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We need to respect and protect our federal workforce

When the Department of Energy was asked by the Agency Review Team to identify employees who work on climate change — one of the critical challenges of our time — our workforce rightly worried that the incoming team would judge them on ideology rather than merit.

When the House voted to bring back the Holman Rule — allowing Members of Congress to selectively target individual federal workers or departments — our workforce became vulnerable to judgment based on ideology.  When possible federal hiring freezes are mentioned casually, our workforce is concerned about its capacity to support our critical responsibilities.  And when vilifying civil servants becomes the norm, the ability to recruit talented workers will vanish.  Instead of considering public service, our brightest minds will look elsewhere for a meaningful career.

{mosads}The Federal Government can only effectively serve the American people when staffed by qualified and dedicated public servants.  This is true at DOE, where I have served as the Deputy Secretary for the past two years, and across all departments and agencies. At DOE, civil servants, military service members, and contractors solve our nation’s toughest challenges and keep us safe.  Yet it has become common to disparage this workforce — sometimes through rhetoric, but increasingly through actions.  This trend is dangerous for our country.

The people of DOE do pioneering work that contributes to our national security, provides opportunities for entrepreneurs, ensures the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent, keeps the power on in partnership with industry, and inspires young people to pursue STEM careers.  These missions are critical to our success as a Nation, and we need talented people to take on these important responsibilities. 

When I began my tenure at DOE, I made it a priority to visit all of our National Laboratories and nuclear security sites.  I met the workers charged with unglamorous but essential jobs such as assembling and dismantling our nuclear weapons, cleaning up our Nation’s Cold War legacy to keep communities safe, generating technological solutions to counter cyber threats, and improving our energy systems to make them more resilient and efficient. These essential technical areas need an influx of young and talented workers.

To reinforce the federal talent pipeline we have to de-politicize the rhetoric about the federal workforce.  There are many issues that unite us across partisan lines, including the need to respond to national security challenges with innovation and intellectual vigor.  At DOE, I have worked with industry leaders and Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to provide the scientific analysis and technological capabilities that help our nation meet major challenges.  Without a strong federal workforce, those valuable tools would be lost to us — to the benefit of our rivals.

We must also make changes that set this workforce up for success.  It is aging, and we must develop a new generation of professionals to compensate for upcoming retirements.  DOE and the broader federal government need to attract that new generation by managing an exciting mission space and embracing the values that make today’s workplaces successful, productive, and motivating. Young people entering the workforce want to be part of organizations that are inclusive and provide professional development opportunities.  These are areas where we can do better.

Finally, the next Administration must be held accountable to make these changes.  Secretary Moniz and I have endeavored to stand with our workforce in meaningful ways, including by updating our policy on scientific integrity just this last week to uphold the independence of the scientific process moving forward and last year launching a diversity and inclusion campaign to empower the people of DOE. My incoming colleagues who will lead DOE and the rest of the federal enterprise have a tremendous opportunity to build on these efforts, allay the fears engendered by this transition, improve recruitment and retention, and recognize the contributions of this remarkable workforce to our security and prosperity.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is Deputy Secretary of Energy.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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