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The success of our nation depends upon career civil servants

Our government faces tumultuous times characterized by attacks on the legitimacy of the nation’s electoral process, a lack of public trust, serious threats against the FBI and law enforcement, and a recent revival of a proposal that tens of thousands of career federal civil servants should be converted into patronage employees.

The increasingly common demonization of federal public servants as untrustworthy “bureaucrats” pursuing their own agendas ignores the reality that policy decisions are made by Congress and the White House, and that professional career employees have routinely implemented those initiatives for both Republican and Democratic administrations.   

While some politicians and their supporters find government employees to be easy targets, the reality is that these individuals are motivated by a desire to serve the nation and our collective interests. They bring true expertise and continuity to our government, give advice based on the facts and data, and represent an integral part of our democratic system. The disturbing efforts to undermine the work of dedicated federal employees for political gain only serves to erode trust in government and weaken our democracy.

On a daily basis, the nation’s 2 million civil servants located all across the country, deliver essential services like Social Security and Medicare, assist small businesses, care for veterans, fight crime, maintain the safety of our transportation systems, protect the food supply, find cures for diseases, carry out the nation’s foreign policy and advance our national security.

There is often a disconnect, however, between what the public hears about the government and what actually takes place, with missteps magnified and civil servants caricatured. Numerous systems are in place to detect problems, but little attention is paid to important successes or to those responsible for the accomplishments.

One of many such achievements can be found in the extraordinary work of Gregory Robinson, whose critical behind-the scenes leadership and management skills led to NASA’s successful December 2021 launch of the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope that is already revealing amazing discoveries about the origins of the universe.

Another dedicated career employee, Cindy Newberg of the Environmental Protection Agency, has played an instrumental role internationally and in the U.S. to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, incredibly potent greenhouse gases that are major contributors to climate change. At the Department of Homeland Security, Brandon Wales has protected government and commercial computer networks from highly sophisticated and damaging cyberattacks, including safeguarding the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain and reducing the risks from devastating ransomware attacks on schools and hospitals.

Barbara Morton has built trust and created a customer-oriented culture for veterans and their families seeking services and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, while Robert Fenton of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently named as the White House National Monkeypox response coordinator, was instrumental in the herculean task of setting up 39 mass vaccination sites and supporting 1,600 smaller locations at the height of the pandemic. These sites administered millions of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines in a short period of time.

These federal employees, all honorees of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals awarded by the Partnership for Public Service, are just a few of the countless public servants making a huge difference for the country.

There is no doubt that federal leaders should deal forthrightly with government’s management challenges and take steps to improve the civil service, but it is equally important to support the workforce and celebrate the achievements of those who have dedicated themselves to the public good.

As President John F. Kennedy said 60 years ago, the nation’s civil servants “face problems of unprecedented importance and perplexity” that require “their competence and energy.”

“The success of this government, and thus the success of our nation, depends in the last analysis upon the quality of our career services,” Kennedy said. Those words were true in 1962 and they are only more true today.

Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to building a better government and a stronger democracy.

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