Mocking Public Service

National Public Service Award

Just in time for the national Public Service Recognition Week, Saturday Night Live aired a biting satire:  “The 2010 Public Employee of the Year Award.” In the skit, several finalists for the award strut their stuff.  For example, a fictitious Markeesha Odom says she helped lead her DMV team to ensure no one received a drivers license over the course of a full day!  And the fictitious ceremony was held in a filled hall in Harrah’s in Las Vegas (which Sen. Harry Reid would approve!).

An ongoing dialogue on GovLoop swings between bemusement and outrage over the skit, but the skit reached a national audience.  Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the National Public Service Award was presented to five distinguished public servants.  The presentation was made in San Jose at a small luncheon during the conference of the American Society for Public Administration.  However, distinguished participants in the ceremony included both former Comptroller General David Walker and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.  Recipients include:

  • the current head of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry;
  • veteran city manager Ted Gaebler;
  • GAO veteran Sallyanne Harper;
  • a scientist at NIH, Kenneth Kraemer; and
  • Bernard Melekian, a former police chief and current head of the Justice Department’s community policing program.

The award has been given since 1983 as a way of recognizing the heroes in public service.  But it hasn’t received much media attention.

Nevertheless, the effort to recognize public service, however, is making progress.  President Obama talks about “making public service cool again.”  The Partnership for Public Service annually presents its Service to America Medals at a grand celebration each Fall in Washington to recognize accomplishments.  And more recently, Senator Ted Kaufman has been recognizing “Great Feds” weekly in the Congressional Record, and the Washington Post has been weekly recognizing federal employees in its “Federal Players” column.

In addition, the IBM Center’s weekly radio show has showcased a different federal executive every week, for the past decade.  So I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.  But the timing of the SNL skit may have been a bit much for me!

Recognizing Civil Servants

One of the things I learned working on the Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s for Vice President Gore was that civil servants do some pretty amazing things.  And they get little recognition for it.  But now it’s time to make government cool again!

There has long been recognition for top career senior executives, called the Presidential Rank Award.  The very top level winners are often personally presented their awards by the President.  There is also a monetary award that goes with this recognition.

Vice President Gore created Hammer Awards, which were given to teams of employees whose work exemplified the principles of reinvention:  putting customers first, cutting red tape, and empowering employees to get their work done.  There was no money, just a hammer.  There hasn’t been a similar award since 2001.

While having government recognize its own is important, it is equally important if not more so when the recognition comes from outside the executive branch.  Interestingly, there has been an increase in recognition for civil servants in recent years.

Since 2002, the Partnership for Public Service has sponsored the prestigious Service to America Medal, which will be presented later this month.  Last year, eight civil servants who have made a difference in the lives of others were recognized.

While it isn’t an award, the IBM Center started a weekly radio show ten years ago to learn from, and recognize, leaders and innovators in government.  It also publishes a magazine twice a year with excerpts from these interviews that it then shares widely with their peers in government.  The radio show has interviewed over 350 public managers over the years.

The Washington Post began a new weekly feature earlier this year, “Federal Players,” where it profiles a little-known civil servant who has a big impact.

The latest – and possibly the most interesting – addition to this field comes from Senator Ted Kaufman, from Delaware.  He has committed to tell the story of “Great Feds” — individual civil servants who are making a difference.  And he is telling these stories weekly from the floor of the Senate.

Sen. Kaufman was a former civil servant and an aide to Vice President Joe Biden before being selected to complete the last two years of Biden’s Senate term.  He has announced that he will not run for a full term, so he has nothing to prove.  The Washington Post has dubbed him a “Champion of Civil Service” and quoted him as saying:   “It’s bothered me for the last almost 30 years that people just feel it’s perfectly okay to denigrate federal employees,” Kaufman said yesterday. “It really, really bothers me, because they do make incredible sacrifices.”

The IBM Center has decided to re-post on its homepage a link to the short bios of civil servants selected by Sen. Kaufman for recognition.  We hope you find a way to recognize them as well!