16 October 2013

Civil Service Pride

Reading much of the commentary about civil servants during the current government shutdown has reminded me just how much so very much of the country loathes us.  Yes, us.  I do work for the US government (as always, I speak only for myself!).  It also occurred to me that I seldom see anybody writing about civil servants working hard and taking pride in their work.  The converse is common, that civil servants are lazy, should all be fired, that they're lying when they say they're there to help.  Such things are even more common in political speeches.  I'll redress that balance some.

A few years ago my workplace had an outside group review how we were doing..  The outside group not including civil servants.  As usual, some things they thought we did well, some they didn't think so.  But one point they criticized us on was that we work too hard!  50 hour weeks being routine.

At the meetings to tell us what was allowed or required, of whom, during the furlough, we had something of a 'Green Eggs and Ham' in reverse.  The people who were furloughed asking the questions, laws duly passed by congress and signed by president providing the answers:
Q: May I work upon the mainframe?
A: No, you may not work upon the mainframe.
Q: May I do it on my desk?
A: No you may not do it on your desk.
Q: May I do it at my home?
A: No you may not do it at your home.
Q: May I at least answer my mail?
A: No you may not even answer your mail.
Q: May I, can I, please, read my mail?
A: You may not, can not, any way, any how, even read your mail.

The 50 hour weeks and having to be told repeatedly that it is a violation of federal law to work while furloughed don't point to lazy people.  (I know there are other groups that also do routine 50+ hour weeks.  They're not lazy either.)  As insurance against people sneaking in to do work in spite of being furloughed, the guards were given a list of who is allowed to be working.  If your name isn't on the list, you don't get in to the building.  Don't know how many times people have been turned away, but I expect it has happened.

A little farther afield, it isn't lazy people with no commitment who walk to work through a blizzard to issue National Weather Service forecasts. I know of other NWS weather forecasters who, when severe weather was coming, simply slept at work -- because they weren't sure they could get in to work the next day.

I also live near a national park, which, of course, is shut down.  Like many, I saw the video of a congressman -- who had helped bring about the shutdown -- berating a National Park Service employee for doing what she is supposed to during a shutdown.  But, beyond the fact of his grandstanding (more of which followed at the WW II memorial by others), I happen to have talked to some park rangers over the years.  Also at some other national parks that I've visited.  They all love their parks, and the national system.  They're all (the ones I've talked to) committed to their parks and want to be able to share them, show them, explain them, whathaveyou, with as many people as possible.  Shutting down is very much against their nature.  But congress is who authorizes federal expenditures.  And they authorized none for national parks -- no budget.

Emergency employees (constantly mis-labelled 'essential' in the media) are able to work during shutdown only on the principle that congress is expected (not such a reliable expectation these days) to honor its debts and the emergency people are protecting life (NWS weather forecasters) and property (Park Service people protecting vs. vandalism, for instance) -- in the very near term.  Research for curing cancer might do such things later on, but isn't a near term guarantee.

But, speaking of dedication to their work, and concern for it, read How the Shutdown Is Devastating Biomedical Scientists and Killing Their Research for its profile of a scientist trying to keep experiments going -- which includes keeping animals alive -- in spite of everyone else having been sent home.

As I write, there's talk of an agreement having been reached.  But neither the Senate nor House has voted on it yet.  Until the votes are counted, it is not a done deal.  That fact is part of why we're currently in the shutdown.

Regardless of the inaction and insane action from Capitol Hill, a couple million civil servants have kept working -- without pay -- through this.  Walked to work through blizzards.  Didn't counterattack when a person who created the problem was berating her on national TV her doing what she's required to by laws that he passed.  And have been trying to prevent months and years of research from being wasted.  These are not lazy, uncommitted people.


Deech56 said...

Amen. At the NIH, we have had major disruptions - long-scheduled meetings cancelled, work on new research contracts delayed and for those who work on grants, postponed reviews and no guidance for researchers. And no contact with e-mail, electronic files - nothing. We cannot emphasize enough how much the sequestration has damaged programs - fewer grants and cuts in the grants that have been funded.

Turboblocke said...

Here's the reality: a politician can talk rubbish about civil servants and escape punishment. A civil servant who opens their mouth to the press to give their side of their story can be subjected to disciplinary measures...

dbostrom said...

Hats off to civil servants, all of 'em; if some tiny fraction don't deserve our thanks should that mean the rest are slandered, or rudely unacknowledged?

Too many loudmouths spouting off, the rest of us too quiet.

You're appreciated.

I'd like to see a clearinghouse set up where researchers in civil service can testify about disruptions caused by the "late unpleasantness." We should capture this information because it's instructive for the general public. Scattered anecdotes are not very useful.

A simple site would do, nothing fancy or expensive. A shield of anonymity would be needed, but with some means of reasonably verifying input.

I'd be happy to help, paying and doing whatever tiny bit of code is necessary. bostrom.doug(AT)gmail.com

Bonafides at Skeptical Science| about|bio stuff.