Civil Servants are Becoming More Visible Heroes, and the Public is Noticing

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | November 5, 2019, 3:55 pm EST
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It’s tough reading or listening to the news these days, from impeachment to racial attacks to sidelining science. But what is that? I think I see one! A ray of hope in all of the storm clouds: a growing appreciation for the role of civil servants in our country.

In the last several weeks, the narrative about the federal government and the hardworking professionals that make it work has begun a remarkable shift. I am thinking of the civil servants, including thousands of scientists and analysts, who do their jobs regardless of who is in the White House.

They are experts in their fields and do the work not for political gain, but for the sake of the public and in keeping with the professionalism expected in their field. They are the ones who actually get things done, rather than make speeches at rallies. And that is exactly what the civil service was created to do.

Where do I see evidence that the narrative has shifted? Let’s start with SharpieGate. It started out as the silliest controversy one could imagine. The President somehow believed that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian. Well, we almost all make mistakes, except apparently for Mr. Trump. In the face of clear evidence that Dorian would not significantly impact Alabama, he couldn’t back down, and insisted he was right despite corrections issued by the National Weather Service office in Birmingham. Then, through his Chief of Staff and Secretary of Commerce, the President threatened to fire anyone who publicly disagreed with his “forecast”.

All of a sudden, the news reports were talking about the experts and professional forecasters and the great work of the National Weather Service. Finally! It isn’t like the NWS didn’t do great work for the last century or so. But it took the craziness of suppressing the real forecast of a natural disaster for significant recognition to come in the public eye.

And as the House of Representatives considers issues of impeachment, career professionals at the State Department have stepped up to the plate. They are telling us how diplomacy works in the real world, when the professionals handle it. And how it goes off the rails when handed to those who think, incorrectly, that they can do it better.

Unfortunately, we have a long history in this country of disrespecting those in public service outside the military. Most movies seem to view government employees, even in law enforcement, as incompetent and out of touch, even down right mean. Many of our elected leaders don’t give professionals in public service the credit they are due. Some denigrate them—or even call them traitors. That needs to change.

Most of our federal agencies have suffered real declines under the Trump Administration, from the Veterans Administration to the EPA to the Department of Agriculture and NOAA. Thousands of senior professionals have retired, and relatively few young, up-and-coming professionals are taking their place.

There is no time to waste. It will take years for these agencies to rebuild in order to deliver the science, policy and services the American people need and rely on. We need the narrative to shift. We need to credit and honor all public servants—non-military and military alike. We need to encourage young professionals to work for the government and contribute their talents and energy in support of the public interest.

We need to tell them that federal agencies are great places to work for all or part of a career (and I say this from personal experience). Our country needs a strong and vibrant civil service. Sure, changes are needed to modernize federal service. But, we can’t give it up.

So this is a clarion call to young professionals: Your country needs you. Our families and communities need you. Our federal agencies need you. Working in government for part of your career is an honor and will allow you to have a real impact on our country. So when the time is right, Uncle Sam wants you!

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