Saying ‘Thank You’ Matters

Few people are in government for the money; it’s critical to recognize those who go above and beyond.

Last month, the Office of Management and Budget announced its annual “Gears of Government Award,” the latest incarnation of White House-level employee recognition over the past 30 years.

This year’s awards recognize 225 individuals and/or teams that improved mission results, customer service or demonstrated accountable stewardship. Six were highlighted for the President’s Award. For example, one team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was recognized for fixing an instrument failure on a newly launched, $1 billion weather satellite—from a distance of 22,300 miles. Absent their ingenuity, it would have been a total loss.

This award is a real turnaround from the way OMB used to work. Tongue in cheek, but probably with some grain of truth, a veteran staffer at OMB once told me when I was working on the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s that their stance with federal agencies was that “reward is the lack of punishment.”

The career civil service system has a series of employee recognition awards and a bonus system. The most prominent are the Presidential Rank Awards for career senior executives. There are also externally-bestowed awards and recognition. For example, for individuals, there are the Service to America Medals, the Arthur S. Flemming Award, the Theodore Roosevelt Government Leadership Awards and the William A. Jump Award. And for agencies, there is the Best Places to Work recognition, bestowed by the Partnership for Public Service.

But being recognized by the White House is special. Over the past 30 years, there have been other recognition awards bestowed by different administrations as White House-level recognition for team or individual performance. 

Hammer Awards (1994 - 2001). Shortly after the National Performance Review submitted its report and recommendations to President Clinton in late 1993, the task force director, Bob Stone, said that we had to go out into the field and find teams of civil servants who were modeling its principles of “putting customers first, cutting red tape, empowering employees, and cutting back to basics” so they could be recognized by the White House.

I pushed back, saying we had just released the report and we have to give employees time to implement it. He countered that there were teams already doing it naturally and that we needed to find them quickly to demonstrate to their peers what success looks like. He directed a top staffer, Doug Farbrother, to get on his motorcycle and travel around the country to different federal offices looking for examples of what a “reinvented government” would look like in practice.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were left with coming up with some sort of award. Michael Messinger, who was a whiz at tchotchke, modeled Liberty Bells and other designs, including a hammer, which would be used to break down bureaucracy and build a better government.  Conveniently, it also recalled the moment when Vice President Gore broke a government-issued ashtray with a hammer on the David Letterman Show.

So that led to Vice President Gore’s Hammer Award—a $6 TrueValue hammer, decorated with a red, white and blue ribbon, all in a gold-and-black velvet box frame with a card personally signed by Gore thanking each individual team. By the end of the Clinton administration, there had been 1,378 Hammer Awards presented to teams of federal employees who had demonstrated “reinvention principles.” For example, the first Hammer Award went to a regional office of the Veterans Benefits Administration for cutting a 25-step process for approving benefits to an 8-step process that empowered a team of employees to improve service to veterans and dramatically reduced processing time. 

Interestingly, departmental secretaries and other agency heads also created similar awards to recognize staff who were trying to innovate, as well. One agency created the Scissors Award, for cutting red tape, and another created the Giraffe Award, for employees who “stick their necks out” to try new things.

These various awards disappeared with the advent of a new administration.

Management Excellence Awards (2002 – 2008). The Bush Administration chose to focus recognition on departments and agencies for their achievements in management excellence. It showcased an existing award, also known as the President’s Quality Award, which has been administered by the Office of Personnel Management since 1988. President Bush himself bestowed the honors in 2002 to three agencies, noting that the award is the federal version of the non-governmental quality management award, the Malcolm Baldrige Award, overseen by the Commerce Department.

Subsequent annual ceremonies recognizing other agencies were hosted by OPM. This award ceased in 2009 with the onset of a new administration.

Customer Service (2015-2016) and SAVE Awards (2009 - 2014). The Obama Administration’s Cross-Agency Priority Goal to improve customer experience included a component that was somewhat reminiscent of the Hammer Awards. Starting in 2015, the Federal Customer Service Award recognition program showcased both individuals and teams that exemplified outstanding customer service.

There were department-level awards, such as the Interior Department, as well as presidential-level awards. I was privileged to serve as one of the judges in selecting potential presidential-level award recipients from among nominations submitted by their departments and agencies. It was an inspirational experience to see so many instances of selfless service to others. For example, one of the recipients was Jack Tran, a Social Security Administration field staffer who went out of his way to help reunite a homeless, mentally disabled customer with his family, who had been searching for him for more than 20 years.

An earlier program, the SAVE Award (Securing Americans Value and Efficiency), was launched in 2009 as a way to encourage federal employees to identify potential money-saving opportunities and then used crowdsourcing with the public to sift through and highlight the most promising practices. 

The program lasted about five years, ending in 2014. More than 90,000 ideas were surfaced and more than 90 were incorporated by OMB into the president’s budget for implementation. The winners would get to personally present their ideas to the president in the Oval Office. For example, in 2012 the award was given to Fredrick Winter, in the Education Department, for recommending that when federal employees turn 65 they automatically switch from Metro’s regular fares to the reduced senior citizen fare.

In addition to recognizing the deeds of individual civil servants, in 2016 the president also highlighted the impact of career employees more broadly in a final nod to public service during his last month in office. In this “impact report,” he thanked all federal employees and showcased specific examples of initiatives that improved the lives of Americans, such as streamlining airport security and small business loan procedures.

Like the Hammer and the Excellence Awards, these recognition programs disappeared with the coming of a new administration.

Gears of Government Awards (2018 - present). The Trump Administration created its own awards program in 2018 with a twist. It wasn’t just recognition for customer service but also for superior mission delivery or stewardship of taxpayer dollars. It celebrates exceptional performance for individuals and teams at the agency and at the presidential levels. Dubbed the Gears of Government Award to reinforce the Administration’s management agenda emphasis on priorities that were seen as the “gears” of government operations. It presented its first set of awards in 2019 and I was privileged to be one of the judges for the President’s Award. The nominees were impressive and inspiring. One of my favorites was Barbara Morton, who led a catalytic, veteran-centric initiative at the Veterans Affairs Department that organized what VA does around the veteran, not the bureaucracy. This contributed to an increase in veterans’ trust in VA from 71% in 2017 to more than 90% today.

OMB annually posts agency-level and presidential award winners on the website. The recently-announced 2020 winners include six that received presidential-level recognition, and 218 others—individuals and teams from departments, agencies, or interagency councils. Some winners were recognized for internal improvements, such as the Defense team that accelerated acquisitions by cutting 60% of the paperwork and reducing warfighting capability delivery time by six months. Other individuals or teams reengineered processes to improve services to citizens or businesses. For example, the Federal Housing Administration streamlined its refund and adjustment requests from lenders, cutting processing time from 60 to 21 days.

Insights for Future Leaders 

It is symbolically important to continue to offer recognition to career civil servants and teams from the top of the government. First, it is a high-leverage way to communicate, using symbols, what is valuable or a priority to an Administration. But more importantly, it is inspiring to the rest of the workforce by identifying concrete, real heroes within the ranks of the career civil service; monetary recognition isn’t as important as just a sincere “thank you.” As the Partnership for Public Service puts it: “Recognition for outstanding federal workers should be the norm.”

This post is part of a series developed by the IBM Center for The Business of Government that reflects on lessons from past government reform efforts. Listen to the podcast discussion here.