Not all of the attention on government during this year’s Public Service Recognition Week has been positive. The House voted on Wednesday to hold former Internal Revenue Service career official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, news of bad behavior at the Environmental Protection Agency was aired during a congressional oversight hearing, and the Veterans Affairs Department is facing serious allegations that some employees destroyed documents related to delays in medical care for veterans – delays that could have played a role in the deaths of 40 vets.
But at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington on Thursday morning, a handful of Cabinet secretaries had nothing but love for career civil servants.
“People ask me constantly from my private sector days, ‘What’s the most surprising thing about the federal government?’” said Commerce Department Secretary Penny Pritzker during a town hall that also included Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta. “And I say, the quality of the people I get to work with. They are extraordinary,” Pritzker said, adding that the misperception outside of Washington that federal employees are a bunch of unhelpful bureaucrats “needs to be fixed.”
Johnson agreed, saying it’s a misperception within Washington as well. “There are a lot of people outside the Beltway, and inside the Beltway, who look on the federal government as a large bureaucracy that doesn’t really work for them, and that’s a perception that doesn’t comport with reality.”
Whether it’s helping people obtain the necessary patents for products, or coordinating government agencies and relief after major disasters, the hard work and dedication of federal employees often goes unnoticed by those who aren’t directly affected, the Obama administration officials said. “Go home and tell your community what the federal government does for you,” Pritzker said she tells people who interact with Commerce. “Because it’s not well understood, the services that we provide, and I think we need to do a much better job of marketing and PR.”
It’s not just the general public that struggles to appreciate public servants, officials said: it is Congress as well. “Austerity has consequences,” said Perez. “This is the first economic recovery that I am aware of [where] government hiring has actually gone down.” One of the consequences of such belt-tightening is that a lot of young people won’t have an opportunity to work for the government because of hiring and budget constraints, Perez said.
“It’s not sustainable to continue to ask folks to work in an environment where you don’t give them the resources to do their job and you tell them, ‘I’m sorry, please go away for two weeks, and we may or may not pay you,’ ” Pritzker said. “That’s not tenable, that’s not supportable and it’s irresponsible by the leadership. We cannot accept that as business as usual.” Johnson said he finds the dedication of federal employees willing to work in an era of shutdowns and sequestration “remarkable.”
The government has work to do though, particularly when it comes to reaching out to young people via social media and attracting diverse applicants, the group said. Archuleta said the message to prospective federal workers, regardless of age and experience level, is the same: Think about working for the government for a little while when the timing makes sense. But that means the government needs to make it easier for people to move in and out of public service, said Pritzker. “We make it way too difficult for them to come back. I mean, our rules, our processes are just too cumbersome,” she said.
The Cabinet secretaries also discussed employee retention and job satisfaction, acknowledging the challenges posed by low morale. Johnson said he is “on a mission” to raise morale through good leadership; more “transparency” with respect to promotion; job training and mentoring; and “bringing back various awards programs” at DHS. “I believe in constructive criticism and feedback, but I think thanking people is important,” Johnson said, adding that he has to deal with Congress when it comes to certain “pay issues,” but pledged to be a champion for the workforce.