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Busting the Bureaucratic Myth, One Amazing Achievement at a Time

Federal employees accomplished a lot last year—it’s time to give them the respect they deserve.

Federal employees protect our health, safety and well-being—providing us with everything from disaster relief and environmental cleanup to new medical treatments and vaccines. 

Yet all too often, federal employees are disrespected as uninspired bureaucrats and robotic paper pushers, or dismissed as members of a shady “deep state” working to undermine our democracy. Recent policies—like the now-repealed executive order that would have made it easier to fire career civil servants—is only the latest example of a decades-long pattern of deriding federal employees that has caused public trust in government to reach a historic low

A closer look at federal employees dispels these myths. As we celebrate Public Service Recognition Week from May 2-8, it’s a good time to highlight some of the anonymous career officials—working behind the scenes as managers, policy experts, administrators and analysts—who solve our biggest challenges. To build a stronger democracy that serves and protects us all, we must respect and support federal employees and the vital expertise they bring to government. They deserve our gratitude for improving our lives in critical, yet unheralded, ways.

A prime example is Mary Frances Matthews, a program analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration. 

Matthews began her career working in one of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ North Carolina offices as a benefits administrator. She once awarded an older Vietnam veteran $250,000 of retroactive benefit payments after discovering a 15-year old clerical error in the VBA database. The experience opened her eyes to the value of public service.

“That definitely was one that affected me so much because I got to have such a positive impact,” she said.

But her impact was only just beginning.  

In 2019, the VA implemented a new appeals system that would enable the agency to process disability claims more quickly. However, the VBA still had nearly 270,000 appeals awaiting adjudication—known as legacy appeals—as the agency prepared to launch the new system. 

It was up to Matthews to reduce the backlog so the new system—critical for providing veterans in need with financial support—could launch quickly.

Typically, processing legacy appeals required employees scattered across dozens of field offices to work on different phases of cases at the same time.

Matthews revolutionized this outdated and complex method, creating a nationwide brokering system that assigned legacy appeals caseloads evenly across 56 different VBA offices. To do so, she worked with data analysts to understand how many employees each office had and which cases they could work on. Matthews then built, monitored and evaluated the new workflow manually, a colossal undertaking that in effect made her a human version of the VA’s regular computerized assignment system. 

The brokering system has made a real difference for veterans, decreasing the VBA’s legacy appeals backlog by 87% and, in turn, enabling the VA to more quickly develop its new appeal process. That promises to reduce the average wait time on an appeals decision from three to seven years to 125 days.  

Matthews is only one of the countless federal employees who make our lives better. 

William Hart-Cooper, a research chemist at the Agricultural Research Service, said he is “keeping this planet safe and clean for the next generation” by creating environmentally friendly disinfectants.  

Lori Vislocky, a technical director at the Department of Homeland Security, said she is improving the national security landscape by creating a new vetting system that provides security screeners with critical intelligence about travelers to the U.S. 

And Zack Schwartz, an information technology division chief at the Census Bureau, said he wanted to be “a part of something that impacted people every day” when he decided to partner with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia to stop saboteurs from spreading false information about the 2020 census. 

These are not the accomplishments of unimaginative bureaucrats, but the work of vital public servants who deserve our full support. 

Fortunately, the current administration has taken steps to show federal employees that their work is valued, respected and appreciated. In a recent message, President Biden praised federal employees’ experience and expertise. Shortly thereafter, he issued an executive order that reinstituted civil service protections for federal workers and declared it official U.S. policy to “protect, empower and rebuild” the career workforce.

These efforts should be the first part of a new national agenda built around respecting and recognizing all federal workers. Our nation must continue to acknowledge the countless career civil servants who protect our health, safety and well-being. Only then will people realize the full depth and breadth of what our government does—and why it is so critical to our democracy.  

Craig Newmark is the founder and customer service representative of Craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. Max Stier is the president and CEO of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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