Donald Trump’s election came as a surprise to most Americans, including those who’ve worked in the government for up to eight years under President Obama. If you’re one of them, you may be thinking about leaving. I hope you’ll think twice before you do.
Jobs in government bureaucracy are going to be as important as ever. Image from Wikipedia.
Policy is less important than the people who implement it. Without good people and sound implementation, policy is words in a memo.
The United States government is run, in large part, by members of the federal civil service, an umbrella that largely covers anyone working for a federal agency from the Department of Labor to the Office of Management and Budget. One of the most important qualities of the federal civil service is the quality of the people it has traditionally attracted.
While much has been said about the diminishing perception of the public sector among younger members of the work force, when I was head of GSA, I never had trouble finding people, of all ages, interested in joining our team and working on our critical missions. (Hiring them was a different story, and one I will save for a later blog post.)
The secret was that folks were not signing up for just any firm, they were signing on for the most important project and challenge that there is: providing services to the American people and the people that serve them.
That challenge and opportunity has not gone away as a result of the outcome on Election Day. In fact, it may have taken on a more substantial imperative.
Federal employees provide an invaluable public service
I have had the opportunity to speak at the “graduation” ceremony for two classes of the Presidential Management Fellowship program. In each case, I welcomed them to the federal civil service and explained that membership gave them awesome power and incredible responsibility.
Civil service appointment is not about getting all federal holidays off or having a high-bar for being fired. The federal civil service was created — with much credit going to another controversial New York Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt —— to allow a professional, technical class of employees to provide efficient, high quality service, devoid of political influence.
Civil servants have the right and the responsibility to speak truth to power, tell it like it is, and provide the best non-partisan advice and service to the executive and the people (s)he serves.
When you signed up for the federal civil service you took an oath to defend the constitution and its provision that Federal employees serve: “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”
The responsibility is also with the leadership
However, the responsibility is not just yours alone. If you choose to leave because of your beliefs or fears, that is a personal choice. You are free to make it, and no one would ever question your dedication or commitment if you did. Why? Because someone with the skills, talents, and commitment of the average Federal employee has many, many options. Civic institutions; non-profit organizations; state and local governments; and innovative companies will snap you up!
As in any high performing organization, the ultimate responsibility to keep you on-board is with those who are in charge.
Recent proposals tied to the incoming administration that would freeze federal hiring are the sort of across-the-board approach that ignores the complicated reality of relative agency performance, efficiency, workforce demography and program priority. Other proposals to slash benefits and worker protections may have similar unintended consequences.
There is much to be fixed in the ways that civil servants are hired, trained, assessed, compensated and dismissed (if necessary). However, focusing only on the proposals that have negative impacts on the very people who an Administration will need to discharge their policy goals is short sighted and counterproductive.
Therefore, my real request is to the new administration: fight to keep these people. If you really do want to help veterans; enhance job opportunities; improve border security and immigration fairness; build infrastructure and reduce the cost of government service delivery, the members of the federal civil service are the means to those ends.
You need, just as you would in any business, to re-recruit your best talent, keep them engaged, and learn from them. Focusing on negatives and thoughtless across-the-board approaches is going to cause those with the most to offer to leave the fastest. You would never take that approach in a business. Why is that the one practice from the private sector that doesn’t seem to warrant being brought to the public sector?
Jack Valenti once said that the three most important words in Washington are: “Wait a minute.”
I would encourage Federal employees to heed that advice and see what happens. A smart, business-like Administration will recognize your talent and re-recruit you to your important work of change and dramatically improving outcomes.
Otherwise, you always have the option to go where your talents will be welcomed and appreciated.