Federal employees continue work with a new perspective

As agencies begin the process of trying to return to normal operations in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, there is a pervasive sense that nothing will ever be quite the same.

On Tuesday morning, the business of the federal government, especially in Washington, came to a screeching halt. Much of the official work of the federal government--and the efforts to influence that work--that ordinarily seem so important in the nation's capital suddenly seemed less so in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. By nightfall, the grave words of D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey that there would no longer be such a thing as "business as usual" in the city seemed to ring true. While agencies began tiptoeing back toward normalcy by the end of Wednesday, there was a sense that nothing would ever be quite the same. Everyone--from entry-level staff to high-paid professionals --will be dealing with altered policy agendas, heightened security measures, and a new perspective on what really matters. Although the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 "was a shock to everyone who works for the federal government, what Tuesday did was to make everybody realize it was not an aberration, a one-time tragedy," said David Schlein, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that has members at the severely damaged Pentagon. "This is something we will have to be prepared for, and live with, the rest of our working lives." John Palguta, director of policy and administration at the Merit Systems Protection Board, added: "Mentally, this will take a while to sort through. There will be a reordering of priorities. People will ask, 'How important is what we're doing?' " Following the terrorist attacks, employees interviewed at the Agriculture, Transportation, and Health and Human Services departments all reiterated that their long-term work would not be affected. But they face significant changes in the shorter term. Projects would be delayed, and children would have to be put at ease that their parents will be safe going into federal buildings.

With news gradually filtering back of the federal employees who were killed, many staffers discovered personal links to the victims. "The bodies are here. The minds are focused on other places," said Dianne McSwain, a rural specialist at HHS. When federal buildings reopened on Wednesday morning, security procedures had been greatly ratcheted up, just as they had been after the Oklahoma City bombing. HHS employees were greeted with small chains at the door and informed by security that they needed to wear their identification badges at all times inside the building. Cars pulling into the subterranean garage were stopped and checked with mirrors for hidden explosives.

"We go through periodic blips of security," said McSwain, "but I don't think this is a blip. And I didn't hear a single complaint." Hap Connors, a spokesman for the General Services Administration, said: "Without a doubt, security [at federal buildings] will be increased. Since the Oklahoma City bombings, we have spent $1.2 billion on security upgrades. We've gotten more people, better technology, and more intelligence. Now, there are already calls on Capitol Hill for even more. I think you will see a lot more security. That is how we responded then, and that is how we will respond again." Ironically, some suggest that Tuesday's tragedies will burnish the image of government work in ways that help future recruiting. "The events of [Tuesday] have drawn attention, especially among young people, to the important roles that government plays in their lives--from mayors, to police, to the rescuers, to the agencies, to the President," said Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government. Corine Hegland, Shawn Zeller and Michael Steel contributed to this story.

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