The past three weeks worth of news reports about GSA‘s lavish convention spending and indiscretions by Secret Service agents–and the inquisitions on Capitol Hill in response–could already fill a few hard drives.

So it always a bit baffling to see how little attention the media–and Congress–give federal agencies and government executives when they do get things right.

That point was hard to miss last night at a ceremony held in the State Department’s historic Diplomatic Reception Rooms where 54 senior government executives were honored with the nation’s highest civil service awards, joining the Presidential Ranks of Distinguished Executive and Distinguished Professionals. The ceremony, now in its 27th year, was sponsored by the Senior Executive Association, where SEA president Carol Bonosaro announced this year’s honorees (pictured above).

Karen Mills, adminstrator of the Small Business Administration, also praised the executives on behalf of the Obama administration, saying that while the secretaries and administrators may be the caretakers of government, “You are the heart and soul, you are the mentors and role models…of your offices.”

As we and others have reported, there’s little question that a handful of GSA officials wrongfully squandered several hundred thousands of taxpayer dollars.

But contrast that with the estimated $36 billion these 54 senior executives, and the teams they lead, reportedly saved (or will save) American taxpayers, which received virtually no attention from the media or Congress. Extraordinary efforts from senior public servants who, for instance:

  • Led the development and implementation of processes and tools that reduced improper Medicare payments that is expected to save taxpayers $12 billion a year. Thank you Deborah A. Taylor, chief financial officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
  • Assessed and terminated airborne laser and other anti-missile defense programs; and terminated a satellite program after demonstrating that its bandwidth requirements far exceeded expected communications needs, saving taxpayers $11 billion and $4 billion respectively. Thank you Dr. Scott Comes, Deputy Director for Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
  • Spearheaded the concept of High Velocity Maintenance for high-risk aircraft and took innovative approaches to incentive contractors on simulator and logistics support programs, saving taxpayers more than $2 billion. Thank you Dr. Steven Butler, Executive Director, Air Force Materiel Command.
  • Developed a way to support military spouses, but reduced the Defense Department’s annual liability, saving taxpayers an estimated $750 million a year. Thank you Virginia Penrod, Under Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
  • Reduced high risk contracts by 25% and overall contract spending at the USDA by 4.6% saving taxpayers a combined $180 million in 2011. Thank you Robin Heard, Director, Easement Programs Division, at USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

While we don’t have access to the records that prove these savings, and it’s worth holding out some skepticism as to how real these savings are, it is nevertheless safe to say that the process for recognizing the 1% of SES members who are chosen each year to receive this honor (and a sizable cash award) is a rigorous one.

So what is it about human nature that so many are so quick to catapult our human failings into the searing media spotlight and yet be so blasé when our neighbors and colleagues manage to produce accomplishments for which Americans can and should be proud?

Part of the answer is probably best summed up by what happens whenever there’s an accident on the road: We abhor the rubberneckers, anxious to be on our way, but can’t refrain from slowing down and taking a look ourselves. Rarely do we give much thought to the times when traffic is actually cooperating.

Similarly, it’s easier to focus on the accidents of government rather than the accomplishments. One reason is that it’s much harder see those accomplishments in the form of a single event. Another is how hard it is to verify the savings and accomplishments compared to the audit trail of an inspector general’s report. Still Congress and the media could certainly do more to highlight what is going right in government.

Consider just a few more of those accomplishments by public servants whose work for the nation and the world thankfully got a glimmer of recognition last night–executives, for instance, whose efforts:

• Led to improving nuclear and biological sensors — including technology that can be incorporated into soldier backpacks, ground vehicles, or helicopters.

• Formed the architecture of two historic programs to reduce toxic emissions from cars, trucks and buses; one of which eliminated the air pollution equivalent to removing 166 million cars from the road.

• Led research that resulted in all mattresses sold in the US now burning at less than 1/10th the rate of prior mattresses and aircraft cabin lining material that poses minimal fire threat in a survivable crash.

