Civil servants have long dealt with a negative public image. Critics call them lazy or argue that they make too much money or are strictly partisan. These individuals, who keep this country running effectively and securely, are constantly under attack from misinformation campaigns circulating in the public, the media and even the president’s administration.
In my 35-year federal career, I can tell you that I have seen countless times how it takes a special type of person to serve on behalf of the American people. Hardworking and humble professionals, public servants often choose their career path out of a sense of pride and a desire to contribute to the greater good.
Certain government workers are highly visible — as they should be. We frequently see images of air traffic controllers, law enforcement officers, infectious disease specialists, and state and federal disaster relief officials in news footage.
What we don’t see are civil servants who help underprivileged students access funding for college, or those who enforce fair housing regulations so that financial institutions don't employ discriminatory lending practices. Rarely do we witness scientists researching and developing cleaner air standards, transportation engineers designing safer bridges or cybersecurity professionals protecting our energy infrastructure.
Yet, the narrative is often dominated by naysayers who spread myths about public servants receiving “lavish pensions” and “lucrative salaries.” Had those opponents taken the time to research civil service pensions, they’d see how wrong they were.
In truth, like most Americans, many public servants live paycheck to paycheck. But unless there’s a government shutdown, work stoppage or strike, society doesn't have to face the unpleasant reality that the civil servants who help us sometimes cannot help themselves.
During the unnecessary and embarrassing 35-day partial government shutdown earlier this year, many stories emerged about local communities and businesses rallying to support federal employees who were furloughed or working without pay. Sadly, you may also recall certain media influencers and talking heads criticizing public servants for living beyond their means and not being financially prepared. What overall seemed like a turning of the tide in how the general public perceived civil servants was short-lived. Once the shutdown ended, so too did the public’s interest in the toll it took on civil servants and their families. The nation’s outrage simmered down within days.
Government, by nature, is not perfect. Providing services to hundreds of millions of people at the federal level can be complicated and difficult to accomplish quickly. But government is essential, and it can improve. Government has the power to attract young professionals with sought-after skills for mission-critical positions, as well as the opportunity to help established civil servants develop richer knowledge and experience.
Just because we don’t see the faces behind the agencies or understand the complexities of their jobs doesn't mean that civil servants should be slandered with damaging misperceptions.
It’s incumbent on us to correct the inaccuracies and change the negative narrative. As a starting point, we should all show our appreciation for public servants — and not only during Public Service Recognition Week. A simple thank you and acknowledgment of their work goes a long way for people who are your neighbors, attend your church and provide for their families — just like the rest of us.
To all the men and women who work on our behalf at the federal, state and local levels of government, thank you!
Ken Thomas is national president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the health care and retirement benefits of federal employees.