Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus on Feb. 26, 2020. Schuchat is a finalist for a career achievement award.

Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a news conference about the coronavirus on Feb. 26, 2020. Schuchat is a finalist for a career achievement award. Evan Vucci / AP

Finalists for Government ‘Oscars’ Highlight Outstanding Federal Employees

The Partnership for Public Service’s annual awards program kicks off National Public Service Week.

Leaders in the federal government’s coronavirus response, presidential transition, 2020 Census and landing of a rover on Mars were among the 29 finalists for the prestigious annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals announced on Sunday. 

Renamed in 2010 for entrepreneur and nonprofit Partnership for Public Service founder Samuel J. Heyman, the program launched in 2002 to highlight public sector talent and has honored over 500 federal employees since then. The awards are known as the “Sammies” and the “Oscars of government service.” The finalists are contenders for awards in the following categories: the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement medal; emerging leaders; management excellence; safety, security, and international affairs; science and environment; federal employee of the year; and the COVID-19 response, a new addition. Additionally, all finalists are eligible for the Service to America Medals People’s Choice Award. 

“For each of the unprecedented challenges we have faced in the last year, dedicated public servants have worked behind the scenes to move our country forward, heal our nation and strengthen our democracy,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership. “The 2021 Service to America Medals finalists have shown tremendous commitment to the public good, and they, like all public servants, deserve our support and recognition.”

The finalists in the COVID-19 response category include: the State Department-led team that repatriated more than 100,000 Americans who were stranded abroad when the lockdowns started; a team at the Internal Revenue Service that oversaw the disbursement of hundreds of billions of relief payments, and a top Food and Drug Administration official leading the coronavirus vaccine approval process.

Other finalists’ achievements included: combating misinformation and disinformation about the 2020 Census, overseeing the landing of a rover on Mars, coordinating the presidential transition that was upended by the pandemic and disputed election, and coordinating the response to the most active hurricane season in history.

“It’s truly an honor” to be a finalist, Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA, told Government Executive. “I view it as a great honor not just really personally, but for our center and for the work that was done at FDA in support of the accomplishment of helping to get a variety of medical countermeasures, but most importantly vaccines, really out there in record time.” 

Kenneth Graham, national hurricane director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said, “It’s absolutely humbling” to be a finalist and “when you work with great people it really is the whole team.” Last year was a “record breaking season, but at the same time it was during a pandemic, which made everything we did just more complex.” However, “the mission was never compromised or in jeopardy.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is a finalist for the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement category, said “the CDC has been an extraordinary place for me to spend my career, to grow as an epidemiologist and scientist and manager and leader to work with extraordinary people who are doing amazing things to protect people’s health here in the U.S. and around the world.” 

Schuchat, who is in her 33rd year at the agency, said it was “surprising and really meaningful” to be chosen as a finalist for the Sammies. 

A selection committee composed of leaders from Congress, government, business, foundations, academia, entertainment and the media will choose the Sammie winners, who will be announced in the fall. For the People’s Choice Award, the public can start voting on Sunday, May 2, for “the federal employee they believe has made the most significant contributions in public service.” The winner will be named over the summer.

The Partnership also announced that its fourth annual Spirit of Service award would go to Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of the Emerson Collective, which focuses on education, the environment, immigration reform, media and journalism, and health. She also founded College Track, a program that helps low-income, first-generation students obtain their bachelors degrees.

Sunday kicked off the 37th Public Service Recognition Week, which honors federal, state, county and local government employees.

Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., introduced a bipartisan resolution on Monday to honor public servants. 

President Biden said, “public servants are the lifeblood of our democracy” in a proclamation issued on Friday. “In the face of unprecedented challenges this past year, America's dedicated public servants have risen to the moment.” He outlined his administration's efforts to “protect, empower, and rebuild the career federal workforce.”

During this recognition week “we celebrate and thank our public servants at the local, state, and federal levels who exemplify dedication to the common good,” he said.