• Protected 38 Endangered Species and three dozen affected National Wildlife Refuges following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

• Reduced multifamily housing loan processing time by almost 40% without an increase in resources but a three-fold increase in volume.

• Led to Social Security Administration programs disbursing $13 billion to 57 million people with a 98% overall satisfaction rating.

• Helped intercept with pinpoint accuracy a satellite in decaying orbit which posed a significant threat to populated areas had the intercept mission failed.

• Led to meeting every deadline in implementing the fast-track American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, utilizing $48 billion to fund more than 15,000 projects in 50 states.

• Contained the spread of contaminated corn in the $25 billion corn market stemming from the first occurrence of an unauthorized release of a genetically-modified grain.

• Developed and demonstrated technologies for hypersonic aircraft setting a new record of Mach 10.

• Established a new Army Contracting Command, with personnel in 117 worldwide locations, awarding and managing $97 billion of contractual actions each year, 19% of all Federal contract dollars. It was the first time in history that a Senior Executive Service member was put in charge of a military command.

• Led to implementing a standard accounting system at the 52 insurance companies that process and pay the claims to almost 2 million health care providers, the largest accounting system in the world.

• Led to developing and improving the Internet Time Service, which synchronizes clocks in computers and network devices more than 4 billion times every day with an accuracy of better than a billionth of a second per day for navigation, precision instruments, telecommunications, radar and other surveillance.

There is no question we need to be vigilant about–and intolerant when we find– waste, abuse and mismanagement in government. But the virtual tar and feathering of the entire federal workforce that seems to be taking place yet again in the wake of the GSA scandal, because of individuals who choose to ignore the rules, is a disservice to the ideals of public service that have helped define America.

Those ideals were on stirring display last night–not only in the remarkable collection of historic artifacts assembled on the top floor of the State Department, including the original Treaty of Paris–but in the men and women who rose to be recognized by their peers and their senior leadership for their work and accomplishments.

They included:

USDA
Steven J. Carlson
Dr. John R. Clifford
Robin Heard
Ralph A. Linden
Karen A. Messmore

Commerce
Dr. Richard G. Gann
Dr. Judah Levine
Dr. Jeffrey W. Lynn

Office of the Secretary of Defense
Douglas J. Bruder
Dr. Scott A. Comes
Keith L. Englander
Kevin P. Meiners
Virginia S. Penrod

Defense Intelligence Agency
Dr. David B. Dorman

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
Barry M. Barlow
Eric R. Benn

National Security Agency
Frances J. Fleisch
Richard H. Ledgett, Jr.
Margaret Salter
Gregory Starkey

Army
Teresa W. Gerton
Jeffrey P. Parsons
Karl F. Schneider
Brian M. Simmons

Navy
Charles E. Cook

Health and Human Services
Dr. Marcia K. Brand
Dr. Theresa M. Mullin
Donald E. Shriber
Deborah A. Taylor

Homeland Security
Dr. Steven P. Bucher
Jeffrey G. Lantz

Housing and Urban Development
Janet Marie Golrich

Interior
Dr. Rowan W. Gould

Justice
Edwin S. Kneedler

Drug Enforcement Agency
Frank M. Kalder

FBI
Sean M. Joyce
Eric Velez-Villar

State
James L. Millette

Transportation
Paul M. Geier
Lana T. Hurdle
Craig H. Middlebrook

Treasury
Peter A. Bieger

Veterans Affairs
Steven P. Kleinglass
Patrick L. Sullivan

Environmental Protective Agency
Chester J. France
Dr. A. Stanley Meiburg

NASA
Luat T. Nguyen

National Science Foundation Office of the Inspector General
Dr. Peggy L. Fischer

Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Mark W. Ewing
Marilyn A. Vacca

Small Business Administration
James E. Rivera

Social Security Administration
Michael W. Grochowski