The ability of the federal workforce to press on in spite of “the shutdown and all that noise” was “a remarkable gift to the country,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., on Thursday at a breakfast honoring finalists for the Service to America (SAMMIE) Medals staged by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
“You’ve had a rough year,” said Lankford, the co-sponsor with Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., of a bill to end shutdowns and hold federal workers “harmless.” He is also the lead author of this week’s Senate resolution honoring federal workers during Public Service Recognition Week. He said senators regularly get complaints about federal workers, often followed by a comment that is complimentary to the employee who solved a problem. “But we remember the first one,” he said.
He reminded the audience of finalists for the awards to be given in October that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal office building was committed by a “mad man who hated the government.” Lawmakers “can disagree with colleagues on policy,” Lankford said. “But the last people we’re angry at is you.”
Also there to thank federal employees was Margaret Weichert, doubling as deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget and as acting director of the Office of Personnel Management.
Having recently seen the hit movie “Avengers: Endgame,” Weichert said, “I feel our workforce is actually like those heroes, using technology and their brains for solving problems. Most importantly, they have the drive do it,” she said. “And not just the guys in capes but the people behind the scenes, keeping things running for safety, and who with technology and intellectual property aligned, can drive economic growth in this country.”
Despite some negativity she noted in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, Weichert praised federal employees for a trait rare in the private sector—“why they work.” Fully 90%, she noted, say the work they do is important, and 96% say they would do extra work if needed. “They don’t do it for the fanfare and they don’t do it for the money,” she added.
She singled out members of the U.S. Digital Service, leaders of which are her office neighbors, for being finalists for creating software that simplifies and assembles the health care data of Medicare patients in much faster time.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie quoted Alexander Hamilton’s adage that “much of good government is good administration. That’s what these awards are all about,” he said. Many people don’t know that the VA, which has won 20 public service awards in 18 years, “is on the cutting edge of medical research,” he added. Citing a finalist at the VA’s Boston Healthcare System for her neuropathology work on the effects of concussions on veterans and athletes, Wilkie said, “I was happy to tell my counterpart in Canada that I have a closer relationship with the National Hockey League than he does.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross drew laughs when he joked that “there are three Commerce finalists, but I’m not allowed to lobby for them.” But he grew serious in both thanking and challenging federal workers, whom he praised for their importance to the efficient functioning of society. “Without good government, society suffers morally, financially, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically,” Ross said. But public servants “must perform at the highest level, embrace the digital revolution, and stay attuned to the demands of the electorate,” he said. That includes “the ability to learn new skills, say ahead of innovation and stay relevant.”
Ross said his entire department was “grief stricken” at the recent death, following the April 21 terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, of Chelsea Decaminada, an international program specialist at Commerce, who died Monday of her injuries. “It’s a stark reminder of the sacrifices that public servants make every day,” he said.