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The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
December 19, 2017

It has been a difficult year to be a career federal employee. The problems began right after the inauguration when the new president called a National Park Service employee to dispute inauguration photographs inconsistent with the president’s crowd size claims. Days after the inauguration, employees at several agencies (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and The Department of Health and Human Services) received directives limiting communication to the public. Political appointees in other agencies have been reassigning career employees as a tool to encourage resignations. More generally, political appointees are hollowing out key federal functions through workforce reductions, e.g. Department of State, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Peace Corp.

During the 25 years I spent working in the Office of Personnel Management’s oversight program, I remember only one period that compares to this year — the 1972 through 1974 portion of the Nixon presidency. During that period, the Malek Manual served as a guide to avoid civil service rules, especially rules involving firing employees. During that period, I observed employees who were reassigned to jobs without duties, jobs outside of their technical expertise and jobs requiring hardship geographical moves as the result of techniques outlined in the Malek Manual. During that period friends in the Foreign Service told me about presidential directives prohibiting any written communication inconsistent with presidential policy. This was a time before internet, email and even inexpensive international telephone service — a time when written cable communication was the primary way of providing diplomatic information to the administration. This was a time when my oversight work took me into agencies such as the Office of Economic Opportunity that the administration was extinguishing by impounding funds and not filling vacancies. It was a time when I observed the corrosive effect on employee morale from an agency leadership that did not believe in the agency mission. It was a time when I observed the administration requiring political clearance of career positions down to the GS-13 level to enable political management to prevail in the technical decision making process.

So, because I know first-hand the morale damage today’s federal workforce is experiencing, I want to let current federal employees know this has happened before. More importantly, I want to stress the American system of non-political, technically expert civil service system has survived similar assaults in the past and the system will rebound from the current attack.

I also want to remind a demoralized federal employee that throughout history, most presidents have valued the work of the nonpartisan civil service; and the best way to illustrate that is to provide examples of how a some presidents and their family members have spoken about the career employee:

  • Grover Cleveland commented on the difficulty of public service in difficult times: “These are days of special perplexity and depression, and the path of public duty is unusually rugged.”
  • Theodore Roosevelt emphasized the importance of continuing the effort even in adversity: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
  • Calvin Coolidge observed that the work of public servant is to ensure the rule of law: “It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”
  • Herbert Hoover noted public service is a calling worth following: “Being a politician is a poor profession. Being a public servant is a noble one.”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt stressed that only excellent public servants can create an excellent government: “In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and the integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are.”
  • Harry Truman identified the tradeoff that many public servants make: “I would much rather be an honorable public servant and known as such than to be the richest man in the world.”
  • Carolyn Kennedy identified the positive effect of a supportive president on public service: “I feel that my father’s greatest legacy was the people he inspired to get involved in public service and their communities, to join the Peace Corps, to go into space. And really that generation transformed this country in civil rights, social justice, the economy and everything.

So, at the close of this “annus horribilus” for federal employees, I want to say to the federal civil servant, you are valued. What you do is important, recognized and appreciated as previous presidents have noted. But most importantly, I want to remind you that the sun will come out tomorrow and the clouds of today will pass.

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.

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