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Facts are Stubborn Things

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
November 15, 2020

I am writing this column the morning after the election and the winner is unknown. I suspect whichever candidate wins, turbulence between now and inauguration is ahead for the career federal manager. The current president has attempted to politicize the civil service both through proposed reorganization of the Office of Personnel Management and an Executive Order broadening the definition of policy making positions. While the administration seems to have given up on the reorganization plan, the changes in the Executive Order are on a fast track. Based on the nature of his governance so far, it is reasonable to expect the President to continue politicization efforts if re-elected and perhaps accelerate them during the transition if not re-elected.

Understanding the context of career employment is necessary to understanding why federal managers feel challenged. Career federal employees take an oath to support the Constitution. Their loyalty is to the Constitution, not a person or political party. Career employees see their loyalty to the Constitution operationalized through their focus on providing the best technical expertise to the problem at hand. Career employees typically leave their political perspectives at home and only bring their technical perspective to the workplace. Political leadership can choose to accept the technical recommendations or not. However, with some exceptions, in the past there has been a bright line between the technical recommendation and the political decision. Career employees were not pressed to alter their technical perspective to fit political needs. This available technical decision, untainted by political considerations, allowed the American citizen to evaluate the quality of the political choice.

In the last four years, we have seen this bright line obscured. As early as 2018, in a Union of Concerned Scientists survey of 16 federal agencies, 50% of scientists identified political considerations as barriers to science-based decisions. In the same survey, 70% of Environmental Protection Agency scientists indicated that political appointees from regulated agencies have inappropriately affected decisions. In 2019 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chided the Weather Service because of an accurate hurricane assessment inconsistent with a misstatement by the President. In April 2020 Dr. Rick Bright was sidelined from his position of director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority because of his refusal to support chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure. The President touted the drug, which the Federal Drug Administration initially approved for emergency use and subsequently revoked approval because of serious side effects. In May 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control guidance on reopening state economies was bypassed by an administration that wanted states to move more quickly. Since July 2020, highly regarded immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci has been sidelined because his warnings about the pandemic have been inconsistent with the President’s view. More recently, more than 4 in 10 federal executives responding to a Partnership for Public Service and Princeton University survey indicated that mission delivery problems related to inadequate workforces and involved political pressure.

The administration’s previous efforts to force civil service expertise to conform to the President’s political perspective, together with the recent Executive Order turning high level technical positions into at-will political employment suggests an unsettling future for high level career employees. Managers of these employees face significant leadership challenges as they guide their employees through the upcoming troubling times. Perhaps the thoughts of previous presidents can help those managers find ways to support their demoralized employees.

Abraham Lincoln provides a good overview of what to do in difficult times. He notes, “The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me.” Lincoln persisted in holding the union together. His example of persistence is something for managers to share with their employees.

Encouragement comes from Theodore Roosevelt, who turned a sickly childhood into a vigorous life. He suggested, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort.” Franklin Roosevelt added to his cousin’s perspective when he said: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Essentially, both are urging the technical expert to keep making the effort to promote the science, no matter what the risk.

John Adams provides the most pertinent advice. He observed, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Career employees are committed to providing technical guidance based on facts and they need to keep doing this.

Eventually, facts and evidence will prevail over political posturing and technical expertise will again be valued. We are beginning to see this change with respect to mask wearing during the pandemic, where 85% of Americans said in an August survey that they regularly wore masks in stores despite the President’s mocking of mask wearing. Indeed, facts are stubborn things.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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One Response to Facts are Stubborn Things

  1. Professor Stephen R. Rolandi Reply

    November 29, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    Excellent atticle! Ronald Reagan used to say many times that “facts are stubborn things.”

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