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!


Leadership Matters

Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator, USAID

The new administrator of the long-rudderless U.S. Agency for International Development is a real-time case study of how leadership matters. Rajiv Shah, 36, stepped into the job just five days before the devastating earthquake shattered Haiti.  According to the Washington Post, Shah suddenly found himself designated the “unified disaster coordinator” and in meetings with the President in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House.  He’s been getting rave reviews for his quick response, especially without any time for a learning curve.

In Shah’s case, being in the right place at the right time was fortuitous.  A recent report by the Partnership on Public Service on President Obama’s transition, one year into his administration, cited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July 2009 saying she was vexed by the long-standing USAID vacancy, “The clearance and vetting process is a nightmare. . . It is frustrating beyond words.”

The Washington Post’s “Head Count” database, which tracks the top 516 political positions, notes that over 40 percent of these positions are still vacant.  This includes critical positions such as the head of the Transportation Security Agency, which had to respond to the Christmas terror attempt, and the head of the General Services Administration, which received a 1,100 percent budget increase this past year as part of the stimulus bill.

The Partnership report concludes that the appointment clearance, vetting, and confirmation processes have been “intractable problems for a long time, and altering the status quo will mean a new mindset and strong leadership in the Senate, and cooperation from the president.”  The contrast between the leadership vacuum at GSA and the rapid response of USAID in Haiti show that an operational appointment process does matter.


A “twofer” is when you get two of something at once – sort of two for the price of one. That’s what you would have gotten if you were at the National Press Club yesterday morning. At 9:00 am, the Partnership for Public Service released their new report: Ready to Govern: Improving the Presidential Transition. The report outlines steps to improve the presidential transition process – a process that relies too much on “hope and luck” according to the Partnership’s Max Stier.  At 10:00 am, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration released a joint report “Choosing the Nation’s Fiscal Future” offering U.S. leaders ways to address the nation’s fiscal problems and confront its rapidly growing debt.  Two sets of thoughtful reports with sensible recommendations for dealing with two sets of important public policy issues.

Improving the Presidential Transition

On Wednesday, January 13, approaching the first year anniversary of the Obama administration, the Partnership for Public Service will release a report entitled, Ready to Govern: Improving the Presidential Transition, on improving the presidential transition. Based on exclusive interviews with key transition officials from both the Obama and McCain campaigns, and the Bush White House, this report examines the transition beginning early 2008 through the President’s first year in office. 

The report offers recommendations to the White House, campaigns and Congress include making major fixes to  the Presidential Transition Act, so the next president can be ready to govern on day one. According to the Partnership, Ready to Govern will be available at 

At the report release, a panel, including Martha Kumar, Director, White House Transition Project, will discuss the report’s findings and recommendations.  Martha outlined some of her insights on the  most recent presidential transition in the latest edition of the Center’s  Fall/Winter 2009 issue of The Business of Government Magazine , in an article entitled, Government Security Initiatives with an Impact on the Transition.

Here’s an excerpt:   

Martha Kumar, Director, The White House Transition Project

One of the aspects that makes the 2008-2009 transition such a well thought out one is the groundwork laid by government actions taken to enhance national security. The Congress and the president viewed a smooth transition a national security necessity and both branches took action on issues related to getting a new administration up and running as soon as possible. The impetus for much of their preparatory work was the events of September 11, 2001. The attacks on the United States that day had a substantial impact on the shape of the 2008-2009 transition. In two particular subject areas discussed here, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States [the 9-11 Commission] recommendations shaped the course of the 2008-2009 presidential transition. Security clearances for administration nominees and contingency crisis plans are areas where Congress and the administration took action.

The focus of this article is the thoughts and reflections of those involved in the most recent presidential transition on these two issues: security clearances for administration nominees and contingency crisis plans. Developed through interviews I conducted with those active in the transition, the piece describes the actions officials took and their thoughts about what happened during the pre-presidential period in preparing for a smooth handoff of power.

The 2008-2009 transition taught us that all benefit when a president directs early and thorough preparations for the change of administrations.  At the direction of President Bush, Joshua Bolten guided a government-wide effort to define and then meet the needs of the new administration. Presidents today cannot afford to let preparations wait until after the election. Through legislation, executive direction, and individual effort, the Congress, President Bush, and career and political officials in the departments and agencies all worked hard at preparing the next president and his team for the responsibilities of governing, especially in the national security area. 

Download a copy of the article: Government Security Initiatives with an Impact on the Transition

Listen to an interview with Martha Kumar on presidential transitions: The Business of Government Hour

Join us next week for a Special Edition of The Business of Government Hour  as Martha will be our guest and provide more insights on the last presidential transition.

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!

Federal Jobs: A New Era

The Washington Post reports that the Partnership for Public Service released a study this morning describing the FHCS2006_Banner1hiring needs of the federal government.  The study, “Where the Jobs Are 2009:  Mission Critical Opportunities for America,” says that the federal government needs to hire 273,000 new workers in the next three years. 

The Post’s Joe Davidson, in an interview with the Partnership’s president, Max Stier, learned that the government actually needs to hire about 600,000 people by 2012 (replacing nearly one-third of the existing workforce) to backfill expected retirements and some new positions.  But of these, 273,000 are “mission critical.”

Sixteen years ago this month, Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review released its initial report.  Its most controversial recommendation:  the federal government should cut its workforce by 252,000.  These cuts were targeted at the “structures of control and micromanagement” and intended to empower line employees to focus on their customers and get their work done with less red tape.

 What a difference 16 years has made!

Sixteen years ago, the concern was too much bureaucracy.  One-third of the civil service was seen as working in “overhead” jobs – personnel, budget, contracting, auditing, accounting, headquarters, middle managers – and cuts were made.  Part of the intent was to “reinvest” some of the staff cut from these positions into front-line service delivery, but that didn’t happen.

Interestingly, some of what was seen as “overhead” sixteen years ago is now seen as “mission critical.”  The government is seen to need more contracting officers, for example.  But the real staffing needs, according to the Partnership, are in three mission-critical areas:  (1) medical and public health, (2) security and protection, and (3) compliance and enforcement.  Here is a graph of other mission critical jobs.