I’ve watched a lot of football games over the years, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I fully realized just how obsessed we are with the highlight reels of acrobatic catches, elusive runs and bone-jarring tackles.
Too bad the same recognition can’t be bestowed on federal workers and the big plays they make every day.
Instead, we get the 24/7 version of ESPN’s “C’mon man” aimed at federal employees. We hear the loud and sometimes shrill voices that tell us what government and federal workers have done wrong. Little attention is given to the important successes and the inspiring contributions of our nation’s federal civil servants.
Earlier this month, the Partnership for Public Service recognized nine outstanding federal employees for their contributions with the Service to America Medals (Sammies). Like many others in government, the Sammies winners and finalists answered the call to serve our nation and placed public service over personal gain.
I had the privilege of sitting at a table with Paul Hsieh, the Federal Employee of the Year. Until the Sammies, Paul’s story had gone virtually unknown. While millions were railing against government’s performance in the wake of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Paul was providing critical scientific information to convince federal officials that the containment cap on the ruptured well was working, helping bring an end to the environmental disaster.
Then there was Alfonso Batres and Ann Martin, two federal employees on the opposite ends of their careers. Batres, the Career Achievement medalist, devoted his work life to building a national network of small, community-based centers where veterans traumatized by combat obtain counseling, job assistance, medical referrals and other services. At the other end of the spectrum, 29-year-old Martin collaborated with Mexican officials, helping disrupt the laundering of billions of dollars derived from illegal U.S. narcotics sales.
In listening to the comments of these three dedicated public servants and other the Sammies winners, what was even more remarkable than their accomplishments was their sense of humility. None of them did a celebratory dance. Like thousands of outstanding federal employees, they simply did their jobs protecting the environment, caring for veterans, safeguarding our borders and providing countless services needed and expected by the American people.
Yes, our government can and should improve. As with any endeavor, problems arise, things go wrong and some employees fail to make the grade. But it is in everyone’s interest, particularly in these difficult times, to play a part in making our government more effective, not tearing down its workers or resorting to stereotypes. For those that do, “C’mon man!”
As a federal employee or manager, you have a major role to play in telling the true story of government and of those who put service above self. Stand up and recognize the work that your employees and colleagues do every day.
This doesn’t have to cost money, just a little investment of time.
Recently, I saw a team of employees take matters into their own hands. Whenever they saw a co-worker make an outstanding contribution, the team recognized that individual with the “big fish” award. It wasn’t getting to put the magnetic fish in their workspace that mattered, although that was pretty cool. It was the recognition that others appreciated their efforts.
Managers, take a few moments to acknowledge your employee’s contributions with a handwritten note, recognition in a staff meeting or a simple “thank you.” (A Sammies nomination wouldn’t hurt either.)
These gestures may not result in a television station dedicated solely to ’round the clock highlights of federal employees or building the broader public recognition our federal workers deserve, but it may help boost battered morale within your agency. In the current environment, that’s a pretty good start.
How are you recognizing your employees’ or colleagues contributions? Share your stories and ideas below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tim McManus is vice president for education and outreach at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.