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Sacrifices made by federal workers reveal their integrity, dedication

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The impact of the failure to re-open the federal government for well over a month generated many stories of frustration among those denied government services and the growing desperation among federal employees forced to choose which bills to pay. 

But there is also one possible, small source of consolation amid the crisis. Federal employees who worked without pay demonstrated that public service is a calling and a noble tradition. One that stretches back millennia. 

{mosads}The sacrifice of these workers is rooted in the radical idea of Athenian democracy and restated by Abraham Lincoln: “We are a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Federal employees are citizen-employees working on behalf of their country. Outside of family businesses, there are very few employers to whom a potential employee has a pre-existing eternal bond. 

It is a bond dramatized at the beginning of the job when public servants take an oath to the Constitution and reaffirm their commitment to the country.

Silicon Valley may offer better pay, but it cannot replicate the bond between citizen and country. Seeing employees work without pay shows how powerful the idea of service to country can be. 

The shutdown has highlighted that in addition to practical considerations like the promise (usually) of steady pay, for most there is the added benefit of doing a job that has a sense of purpose and contributing to the public good. 

In a 2018 poll of private and public employees, private employees rated their work experience higher or on par in every category of job satisfaction (training, pay, recognition, etc.) except in response to one question: When needed, I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done? A stunning 95.3 percent of federal employees answered yes (13.3 percent higher than private-sector employees).

As an official for the Air Traffic Controllers Association told the New York Times: “We have taken an oath. We know we’re important to the United States economy, and we are going to work. We’re just not getting paid. So even if this drags on, people will come to work.”

The special reward that comes from serving fellow citizens and your country is something that cannot be easily replaced. Using Lincoln’s language, they are fulfilling the idea of government of the people and by the people. 

As in Athens, American public servants represent their communities. Each citizen (in the narrow definition of the time) in classical Athens participated in decision-making on the important issues facing the city-state. 

Also, each citizen could be randomly chosen to fulfill a year of service overseeing the day-to-day operations of government. The Athenian experiment proved government by the people could work, but it was not frequently replicated. 

It would take centuries to overcome exclusions from public service for those who were not patrician, or of noble birth, or sworn supporters of a monarch. Even in the United States racial, gender, political patronage and other obstacles had to be overcome so that government would be run by the people as a whole. 

The American experiment has many facets. The fundamental one is the idea of the republican structure embodied in the Constitution. Another is that the country would rely on citizens to carry out the business of government. 

The Founding Fathers essentially posed a challenge to each subsequent generation: Will you set aside pursuit of your own interests, enter into service of the government without promise of reward beyond a set salary (the idea of pillaging the public purse for personal ends was not always forbidden) and fulfill the responsibilities of that position on behalf of your fellow citizens? 

For over two centuries, a self-chosen and select group of patriots rose to that challenge. They provided evidence that the ideas of Athens and the American Revolution are valid and valuable. Public service is not imposed on citizens; it is a choice they make. 

Every generation must hope enough dedicated and qualified citizens make that choice to sustain the experiment.  As we have seen furloughed workers dip into savings, take side gigs and pinch pennies over the past month, keep in mind that the stakes are not merely their well-being, it is also whether government of the people, by the people and for the people will not perish. It is a small consolation but an important idea. 

Ryan Trapani is a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is working on a book about ethics and public service. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of Brookings or the federal government.


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