As the nation's political leaders lurched from crisis to crisis this year, federal executives somehow managed their way through.
In 1972, Judith Viorst wrote a children's book that went on to become a classic: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In it, young Alexander suffers a series of indignities at the hands of his teacher, his friends, his brothers and even the family cat. He ends up declaring he'd prefer to live in Australia.
After the events of this year, federal managers, executives and employees could be forgiven for contemplating what life Down Under might be like. Because 2011 could very well be characterized as government's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. It was a year in which government started under the cloud of a looming shutdown and never quite emerged. Indeed, as Kellie Lunney reports in this month's cover story, there were several more shutdown near-misses, a debt-ceiling debacle and the lingering prospect of major cuts to federal employee benefits.
And as this issue headed to press, it was still unclear whether the congressional super committee charged with finding more than a $1 trillion in budget savings would actually agree on a plan, or simply step back and wait for automatic steep cuts in discretionary spending to go into effect.
The year also included a campaign against government waste launched by the Obama administration. On Nov. 9, the president announced the latest set of initiatives in the campaign. It was a list of common-sense items, from limiting travel and encouraging teleconferencing to reducing the number of documents printed in federal offices. Oh, and there was one other category of spending-"swag," all those items that organizations buy to promote themselves. It was right there in black and white:
"Agencies should limit the purchase of promotional items (e.g., plaques, clothing and commemorative items), in particular where they are not cost-effective."
So at a time when federal employees were being vilified by anti-government activists and agency leaders were staring at the prospect of serious budget cuts stretching out a decade into the future, the president made sure to issue one more decree: No more T-shirts and coffee mugs.
What's an executive, manager or employee to do under such circumstances? What they have learned to do over decades of working through political turmoil and shifting public opinion about the value of what government does: soldier on.
By and large, that's exactly what they did this year. While the nation's political system sank into dysfunction, the machinery of the day-to-day government kept operating, even as federal leaders contemplated how to meet a familiar fiscal mantra: Do more with less.
It seems career civil servants are prepared, if not exactly eager, to take up that task. They do so with the knowledge that the costs of failure are high. At a Government Executive town hall meeting of managers and executives in early November, budget expert Stan Collender said that in the uncertain days that lie ahead, their work will be more important than ever.
"The country is going to need you more in the future," Collender said. But "you're just going to be needed; you're not going to feel loved."After a year like this, that doesn't sound so terrible.