Cabinet secretaries jab the media and Congress

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “Ninety-nine percent of federal workers come to work for the American people." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “Ninety-nine percent of federal workers come to work for the American people." Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Employees at the scandal-tarnished General Services Administration are as “disappointed, angry and frustrated as the American people” by the recent revelations of a lavish training conference held in Las Vegas, the agency’s acting administrator said Tuesday. But the irony in all the attention from Congress and the media, added Dan Tangherlini, is GSA is the cost-savings agency and that $820,000 event “doesn’t represent what we do.”

Speaking on the second day of Public Service Recognition Week on a panel organized by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, leaders of four key agencies defended the federal workforce against what they see as unfair characterizations by journalists and lawmakers.

“In the avalanche of news about GSA and the Secret Service, what is missed entirely is the positive side of the ledger,” said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive officer. “We will not get what we want out of government if we constantly tear it down and fail to recognize its accomplishments.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood added, “Ninety-nine percent of federal workers come to work for the American people, getting them their Social Security checks, their veterans checks, and helping a member of Congress solve a problem even though he takes the credit. So many good people will never get the headlines.”

The GSA conference “was a great media story, but what has not been a media story is how agencies are saving money,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted. “If you’re running an agency, people do have to get together from time to time, and this gets lost.”

She echoed Tangherlini regarding the Secret Service scandal involving prostitutes that preceded President Obama’s April visit to Colombia. “The people most upset were the other Secret Service agents,” she said.

Though it’s an important time to be a federal employee, “it’s tough when you’re working a bazillion hours and are paid below-market rates and you are told you’re incompetent,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “The good stories are buried on page five in the lower-left corner and are gone in a few seconds.” Sebelius said HHS leaders are sent “to get outside of D.C. to shine a light on the regional offices to make sure employees know that we know they’re doing terrific work. The press is cynical inside Washington, always going for the ‘gotcha.’ ”

The agency leaders also bashed lawmakers for complicating budgets and time management. At least one chamber of Congress “has people who came to do nothing -- that’s what they’ve done last year and a half,” said LaHood, mentioning the long-stalled highway spending bill now in a House-Senate conference. “They were elected to stop good things from happening.” He noted during the six years he spent in Congress, he helped enact two highway bills with bipartisan support.

“There’s a hearing today on the Transportation Security Administration because a few members of Congress are irritated with it,” LaHood said. “But rather than trashing it, my hope is that it would be about 10 years of protecting the people. Not one plane has been brought down by terrorists. That’s what we’re celebrating this week.”

Napolitano said the need to deal with 100 congressional committees and subcommittees “makes it difficult to balance working with Congress and trying to defend yourself and your job.” She said her 230,000 employees believe in the mission and the public good, but the hearing structure “is designed to point out flaws instead of what’s been accomplished, or what’s next on the table.” It’s also hard to operate without a budget, she added. “Going right up to the edge of closing down the government is not a morale builder,” she said.

At GSA, Tangherlini has led a series of virtual town hall meetings (saving travel costs), which have “sparked good conversations” with employees and the inspector general about ideas for “continuing the momentum” toward innovations during a time of tight budgets. Examples include reforming travel reservations procedures, unifying vehicle fleet management and “doubling down” on sustainability in use of buildings.

Innovations at HHS, Sebelius added, include the use of cellphones and text messaging to help pregnant women seeking prenatal care and smokers trying to quit, inexpensive communications strategies that can save money in health care.

All the agencies are concerned about attracting young people to federal service in an era of fed-bashing, especially with a wave of retirements looming. Among youth, “I see no diminution of interest in public service, and there’s a desire to get things done,” said Tangherlini. “But we have to balance that” with budget constraints.

Homeland Security has a higher education engagement program, led by the president of the University of Maryland, that helps recruit interns and fellows “so we can move them around the department and show career paths,” Napolitano said. She also is working with the Office of Personnel Management to keep talent active.

Sebelius said HHS has tripled the number of young participants in its National Health Service Corps, part of an effort to “make sure there is a pipeline and trajectory of people who stay a long time to move up ladder and learn new skills.” Proposals for federal retirees to come back part time or as consultants are workable, she added, but should be discussed before retirement because of complications such as rules on working while collecting a pension and possible conflicts of interests with new employers.

Panel moderator and longtime broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts, who called the agency leaders “brave” for taking questions about the recent scandals, asked what agencies were doing to make female career employees “comfortable at work without having to abandon the caretaking roles important to them.”

Tangherlini said GSA is “pushing telework, flexible work and technology to strike the right balance.” LaHood said Transportation is reaching out to college-age women and tasking employees with finding one young employee to mentor. Sebelius noted, “men, too, want to be good parents,” so HHS pays attention to work sharing, flexible schedules and convenient day care. “The government can be ahead of the private sector in these amenities,” she said.

Another focus in recruiting is the wave of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Napolitano said, adding DHS has hired 50,000 veterans through job fairs and websites. “They are ideally suited, have training and [have] shown dedication to government,” she said.

Asked about new efforts in ethics training, Napolitano said, “Is there anything more boring than an entry video you have to watch?” Both she and Sebelius said they are looking at ways to update such orientations using 21st-century communications to focus on both personal conduct and proper care of taxpayer dollars.

All agreed that one key to effective government is successful partnerships -- with state and local governments and with other federal agencies. When Transportation was tasked with spending Recovery Act money to create 65,000 jobs and 15,000 projects, LaHood said, “The only way we could do it is with great partnerships with governors and mayors and people in the states. There were no earmarks, no boondoggles, no sweetheart deals. It was all professional, no politics, just building infrastructure and putting American people to work. “

Such cooperation might not attract the press and Congress, LaHood said: “It won’t get the headlines unless something goes wrong. But a lot of stuff goes right!”

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