At Our Service

The conservative assault on government workers is in full swing. Progressives are doing too little to fight back.

By Elbert Ventura

Tagged Government

This past February, President Obama gave a speech at the White House urging Congress to avert looming across-the-board spending cuts—the dreaded “sequester.” Standing behind the President was a human backdrop of emergency responders, our first line of defense and, in the President’s telling, one of the first lines to fall should the $85 billion budget cut take effect.

Predictably, Republicans derided the speech as just another campaign photo-op. If only it had been part of a campaign. For all of the rhetorical defenses of government that Obama has made in the last four years, very rarely has he put a human face to the institution he is defending. Putting first responders on stage with him made clear a point we readily forget: that the government is comprised of people, and that these people make the proper functioning of society possible.

It is no secret that when it comes to the government and the people who staff it, the American public suffers from a yawning empathy gap. In the public mind, the government worker is an undeserving Other, a lazy, untalented shirker who drains public coffers at the expense of hardworking taxpayers. (Full disclosure: My wife, employed by the EPA, is one of these shirkers.)

That image, so tenaciously held for decades, mutated into something of a bogeyman during the Obama era. In the wake of a Wall Street-caused economic crisis, a populist backlash unleashed its fury on…public-sector unions. For its part, the Administration called for a federal pay freeze in 2011—a move that was extended earlier this year despite the fact that the economy has improved. Then came the sequester, a stupid, indiscriminate policy that has resulted in furloughs and pay cuts for public employees, many of whom serve in positions that—like those first responders—hardly seem disposable. And now, the controversy over the IRS has only compounded the government worker’s image problem.

Has there been a worse time in recent history to be a public worker? An Office of Personnel and Management survey of federal employees from last December found morale slipping across the board, in some cases drastically. From the Social Security Administration to Veterans Affairs to the National Science Foundation, employees reported high levels of frustration from a combination of pay freezes, increasing workloads, understaffed offices, and—perhaps most important—constant criticism of the government workforce by the media and the public. As Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, put it in a 2010 story on falling public-sector morale, “No one wants to walk into their house after a long day of work and be disparaged about how everything they’re doing is wrong.”

The conservative assault on the public worker has been unstinting in the age of Obama. Perhaps the most damaging of the GOP’s moves has been one that it didn’t make: the refusal to lift a finger to provide more assistance to state and local governments during the recession. The result: the largest decline in public-sector jobs since World War II during Obama’s first term. Even as public workers were buffeted by layoffs and a stuttering economy, they faced a fever-pitch campaign to decimate their unions in GOP-led states—Wisconsin, New Jersey, Michigan, to name a few. Public-sector employees are “a new privileged class in America,” said Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. The animus was shared by many of their fellow Americans, surveys showed.

It would be reassuring for public servants to hear that sequestration is the culmination of a decades-long assault on their livelihood—at least that would mean an end is in sight. But it wouldn’t be true. Because the battle the right is engaged in doesn’t have an end. Government is always too big; the government worker will always be paid too well. Conservatives know that to concede that there is a point at which government becomes a reasonable presence in American life is to give up their entire fight. It is a fact about the modern conservative movement that progressives, both in the establishment and out, have failed to apprehend.

The progressive tendency toward technocratic competence has been exploited well by conservatives. In response to those complaints about big government and pampered employees, progressives have said, “Why yes, we can make government smaller and the workforce more efficient.” Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” is often trotted out as Exhibit A in this history. And indeed, as John Gravois recounted in the Washington Monthly, when the Clinton Administration’s Reinventing Government initiative “tallied its accomplishments in 1998, at the top of its list was cutting the federal workforce by 351,000 civil servants.”

Obama’s new budget continues that progressive tradition of defensiveness. To be sure, the budget offers a nice tribute to federal workers: “Whether defending our homeland, restoring confidence in our financial system and supporting a historic economic recovery effort, providing health care to our veterans, conducting diplomacy abroad, providing relief to Hurricane Sandy victims, or searching for cures to the most vexing diseases, we are fortunate to be able to rely upon a skilled workforce committed to public service.” And it does give the federal workforce a 1 percent pay raise in 2014—not much, but an improvement over a three-year pay freeze. But it notes with pride, “The size of the Federal civilian workforce relative to the country’s population has declined dramatically over the last several decades…. In overall terms, today’s workforce remains the size it was under President Reagan.” Indeed, there are roughly as many federal employees today as there were at the end of 2008. Meanwhile, at the state and local level, there are nearly 700,000 fewer jobs since then. Whether or not we have the civil servants that we need is left unaddressed—all that matters is that there are fewer of them.

