the actions of elected officials, who should set an example for public service. Instead, the Republicans, who are paying the price in stunningly low poll ratings — 77 percent of those surveyed said they don’t like the way Republicans handled budget talks — showed public servants how not to conduct themselves.

“I have lost faith in the ability of our elected officials to accomplish their responsibilities as elected officials,” said Sharyn Phillips, an IRS estate attorney and National Treasury Employees Union chief steward in Manhattan. “ I am appalled that people who took the same oath of office as me to uphold and defend the Constitution were using the full faith and credit of our nation as a bargaining chip in their political game.

“Shame on them.”

Well said.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at The poll was conducted Oct. 17-20 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including interviews on land lines and with cellphone-only respondents. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.



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