My message to my former colleagues in the federal government is: Don’t go. Instead, speak truth to power. You are needed now more than ever.
THESE are the worst of times for federal-government employees. Several of the political appointees in the Trump administration are hostile to the missions of the departments and agencies they now lead. On top of that, the president’s hiring freeze will create imbalances in the federal workforce, requiring current employees to fill in random gaps. Many civil servants will simply quit in disgust. I hope they don’t.
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, I was an attorney in the Seattle office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In his first year in office, President Ronald Reagan proceeded to remake our small agency, bringing in new leadership that openly disdained the civil-rights community and its agenda. Some of us joked bitterly that we were becoming the U.S. Commission against Civil Rights. Funding for the commission was drastically reduced. Discouraged, much of the staff, myself included, found employment elsewhere.
Abandoning ship in such circumstances is understandable, but in retrospect I think a mistake. When those civil servants with the strongest commitment to their agency’s mission leave, who remains? Answer: Those less committed and less likely to confront their political masters.
Sure, the most earnest among those who quit the government will carry on their cause from the outside. But ultimately civil rights, environmental protection, enforcement of labor standards cannot be fully realized without governmental action, that is the action of dedicated and experienced civil servants.
My second act as a federal employee was in the U.S. Department of State. There, over a period of 29 years, I worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations and, like any thinking person, agreed with some policies and disagreed with others. But I always believed that my presence and my input, however small, was a net positive and a fulfillment of my oath to serve my country (and not any particular president).
Also, the State Department actively encourages dissent. Without risk of reprisal, any Foreign Service employee can express for consideration an alternative view on a substantive foreign policy issue. This “dissent channel” was used recently to criticize President Donald Trump’s travel and immigration ban on seven majority-Muslim countries. The impact of the writers’ thoughtful and constructive critique was in my view far greater than that of, had they chosen such a route, mass resignations.
Any organization, but especially government, needs its doubters and dissenters. President Trump’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, however, disagrees and said about the Foreign Service officers who made use of the dissent channel, “They should get with the program or they can go.”
My message to my former colleagues in the federal government is: Don’t do Mr. Spicer’s bidding. Don’t go. Instead, speak truth to power. You are needed now more than ever.