In praise of good gov­ern­ment geeks

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus Colum­nist Ruth Mar­cus is syn­di­cated by the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

WASH­ING­TON >> 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.

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