Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Unspoken Cost of a Government Shutdown

I don’t talk much about work on principle.  Talking about work on the internet can be a quick way to get in a lot of trouble, and I’m not particularly interested in dealing with that.  But, given the state of things lately, I’m going to break my silence for a minute.  It turns out, I have something to say.

I work for an organization that supports scientific research that saves lives.  I am surrounded, every day, by engineers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, oceanographers and a bevy of other science-types who are absolutely passionate about the work that they are doing.  These people work nonstop.  Tethered to blackberries and laptops, they answer emails at all hours…tirelessly working even when they’re not working.  Experts in their field, they could be making a tremendous salary elsewhere…but they’ve chosen to work for us because they believe deeply in the mission and are committed to advancing the cause.

In my department, we face the ongoing challenge of doing more with less.  We are continuously on the lookout for new ways of doing business that will allow us to be more productive with fewer people.  We translate complex scientific program explanations into plain English so that our financiers understand why the work of our organization is important.  We are technically bean counters…analysts…but we are called upon daily to be diplomats, strategists, interpreters and writers.

We operate in an environment where savings are taken before they occur – and we are responsible for helping the organization figure out how to make it all balance after the fact.  Whereas a corporation may have the luxury of doing “whatever needs to be done,” so long as it’s not specifically prohibited by law, we may only do those things that have been specifically authorized by law.  We consistently plan five years ahead, all the while realizing that a decision made at 5:00 on a Friday night could change everything and leave us scrambling with a 24-hour deadline to fully catalog and report a new plan.  And so we stay late…we call people at home…we work til midnight.  We do what we must because we know what’s at stake…because we, too, believe strongly in the mission.

And so, when I consider the dedicated, passionate, creative, educated professionals that surround (and, in truth, inspire) me…when I think about my own level of dedication to my work and to the organization…I struggle to reconcile what I see every day with this widely-accepted image of the entitled, overpaid, lazy, irresponsible “Federal Worker.”  I try not to take it personally.  Many of those who perpetuate the stereotype have never met me or my colleagues.  They have no idea what we do or how diligently we do it.  Many simply haven’t experienced the D.C. dynamic first hand at all.  They don’t know what the work environment is like.  They only know us in an anonymous lump:  we are an enormous, faceless, collective…easy to target as an impersonal mass in a quest to shrink the deficit.  “Shut ‘em down!!” I keep reading in though it were just a building with doors.  It’s easy to say when it’s not personal.

So let me take just a minute to make it personal….to put a face to that collective:  mine.  I’m a Federal employee with almost 7 years of service – and I do consider it service.  I grew up in a Midwestern community in the middle of the middle class.  I was able to go to a private college because I busted my butt through high school and got an academic scholarship.  I’m a single mother with a 3rd grader and a mortgage that would make your eyes bleed.  I work hard.  I’m committed to what I do.  I never take my employment, or the responsibilities that come with it, for granted. In short, I’m pretty much just like every other employed person in the nation right now:  grateful for what I have in an economy that is, at best, unstable. 

Not every Federal employee is exactly like me, of course and I’d be naïve to suggest that there aren’t Federal employees who fit the negative stereotype…I’m sure there are.  In any large organization, you can find bad employees…and good employees…and really exceptional employees.  The Federal workforce is no different. 

But I would ask you to bear in mind when you hear talks of a ‘government shutdown’ that it’s not just a political tactic for left or right to crow over…and remember that it’s not Congress that will be out of work.  A government shutdown means that I, along with a couple million of our neighbors across the country, won’t be paid for awhile.  It means millions more mortgages and utility bills and loans are in jeopardy.  It means your income tax refund may be delayed or that museum you wanted to take the kids to might be closed.  But maybe more importantly, it also means that the baby goes out with the bathwater as the non-stereotypes…the smart, dedicated, passionate professionals who have committed to being the hands and feet of our government…find themselves suddenly adrift, faced with the question of whether or not Federal employment is really the best career choice.

And that, in my estimation, is a tragedy.  I believe we, as a nation, need smart, dedicated, passionate professionals in our Federal workforce.  We need their commitment and their creativity and their willingness to work under crazy conditions.  We need their exuberance and their unfailing belief in the mission.  We need them to continue to look for ways to do more with less…and we need them to be willing and able to weather the ups and downs of the political dynamic.  We need Federal employment to be an attractive option for these people because we need the behind-the-scenes operation of our country to be in the hands of those who will work tirelessly to run it as effectively as possible.  Shutdowns, hiring freezes, and denial of pay associated with promotions put our nation at risk of losing the best minds in the Federal workforce to more lucrative positions in the private sector.

If, in the quest to fix our economy, we make Federal employment too unstable for the best and brightest to consider…if, in our rhetoric, we neglect to acknowledge that Federal employees often make things better, rather than worse…if, in our complacency, we continue to perpetuate the stereotype of the lazy, ineffective Federal employee, we will eventually create a Federal workforce that absolutely embodies that stereotype.  We will reap what we sow… 

…and I’m just not sure we can afford that.

1 comment:

Jerasphere said...

shutting down government is not the answer. i read something the other day that makes perfect sense today...
the only thing that is killing american politics are american politicians.