Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Bleeding the federal workforce

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

After 17 terms serving in Congress, Rep. Frank R. Wolf announced plans to retire at the end of this year. Wolf, a Republican from Northern Virginia, has been a longtime advocate for federal workers. And in this interview, Wolf speaks about problems confronting the federal civil service Fox. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the state of today’s federal workforce?

A high point for federal employees was during the Kennedy administration when President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” There was a sense of pride — that was the heyday.

I don’t sense that the president really cares about federal employees, because when the Congress comes out with something bad, you very seldom see the administration push back. You are finding tremendous morale problems in the federal government. This is bad because if you continue to criticize, you begin to beat them down. I think morale is probably at the lowest point I’ve seen it.

In this climate, what do federal agencies need to do to attract and motivate high quality people?

There always will be interest in working for the federal government as long as young people have hopes and dreams and imaginations. For instance, a young person at the State Department probably has more responsibility in an embassy than they would in the corporate world. Young FBI agents work on counterterrorist cases and have a great impact.

In government, you’ll always be working on issues that are really significant and relevant. I see a lot of new people come in and I think they’re pretty good. But we can’t keep knocking and criticizing and condemning the federal government.

Are there any changes Congress could make to improve the federal civil service?

I don’t think you are going to find many good legislative changes coming out of the Congress or the Obama Administration. The administration is winding down, and right after this election the Cabinet will be bailing out. They didn’t have any vision in the first six years, and they’re not going to have any the last two. So don’t look to the executive branch or Congress to have any constructive fixes.

Are there any initiatives affecting federal workers that you are worried about?

Yes, cutting the pensions. They have already cut their pensions, and they have frozen pay. Hedge fund operators on Wall Street are making millions, and we’re freezing the salaries of cancer researchers and FBI agents working on counterterrorism cases. Where does it end? The pay freeze went on for three years. We need something fairly dramatic to reverse the momentum.

What would you like the American public to know about the federal workforce and the work that they do?

Federal workers impact all of our lives. If you have concerns about flying into your local airport, it’s your air traffic controller who is bringing you in safely. If you’re worried about an outbreak of a disease, it’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The people who keep drugs from pouring across the country are federal employees. If you live near a national park, who is fighting the forest fires? Federal employees.

In terms of federal service, break down the roles and what they do — and then translate that into the impact on the average person. I don’t think that’s been done lately. We have had a president who hasn’t thought to defend federal workers and Congress hasn’t been good either, so you’ve had a double negative at the same time.

How can we turn the tide?

Maybe we need a national blue ribbon panel that lays out the critical role federal employees are playing and the services they provide. The panel could help tell what federal employees are doing in critical areas and look to see how we can improve morale. I think the attacks are really going to continue unless there’s some kind of red line drawn to stop the hemorrhaging.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Oct 21, 2014 at 12:55 PM

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