There is no doubt that the lavish spending by General Services Administration‘s Las Vegas conference planners and the dishonorable behavior by Secret Service agents in Colombia have earned the public’s contempt, but the irresponsible actions of a few don’t define the many.
These incidents made headlines because they are the exception, not the rule. We would do well as a nation not to simply berate and punish the wrongdoers, but also to recognize that our government and the vast majority of its 2.1 million employees each day are honorably serving the nation, and in many cases, accomplishing amazing feats.
There will be additional congressional hearings on the two recent scandals and a number of investigations are in progress. There is legislation to place limits on how much government conferences can cost and how many federal employees can attend, and new ethics rules have been instituted for the Secret Service because of the prostitution affair.
All well and good, but another strategy is also in order.
What is the proper response to a government that isn’t giving you what you want? The answer can’t be simply to criticize and tear it down. That strategy hasn’t worked anywhere.
While it’s appropriate to hold the perpetrators accountable, it’s also important to acknowledge the critical role our government plays in our nation’s welfare, to recognize what our government is doing well, and to hold those successes up as models for others to emulate and for the public to see.
You don’t have to look far to find incredible stories of federal employees making a difference in the services the government delivers to the nation’s citizens. Consider:
Dr. Lynne Mofenson, a federal employee at the National Institutes of Health, played a pivotal role in curtailing the transmission of HIV to infants from their mothers. Today, creating an AIDS-free generation, one where no children are born with the HIV infection, is a U.S. policy priority – and it’s possible because of Mofenson’s vision and courage.
Kelly Menzie –DeGraff, an employee at the Corporation for National and Community Service, directed more than 300 AmeriCorps members deployed to Joplin, Mo. after the deadly May 2011 tornado struck the town, killing 161 people and destroying 7,000 homes and businesses. Those 300 AmeriCorps members galvanized the efforts of 60,000 unaffiliated volunteers who came to Joplin to see if they could help, opened a missing person’s hotline, led groups to clear roads and debris, and served meals to shaken residents. Later, they operated a donation warehouse and rebuilt homes across the devastated
Louis Milione, who with a team from the Drug Enforcement Administration, led a high-stakes undercover operation to capture Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer known as the “Merchant of Death” for selling weapons to the Taliban, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Hezbollah and vicious warlords throughout Africa. Milione and his team directed informants posing as Colombian rebels wanting to purchase anti-aircraft weapons and other arms with the goal of killing Americans. As a result of the undercover sting, Bout was arrested in Thailand and convicted in 2011 in New York. He is now serving a 25 year prison sentence, making Americans and people around the world much safer.
There are hundreds of successes like these that range from medical and scientific advances for amputees, the treatment of diabetes in children, to helping disadvantaged Americans file their taxes and the saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars through smart procurement practices. The breadth and depth of our federal workforce and its accomplishments too often goes unnoticed.
Perhaps if the work of people like Mofenson, Menzie-DeGraff and Milione received the attention they deserve, Americans might have a vastly different perception of their government and what it does for them. We also might have a government that delivered more of the results that we need.
Max Stier is president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which each years recognizes the outstanding work of federal employees through its Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal awards.