The effect of the relentless chipping away at the public workforce has been the affirmation of Republican claims of the government as an inept behemoth, or worse. Agencies from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Pentagon to the IRS have been understaffed—and overwhelmed. Conservatives might try to make the IRS scandal a story about Administration perfidy, but reports to date suggest that the Tea Party targeting had less to do with ideology than an understaffed office struggling to deal with a sudden flood of applications for tax exemption. Indeed, against deep-pocketed interest groups who can throw armies of lawyers and file countless lawsuits to tie up rules and regulations, the public servants at these agencies stand no chance. The sequester only compounds the problem: Think of unmanned airport towers, fewer services for tourists at national parks, and on and on. The result is a government that actually stops working, affirming conservative claims that government is a mess, even corrupt—and therefore should be cut even further.

It nearly goes without saying that conservatives have not given the Obama Administration credit for its efforts to hold the federal workforce to Reagan-era levels. The government is still too big; the government worker is still paid too well. And so we look still for places to cut.

The slow-motion collapse of the quality and size of the public workforce has been abetted by an otherwise encouraging development: the growing appeal of the nonprofit sector to young, idealistic progressives. These days, many of our smartest graduates who want to make a difference don’t even consider going into government or politics. (Yes, there was a small rise in the number of young people who went into the federal government during the recession, but that can be explained by the paucity of private-sector jobs and the brief addition of federal jobs from the stimulus.)

The burgeoning of the nonprofit and social-enterprise sector in the last couple of decades—along with stories of agencies without the manpower and talent to face off against special interests—suggests that high-achieving recent grads may be setting their sights at nonprofits at the expense of the public sector. Data is hard to come by, but some progressives have taken notice. Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, the leading information service for nonprofits, told me in an email, “For the last couple of decades, fewer smart young progressives have been going to work in government,” choosing nonprofits and social enterprise instead. “The reasons are pretty obvious: perceptions (though not always realities) of more flexibility, more impact, stronger culture, smarter colleagues, and bigger salaries.”

That can cause a pernicious feedback loop: Because perceptions of government are dim, talented people don’t want to go there, making perceptions even dimmer. To be sure, many brilliant young people did go into government service these last few years, and will continue to do so in the years to come. New leaders like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, recent achievements like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Obamacare, and the continuing appeal of the President have inspired many young people to join the ranks of the public sector (indeed, I know a few of them). And there are growing signs that city government has become a point of entry for public-minded progressives. But given the thrashing government workers have received and the berserk nature of our politics, one can’t blame young idealists for skipping government and politics altogether. While that’s been great for nonprofits—and their rise as as a countervailing force against corporate interests is welcome—it might come at the cost of making government seem even more ineffective and unappealing.

Indeed, one thing that’s been missing from the progressive movement is a sustained campaign to elevate the public worker. We have done a good job of generating ideas, crafting messages, and mobilizing voters. But as our editor wrote in these pages not long ago, we’ve failed at selling government—and, by extension, public employees. How come the National Institutes of Health scientists who worked on the Human Genome Project aren’t household names? Why is it not common knowledge that Sergey Brin—one of the founders of Google—was a National Science Foundation fellow? What about the dozens of other innovators and scientists who owe their breakthroughs to government funding and research? (The next time conservatives yell “Solyndra,” send them the link to the Science Coalition’s website, which tallies publicly funded R&D success stories.)

But our appreciation need not be limited to superstars: Public employees involved in the mundane workings of daily life deserve our thanks too. What kind of effect would it have for the public servant’s image if the President highlighted one of them every month? Think not just of usual suspects like teachers, police, and firefighters, but also people in jobs that are less heralded: a test driver for auto safety, a Medicare claims processor, a nurse at an Air Force base, a meteorologist who tracks hurricanes. What if our leading progressive think tanks made the promotion of government service a key plank in their missions, urging progressives to consider not just supporting the government from the outside but to strengthen it from within? This kind of mobilization is something that shouldn’t just happen when conservative governors decide to cut public-sector jobs, or when disasters like the bombings in Boston remind us of the public servants we take for granted. This needs to be a relentless push to refurbish the image of the public worker—to remind the public that behind that abstraction is a person, and that person performs a service for us.

The assumption that Americans have bought into for too long is that there are too many public employees and that they cost too much money. The idea progressives need to hammer home is that we need a government that is fully staffed for the challenges of a country our size, and that can compete with the private sector in drawing our smartest, bravest, most motivated workers. In a recent speech President Obama stated the case plainly: “The government’s us.” It’s about time we acted like it.

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Elbert Ventura is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review.

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