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Public Service Recognition Week
This week, ending today, our nation attempts to recognize the contributions of public sector employees (May 3-9). As a former Federal government executive who spent 28 years working for four different agencies, I appreciate that one week a year is devoted to giving some recognition to the millions of Federal, state, and local government employees, as well the contractors, who provide service to our country every day of the year. While this week often gets some coverage from the government trade press and the Washington Post, typically there is little mention elsewhere unless there has been a recent event that has thrust government workers into the spotlight like the current COVID19 pandemic or the aftermath of 9-11.
Generally, when the heroes are trotted out, they tend to be members of the armed forces or public safety, people whose lives can be very much on the line in the event of a war or a natural catastrophe like a hurricane. I don’t begrudge the attention paid to those people because they often do very difficult jobs where many can lose their lives or suffer lasting damage to their bodies and their souls.
The people that I want to spotlight today however, are not the ones who are the public face of the government. They are the employees who work behind the scenes, the glue that keeps government functioning properly. While we often hear valid concerns expressed about some deficiencies in government technical or scientific skillsets, rarely do we hear concerns expressed about the need for qualified staff in such functions as contract management, finance, program and project management, customer service representatives, and various administrative support functions. Many of these people have toiled for decades to ensure that programs function properly, projects don’t fail, contracts are awarded in a timely manner, dollars get spent wisely, paperwork gets processed efficiently, regulations get developed fairly and many other areas.
Contrary to what many believe about government employees and contractors, I saw these unsung heroes often work nights and weekends to ensure vital operations were kept functioning or fixed problems when they occurred. Projects that dwarf what most private sector workers will ever do from a sheer size, complexity, and political pressure are looked at as failures if they don’t work perfectly.
Every major area that needs government involvement, has a large group of staff providing the necessary support for the overall effort. When 9-11 occurred, much was written about the public responders who suffered greatly that day. What was not written about were the countless stories of people working for the Social Security Administration and other government agencies who made sure that the families of the fallen got the benefits they deserved. The Federal Building in Downtown Manhattan is close to the World Trade Center and some of the SSA staff working on 9-11 actually saw the terrified faces of passengers as the two planes passed by their building shortly before they slammed into the Towers, so it was personal to them.
The people that I relied on when I was a government executive were not looking for public recognition but they did appreciate it if I showed the empathy and understanding to support them in what were often thankless but critical jobs. And when they retire and finally pass, their obituaries are often not written or perhaps given a sentence or two that notes the titles of the jobs they performed and where but no indication of why those jobs mattered. So please take a minute this week to express your appreciation to the many people who serve our country as public employees and contractors. And while you are doing that, take a little more time to think about the ones behind the scenes who support our country in multiple ways that will never be known.