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By Steve Kelman

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A Fourth of July shout-out to civil servants

Shutterstock image (by Gajus): businessman giving a thumbs up.

I have been working on preparing a webinar for next week, sponsored by the Public Spend Forum, that is directed at companies considering entering the government marketplace for the first time. Much of the material I will be discussing I already know from my own procurement experience, but there are some areas I want to discuss where I have knowledge gaps. 

So this past Saturday morning I shot off an e-mail to Jeffrey Koses, the senior procurement executive at the General Services Administration, with some quite specialized questions -- one about whether the agency provided new vendors with free training about how to develop a blended labor rate for time and materials contracts, and two others that I hoped he could pass on to the head of the agency’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

I was hoping Koses might be working July 3 and get back to me then. Otherwise, I assumed I would need to wait until after the Fourth.

Instead, just a few minutes shy of 5 p.m. on Saturday, a reply came in from Koses. He told me a little about training for vendors on developing blended labor rates, but copied the director for GSA schedule 70. He also copied the small business director on my small business questions.

How many Americans know there are career civil servants out there doing work-related business in the late afternoon of the Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend? Koses was not even responding to a boss’ demand, but just to a (hopefully) nice professor far from Washington. Had I not decided to write this blog (or, before that, post about the exchange on Facebook), nobody would have ever known about how Koses provided help well above and beyond the call of duty.

That sure doesn’t fit the popular stereotype of civil servants.

Nor is this an isolated example. A few years after I returned to Harvard from Washington, the capital was hit by a hurricane that shut down the government. A friend (who, like Koses, worked at GSA) told me that so many people there were working online from home that the demand crashed the agency’s computers.

In 2003, just before Christmas the Department of Agriculture discovered a U.S. case of mad cow disease, which was widely affecting the United Kingdom at the time. As some media noted at the time, USDA civil servants worked through the Christmas holidays trying to track down other possible cases. And I hope many still remember a point sometimes made after 9/11 -- the only people who were climbing up the World Trade Center while everybody else was trying to climb down were firefighters -- civil servants all.

When I posted on Facebook about my correspondence with Koses, my old friend Dave Drabkin, formerly of GSA, replied “It's the norm, not the exception!!!” -- to which Koses himself graciously replied that Drabkin was "absolutely right, it's what most of my colleagues would do."

GSA’s Kelly Olson, who runs Challenge.gov, posted: “This is most of my GSA colleagues...and the ones you never hear about unfortunately. I feel quite blessed to work with so many inspiring and dedicated civil servants every day!” 

One of my colleagues from the Kennedy School posted: “Totally believable... My intro to the Federal Civil Service was as an intern to GSA in the Nixon years. An education in professional grace under pressure that I always remember.”

There was only one dissenter to my Facebook comment, from a Facebook friend who is a Trump supporter. “Maybe those 2% make up a little of the fraud, waste, and abuse of the other 98% of civil servants. They sit at a desk reading newspapers, books, internet websites, or even running their own private business from their government office. All the while talking about being so underpaid!"

To that post, Steve Cooper, a former federal CIO and previously a long-time industry person wrote: “Your comment does not reflect my experience as a federal employee. What I saw was the 98% who are talented, motivated, and dedicated civil servants.”

And by the way, a bit after midnight on Saturday night, the head of GSA Schedule 70 got back to me with a long email responding to my question.

Especially as we are celebrating our nation's birth for the Fourth of July, let's all take out a moment to remember the unheralded and underappreciated service of so many of our career civil servants.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 03, 2017 at 1:15 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 6, 2017 Bruce Waltuck

Thank you for this, Steve. During my nearly 35 years of Federal and regional government service, I and many like me worked day and night at times to serve the citizens of our nation. When colleagues and I learned that a farmer was housing nearly 50 migrant workers in an unheated, infested barn with no sleeping or toilet facilities, we worked past midnight (after a 7am start) to secure transport and safe housing for them all. When employees at the historic Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia needed training for second- and third-shift employees on harassment and discrimination law, I worked with them at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. When the Secretary of Labor needed a speech on Monday morning about our union-management partnership for business process improvement, I dropped my son at Sunday school and went to my office to get it written and to his staff for review. It is what we do. My story is not unique. I knew people giving service like this at the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA, IRS (yes- once upon a not-so-distant time the IRS in Fresno and Ogden, Utah, won awards for-- customer service!). This is the commitment and culture of the Federal service. The great problem we face in the public understanding this truth, is what is journalism schools call the "negativity bias" in media reporting. As they say "dog bites person is not news. Person bites dog is news." So we do not see stories in FCW, Governing, the WaPo or elsewhere, with headlines saying "Everything went pretty much as planned today. The mail came on time. The police patrolled the city. The poultry inspectors checked thousands of chickens. The Army went out on patrols in Afghanistan and Iraq." Instead, the false mantra that "government IS the problem" continues o echo loudly in the nation.... Thank you, Steve, for telling the truth of the good news about dedicated civil servants.

Thu, Jul 6, 2017

But of course it is illegal to "work for free" as a federal employee, right? So, as long as the off-duty work is logged on the timecard and the employee is paid, or compensated via time off, etc., then all is well. From the Dept of Labor site, "The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that covered non-exempt employees receive at least the minimum wage and at least one and one-half times their regular rates of pay for hours worked over 40 in a workweek. In general, "hours worked" includes all time an employee must be on duty, or on the employer's premises or at any other prescribed place of work. Also included is any additional time the employee is allowed (i.e., suffered or permitted) to work. The amount employees should receive under the FLSA cannot be determined without knowing the number of hours worked." (https://www.dol.gov/whd/offtheclock/)

Wed, Jul 5, 2017 LJ Bilmes Cape Cod National Seashore

Thank you Steve. A special shoutout and thank you to the wonderful, dedicated and highly skilled staff at the National Park Service - who spend every July 4th (and every other public holiday) making it possible for millions of Americans and visitors from around the world to enjoy our historical and natural treasures - from giant Sequoias to pristine beaches to iconic monuments and battlefields. Thank You National Park Service!

Wed, Jul 5, 2017

Mr. Kelman, thank you for your comment. This comes from a dedicated federal servant and one that continually believes in serving the public for the last 26 years. Nice to have a good news recognition for the federal government and for GSA.

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