A Fourth of July shout-out to civil servants

Steve Kelman shares a personal exchange that argues against the lazy bureaucrats stereotype.

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.