Two key themes emerged at this morning’s Town Hall with top Obama administration officials in honor of Public Service Recognition Week: First, the public often doesn’t understand or appreciate all the things federal employees do for them. And second, that’s partly because a hostile or indifferent press corps only appears interested in federal workers when they throw extravagant Vegas conferences or hire a couple of prostitutes.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius, and acting General Services Administration head Dan Tangherlini spoke with news anchor Cokie Roberts at the Partnership for Public Service’s headquarters today about the difficulties faced by federal agencies trying to spread their message.
The media criticism began with Sebelius, who said recruiting and retaining talented workers “is particularly tough when people are working a zillion hours a day, paid well below market value, and trashed day in and day out in the news media and told that they are incompetent. … [Stories about selfless feds, such as those recognized with Service to America medals] always get page 30, bottom left-hand corner [placement], one nanosecond and they’re gone. So having a little more press balance would really be helpful.”
LaHood followed up on her comments later after lauding the cooperation between Homeland Security and Amtrak to provide security for commuters, as well as the Transportation Security Administration’s airport security:
We know it’s not going to get the headlines unless something goes wrong, but so many things go right. That’s why you don’t see that many headlines about it. Because a lot of stuff goes right. … Think of the good work that’s gone on for more than 10 years by TSA federal employees. Not one plane has been brought down by a terrorist. We’d all love to have a track record like that.
Sebelius advised agencies to reach out to media organizations throughout the nation, beyond the Washington Beltway:
Sometimes it’s easier, I find, to get outside of DC and shine a bright light on a regional office for work that’s going on. Oftentimes, the press is cynical inside the Beltway and end up on a “gotcha” kind of media. The local press is often delighted to print those stories [about employees doing good jobs and delivering services].
The press wasn’t the only villain criticized by the Cabinet members. LaHood said excessive partisanship and gridlock in Congress is hurting feds, most of whom come to government to serve a higher purpose. “Unfortunately, what we have in at least one house of Congress is people who came to do nothing,” LaHood said, referring to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. “And that’s basically what they’ve been doing for the last year and a half. I know what good Congress can do when they put their minds to it.”
Sebelius also criticized “people who have sought public office to really dismantle government. Anything involved with the government has to be bad. Whether it’s cutting out education funding, or health programs, the things that typically were seen as public good, public service, we come together to do the things we can’t do one at a time. That attitude, unfortunately, has changed among some of the people who now are serving in office, and see that any progress made on anything by government is inherently wrong.”
And the annual budget process ends up a victim of the gridlock in Congress, Tangherlini said, which makes things tougher for the feds who have to actually get things done.
Napolitano also criticized Congress’ inability to get budgets passed and the recurring threat of a government shutdown:
Oftentimes we’re operating without [a budget]. We’re trying to guess what it’s going to be. There’s no CEO in the country that has to deal with the sort of uncertainty we have about budgets, and coming right up to the edge of closing down the government — that’s not a morale builder for the federal workforce.