Oson of donald trump the finest acts as president have been blowing away dinner for White House correspondents. Of the annual rubber chicken events that mark the Washington calendar, this is the most decadent, a show of smugness that highlights the federal city’s distance from the people it’s meant to serve. At the other end of the spectrum of semi-official functions is the event honoring recipients of the “Service to America” medals, the so-called Sammies. This may not sound dazzling: medals go to bureaucrats who have improved bureaucracy. Still, it’s a matter of reliable inspiration. It has heart where the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in its bursts of authenticity, brings together only spleen.
“I always knew I wanted to serve a cause bigger than myself,” says Barbara Morton, who won the Medal for Excellence in Management at the September 20 ceremony for her work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (Virginia). Sammie winners talk like that; there is no irony around their notion of public service. In their acceptance speeches, they tend to divert credit to others.
And, rather than dwell on what they’ve accomplished, they almost invariably end up contemplating the future of their work, whether it’s a spaceship to Mars, vaccinating Americans against monkeypox or the complete digitization, finally, of the supply forms at the Ministry of Labor. “We look forward now,” said Hilary Ingraham, one of three State Department women honored for resettling more than 72,000 Afghan refugees, quickly finding them homes in 331 cities in 49 states. She called on the public to help her “exponentially increase the number of refugees settled in the we“, people “who seek freedom and security for themselves and their families and who, in turn, contribute so much to our country”.
Administrations come and go. The bureaucracy remains. There are about 1.9 million federal officials, on top of which each new president can sprinkle about 4,000 political appointees, set priorities and, in theory, run the show. But the bureaucracy does not wait for a new president like an orchestra prepares for a new conductor, nor does an oilman slowly change direction when new hands take the helm. It defies metaphor or analogy — it is too vast and complicated — and in any case it is too important to be so devoid of continuity. Federal workers build rockets, deliver mail, chase bad guys, clean bathrooms, inspect meat, buy jets, maintain hiking trails. Bureaucracy can’t really be run like a business, and politicians who claim that don’t understand how government works. It is impervious to market forces; it cannot have any singular bottom line. When government agencies serve people well, they do so because bureaucrats believe in their work.
Cindy Newberg worked for nearly 30 years at the Environmental Protection Agency. She was honored for her success in the fight against hydrofluorocarbons as Director of the Stratospheric Protection Division (a title that might seem like reward enough). She spoke of the determination and ingenuity needed to tackle climate change, “not looking at something and saying, ‘The climate is too big, we can’t fix it’, but saying, ‘Let’s take a little bit of that, let’s tackle a few chemicals and then tackle a few more.” If you go too fast, she said, “you shut down the industry,” but if you go ahead too slowly, “you are not meeting the needs of humanity”. Only in government, she says, can you hope to tackle such a big problem.
In 2014 the Virginia was engulfed in scandal after it emerged that some veterans were waiting more than 100 days to be seen by a doctor. Hundreds of thousands of people were struggling to get their benefits. In response, the Virginia established an “Office of Veterans Experience”, and Ms. Morton, a lawyer who had worked for the department for ten years, became its deputy chief. To figure out where things stood, the bureau interviewed thousands of veterans. Only 55% said they trusted the ministry to fulfill its commitments.
After conducting hundreds of interviews with veterans, Ms. Morton and her team created a clear “welcome package” explaining all the benefits and services available to veterans throughout their lifetime. Also in consultation with veterans, they launched a new version of the Virginia website that replaced ministry news with clear navigation for people seeking access to their benefits, and also made it easy for veterans to update their information. As secretaries of Virginia came and went (four, so far, in the life of the Office of Veterans Experience), Ms. Morton and her colleagues continued to survey veterans quarterly, treating the resulting trusted number as their North Star. At the last poll, it had climbed to 76% – far from perfect, but much improved. “We have such a creative spirit in government,” says Morton. “People think government is so static or outdated or limiting, and it’s just the opposite.”
Sammies next year
The Sammies are run by the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit group (the medals are named after its founder, Samuel Heyman). This year, some 30 finalists, drawn from 400 nominations, gathered for a reception in the spring. “I can tell you that I was blown away by the great work being done in government,” said Gregory Robinson, as he accepted the federal employee of the year medal. The son of sharecroppers, Mr Robinson took over as head of the James Webb Space Telescope program in 2018, when it was 11 years behind schedule and $9 billion over budget. nasa credits him with turning the tables and successfully deploying the telescope flawlessly. “I know political rhetoric makes a lot of people dislike the government,” Mr Robinson continued. “But I’m telling you, I think we’re in very, very good hands.”
Spreading this message could help recruit the next generation of Sammie winners into a government in which less than 7% of the workforce is under 30. President Joe Biden resurrected a presidential tradition by appearing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this spring. He’d better start a new one by hanging out with the Sammies next year. ■
Learn more about Lexington, our columnist on American politics:
How the left and JD Vance learned to despise each other (September 15)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump agree on one thing (September 8)
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