An extraordinary public servant, now a little the worse for wear

Steve Kelman checks in with longtime VA leader Ed Meagher, who was recently honored for a lifetime of citizen service.

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I first got to know Ed Meagher at the end of my service in the Clinton administration, when he was a senior IT official at the Department of Veterans Affairs and I was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. We have kept up in the many years since then, mostly through his many posts on Facebook – an example of why I am a big defender of the platform, despite its critics. Face-to-face, though, I think we have seen each other only at a few IT community banquets over the years. I knew even back in the 1990s that he himself was a veteran, though I didn’t know any details. He always struck me as a straight arrow, patriotic and very proud of his government service.

Then I recently saw that Ed had just received the lifetime achievement award for "service to the citizens" given by an organization of the same name that longtime General Services Administration official Martha Dorris founded after she left government. I wrote Ed to congratulate him on his award and took the opportunity to learn more about his journey.

He was recognized for three of his activities -- all volunteer efforts helping veterans, but not specifically at the VA -- that he started and ran either by himself or with friends. One was "Friday night dinners" prepared for wounded, ill, and/or recovering vets. A second was called "covert Santa," where wounded vets shared their Christmas wish lists, volunteer "elves" bought items from the list, and the organization then delivered them. A third, founded by those involved in the other two, was called "operation jumpstart" and provided a business suit, a computer, and mentoring to wounded vets trying to re-enter the workforce.

It turned out that Meagher had dropped out of college after his junior year and enlisted in the Air Force. He ended up serving four years, mostly overseas, including a year in Vietnam. "PTSD didn’t exist back in the day," he recalled. "What I had was a bad attitude. I was jumpy, I couldn’t sleep at night, I was angry, I partied too hard. I was pissed at the military, the government and the world in general. I left the U.S. listening to the Beach Boys, and I came back to the Doors, the Grateful Dead and the Stones. I felt like I had missed my youth, that it had been taken from me."

On leaving the military, he worked as an air traffic controller for four years. Then, he said: "I was recruited into the VA by Morley Winograd, Vice President Gore’s chief of staff, based on a totally random recommendation from my fraternity brother, George Molaski, the then-CIO at Transportation, to Jim Flyzik, who was the CIO at Treasury in 1999 and active participant in the reinventing government effort." President Clinton nominated him, and he went over to the VA as a political appointee as a special assistant to the VA Secretary," based on his military service. He was kept on by Bush's VA secretary in 2001 as CTO, and stayed until 2007. In 2005 he received the FCW Fed 100 Eagle Award, and he also served as head of AFFIRM.

We never over the years talked about politics, and I always assumed that, if Ed had any political views, as a veteran and VA employee, they were likely to be moderately conservative. (I did not know that in the Clinton administration he had been in a political position.) But it gradually became apparent to me, mostly since President Trump came to office, that Ed was indeed interested in politics. His posts criticizing Trump became more frequent and more vociferous over the years – when I wrote a post a few years ago about the surprisingly large opposition to Trump in the federal IT community, he was one of the people I referenced (though not by name). He also posted an observation or two over the last year expressing the view that the U.S. under Trump was an oligarchy controlled by big business.

I asked Edi how the civil service had changed over the years. "The biggest change, without a doubt, was Reagan turning the Civil Service from a career to a job with the abolishment of the Civil Service Retirement System," he said. "It stopped being a profession and became just another job with a 401K. This was coupled with the outsourcing of critical technical skills to the private sector which served to further weaken the Civil Service. I watched as long-time federal careerists who represented a treasure trove of experience and knowledge either became frustrated or reached retirement age (or both) and had no one but an ever-changing revolving cast of newly hired, inexperienced recent college graduates to pass this knowledge onto. Government service, at least in the technical arena, is now seen as a two-year ticket punch to a much more highly paid job as a civilian contractor." 

I asked him how serious he thought the government’s human capital crisis was. "I think it is no longer a crisis but a catastrophe," Ed replied. "Fewer and fewer folks join the government with the idea of making it a career, and the ones that do stay, display leadership, and become decisions makers are often lured to the private sector with great salaries and then set to work mining their contacts and knowledge of their former agencies. It is becoming rarer and rarer to find people who stay the 20 to 30 years in government."

Some of the early history he recounted told me he had for long time a rebel streak of which I had always been ignorant. (I wonder if blog readers who know him better than I did saw that earlier and more clearly). I am guessing that Trump has brought it out of him again. I am slightly disappointed that he appears perhaps to have lost some of his idealism. Another casualty of the Trump years.

NEXT STORY: Maloney holds on to seat

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