In praise of good geeks
— Especially in an election year, federal employees make a tempting target. They are, in the popular imagining, entitled and entrenched, unresponsive to the public for whom they work and uninterested in anything but collecting a paycheck and a cushy pension. You never hear the phrase “bureaucrats in Washington” in a sentence that ends on a positive note.
The antidote to this unwarranted and corrosive derision arrives every year in the form of the Partnership for Public Service and its Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Better known as the Sammies, the awards recognize the best of America’s public servants — people you’ve never heard of, who never expected you’d hear of them, but who work long hours for less pay than they could receive in the private sector, to make this a better country and to keep its citizens healthier, safer and more prosperous.
They tend — sorry folks — to be more than a bit nerdy and even more obsessive. The Sammies are Oscars for good government geeks.
Like Paul McGann, Jean Moody-Williams and Dennis Wagner at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the 2016 Federal Employees of the Year. They launched a program to decrease hospital-acquired infections and other conditions by 40 percent and to lower hospital readmissions by 20 percent, bringing together doctors, nurses, hospitals and patients to achieve systemic change. Over four years, their efforts resulted in an estimated 2.1 million fewer patients harmed, 87,000 lives saved and almost $20 billion in cost savings.
Like Justice Department lawyers Thomas Mariani, Steven O’Rourke and Sarah Himmelhoch, winners of the 2016 Homeland Security and Law Enforcement Medal. They secured a recordbreaking $20.8 billion settlement with BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that dumped almost 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Like Kathleen Hogan, winner of the 2016 Career Achievement Medal, who pioneered initiatives such as the Energy Star efficiency certification program. And the FBI’s Kirk Yeager, the bolo tie-wearing chief explosives scientist at the FBI and winner of the 2016 National Security and International Affairs Medal, who has been called into nearly every major bombing investigation in recent years, from Brussels to Boston to Times Square.
And Jaques Reifman, a Brazilian-born nuclear engineer who, as a senior Army research scientist, led a team on a 10-year quest to develop a portable battlefield computer system to detect uncontrolled hemorrhaging in wounded soldiers. Using pattern-recognition algorithms to interpret vital signs, Reifman’s project, which won him and his team the 2016 Science and Environment Medal, helps identify those with internal bleeding who need transfusions and immediate evacuation.
I could go on, and I am sorry not to be able to describe in detail all the winners (Secret Service agent Tate Jarrow, a cybercrime expert who went after the largest theft of computer data from a U.S. financial institution in history; Lisa Jones, who oversees a Treasury Department effort to spur economic development in low-income communities by guaranteeing low-cost loans; William Burel, director of the $7 billion Strategic National Stockpile at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who scrambled to respond to the Ebola epidemic and a botulism outbreak; Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose Operation Crash targeted smuggling of rhino horns and elephant ivory).
Indeed, I had the privilege of serving on the selection committee for this year’s awards, and the task of choosing among the various finalists turned out to be harder than anticipated: So many worthy contenders had done such impressive work.
Two themes were particularly striking in listening to the honorees’ remarks at the awards ceremony Tuesday night. One was the gratitude toward family for putting up with the late nights and missed events. As the FBI’s Yeager noted, “’Hey, guess what, I’m going to Gaza tomorrow’that tries anyone’s patience.”
Another was the emphasis on the team over the individual. Achieving big change, whether in the public or private sector, is not an individual sport.
In an age when “cynicism sells,” as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough noted at the ceremony, the awards serve as “a reminder of why we got into public service in the first place.”
For the rest of us, they offer a reminder that the faceless bureaucrats have faces, and families, and a fierce dedication to the public good that the rest of us too often take for granted, if not ignore altogether.
Ruth Marcus is a syndicated columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.