“All I’m asking for is a little respect . . . R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
Otis Redding wrote the song, and Aretha Franklin made it a big 1960s hit. Now, more than 40 years later, that essential message could be the anthem of Frankie and Flo Fed.
Of course, respect isn’t all they want. Federal employees also would like their pay freeze lifted. But although they understand the sacrifices required during these tight budget times, they also see proposals aimed at the federal workforce that don’t reflect a respect for their mission or their commitment to public service.
Respect for federal employees was a theme woven through Washington gatherings last week, although it’s a notion heeded too infrequently on Capitol Hill and around the country. The speakers were preaching to the choir, no doubt, federal officials and others with a keen interest in the government’s workplace. The conversations went beyond mundane budget battles and delved into what really motivates and stymies the workforce.
“Federal workers are at the heart of what we do, and I think they deserve a lot of gratitude for the work they do, and that’s not always what they get,” Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at a Sept. 27 meeting at the Partnership for Public Service, as my colleague, Lisa Rein, reported.
He would not rule out the possibility that federal workers will take more hits as government leaders determine how to cut the budget deficit. But he said that “has to come with some respect, because I think federal workers have earned it and deserve it.”
Lew spoke at the release of “Making Smart Cuts,” a report on budget strategies by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and the Partnership. (The Partnership has a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)
The next day, the Brookings Institution held a forum on “Reforming the Federal Hiring Process and Promoting Public Service to America’s Youth.” It began with opening remarks by John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.
Early in his speech, Berry provided the obligatory listing of the administration’s federal workforce accomplishments and initiatives. But then he moved from the reportorial to the inspirational and philosophical.
At the end of his routine remarks, he started talking about the age of Pericles and the age of Augustus. What that had to do with recruiting young folks wasn’t immediately clear.
They built “a lighthouse of civilization and a lamp bright enough that it shone across a chasm, which we now refer to as the Dark Ages,” he said. Today’s generation “has a special and unique responsibility to the future, to children and generations yet to come, because . . . they will need to know that our light was bright and it was true and we built our lighthouse well. Our men and women in the civil service do that.”
At that point, Berry wasn’t discussing federal programs on hiring or interns or veterans, but he struck a related chord. It’s the same chord that federal employees hit when they talk about the mission of their agencies and their frustrations when politics and policies get in the way of serving the public.
“Thank you for your service,” Berry said to federal workers. “Thank you for what you have done, and thank you for what you will do.”
While Lew spoke of respect for federal employees and Berry called them to shine a bright light, Jim Mullen dealt with the uncivil side of Washington. From his perch as president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., Mullen has the detached view of someone outside the Beltway.
Unfortunately, things look no better from a distance.
Young people, he said at the Brookings event, are turning their backs on politics because of “the disgraceful stew of invective that is now our political process. It is no great revelation to say that ours has become an uncivil, dysfunctional and mean-spirited politics. That it is a zero-sum game of winners and losers.”
Mullen showed no partisanship in his remarks.
Yet when he said that “we’re becoming a nation where compromise is no longer the foundation of our politics,” it was easy to imagine a big Republican elephant feeding on the politics of obstructionism.
In this environment, he asked, “can we imagine younger generations over time remaining anxious to join this process?” The lack of civility results in “a diminishment of government and the people who serve in it.
“And that is wrong,” he added.
Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP. Links to a video of the Partnership’s program and a transcript and an audio recording of the Brookings event can be found with this column at postpolitics.com.