I retired in 2002 after serving over 30 years in the United States Government as a career civil servant. You may know Federal civil servants as a favorite punching bag for politicians. We are the so-called “bloated bureaucracy” that always needs deflating when election time comes around.
During those 30 years, I served under seven presidents, both Democrats and Republicans and worked at four different Federal agencies. Virtually all my colleagues were smart, capable and hard working. People routinely worked much longer than the required 40 hour week. They cared passionately about doing a good job, and took very seriously the charge of serving the public, to be civil servants.
Why then, is the reputation of Federal employees so poor?
Part of it must be the exceptions – we all remember what does not work. Most of the problem, I believe, is elsewhere. The job of Federal employees is to implement laws of Congress and executive branch policies. Implementation frequently uncovers flaws in those laws and policies. Congress or administration political appointees could acknowledge that the fault lies with those laws and policies — that is, that they had screwed up — or they could blame Federal employees. We all know which approach is followed.
Since they do not have to run for office, Federal employees understand that an unwritten part of their job description is taking the blame when things don’t go as planned. If “blame the bureaucrats” was the only problem, there would be little cause for concern. But, there are more serious problems.
The most insidious is the erosion of the protections created by the Civil Service Act of 1883. This Act sought to create a system based on merit to achieve a professional, not political, civil service. Unfortunately, recent changes are moving us back towards the patronage system of the nineteenth century.
Some changes are justified as making Federal employees more responsive and accountable, but the negative effect is to give political appointees greater power to squeeze out career employees. They are often replaced with individuals whose sole qualifications are political. This leads to decisions based on political ideology unburdened by facts and prior experience. More such decisions can be expected because more career employees are being driven out taking their knowledge and experience with them.
I believe that Americans deserve better from their government. The term ‘bureaucracy’ may have negative connotations for some, but the knowledge and experience of career federal employees can ground decisions in reality without undermining the flexibility necessary for our representative democracy. Wise elected and appointed politicians will protect the merit system and use the knowledge and experience of their career civil servants.
I believe that my career as a civil servant was, indeed, a career of public service. And, I believe those now serving have the same attitude and will continue to implement laws and policies with dedication, intelligence and perseverance, even while shouldering the blame for ill-considered political acts. It’s all in a day’s work.
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