Public Service

Dear Donald –

Let me begin by first congratulating you on your new career in Federal service.  I have to admit, you were not my choice as a new hire. In general, I think Federal employees should be dedicated to the public good and ensuring the protection of all people under our Constitution.  Prior statements and a social media presence like yours – exuding racism, misogyny, ableism, and xenophobia with a wink towards anti-Semites – are usually red flags for hiring managers in the government sector.  They call into question your ability to faithfully and dispassionately execute your responsibilities on a day to day basis.  Nonetheless, it looks like we’ll be stuck together for the next few years, so you should get to know the rest of us.  I’m not sure exactly what brought you here, but I’ve got a hunch it was your own ego. It’s nice to have a title and some power, but that’s not why the rest of us are here. We were here before you and most of us will be here long after you leave. And we came for very different reasons.

Government is a serious endeavor that deserves our best efforts every single day.  It is not a game to be played for personal accolades or glory. When I was first applying for Federal service, I had to take a series of tests to assess my critical thinking skills, writing ability, and personality.  One of the questions on those tests asked how many times, since high school, I had not received an award or recognition that I deserved – zero, one to two, three to four, or five or more.  After the exam, I went to lunch with several other test-takers.  At some point, this question came up in conversation.  “Clearly, the answer is zero,” said one applicant.   “If I deserved the recognition, I would have received it.”  Wrong.  Not cut out for government service.  There will be
times when you roll up your sleeves, work hard, and achieve amazing results that benefit thousands or even millions of people, and no one will ever know you had anything to do with it.  That’s service.  We do it not for the accolades, but for the good of those we serve.

As Federal employees, we have a duty to ensure a basic level of security to all
of our citizens because, but for the grace of God, there goes each one of us.  How many of us are one pink slip or one health crisis away from poverty?  After my mother lost her job during my senior year of high school, she lost her health insurance.  It took years before she found a new job that offered her healthcare.  In the meantime, her hip was slowly falling apart.  I watched for years as she limped from one place to
another in excruciating pain, unable to afford surgery and refusing to talk to
her doctor about her issues for fear that it would end up in her medical file and become a pre-existing condition when she got health insurance again. I saw the look in her eyes year after year when she didn’t know how they were going to make their next mortgage payment.    After my father’s divorce from his third wife, money was so tight that he was forced to live in a tent in the woods of North Carolina, waking every morning to pack his things, put on his dress shirt, and head into the office.  Whenever he would get to see my half-brother for the weekend, he would save up his money for a motel room so his son wouldn’t have to sleep outside.  Government is about
collective responsibility.

Every day I come to work, I have the opportunity to make people’s lives better.  That’s what government means to me – all of us looking out for the rest of us.  Some people come into this world with all of the advantages and succeed.  Others come into it
ten feet behind the starting block and, no matter how fast they run or how hard
they try, they never manage to catch up.  After college, I taught at a high school in Charlotte, NC.  Mostly minority children of Charlotte’s far too numerous working poor, my students were brilliant and resilient.  They were inspiring, and yet deeply tragic.  I had students who were the first in their families to graduate from high school, and I had students who put on prison jumpsuits before their caps and gowns.  My children were amazing, but too many people refused to give them a chance.   They were poor not because their parents didn’t care or didn’t work hard enough.  They
were poor because the two or three jobs that each parent worked didn’t pay enough.  The system had failed them, and their children were paying the price.  After college and graduate school, I could have chosen from a wide range of opportunities, but I chose to go into public service because it is the right thing to do, to serve your fellow citizen, to make sure that all of us have an equal chance to succeed.

It is not glamorous.  It is a commitment to bring the best of ourselves to bear on the lives of others – to make each day a little bit better for the least among us.  My grandparents were FDR liberals.  They believed that government has a place in people’s lives to make them better and to protect them from the powerful who would exploit them.  I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather about when he organized female textile factory workers for the ILGWU.  He described the deplorable conditions that the women faced on a daily basis.  How he went into one factory where the women mentioned the condition of the bathrooms.  They took him to see the women’s restroom and he found cracked toilets and sinks, dirty walls and floors, and broken mirrors.  He agreed the conditions were unacceptable.  “That’s the nice restroom,” one worker told him.  Then they took him to the room for the black female
employees.  It was more of a closet than a bathroom.  The light bulb was burned out.  There were no windows.  There were no toilets, just a series of buckets along the back wall with makeshift curtains as dividers. “How long has it been like this?” he asked.  “As long as I’ve worked here.”  You see, there are people in this world that, if they’re allowed to, will take advantage and exploit those weaker than them because they believe they can’t fight back.  However, when those workers formed a union, despite the threats and abuse and Billy clubs of management, they were able to exert power to create change that improved the lives of everyone working in that factory.  Collective action is powerful – never forget that.

At my high school, parents could take out advertisements in the yearbook to congratulate their graduating seniors. My senior year, my family took out an ad that paraphrased Luke 12:48 – “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  It’s from the Parable of the Faithful Servant.  As government employees, we have been given and entrusted with much, and we owe it to the people who have so provided it to serve them well and to ensure their well-being.  We are not entitled
to accolades or prestige because of our position.  We have a grave responsibility, and we must live up to it.  We govern not for the strong, but for the weak; we govern not for the outspoken, but for the silenced.

People depend on us to make decisions in the best interests of the American people, and they understand that, at times, we have to make decisions that create winners and losers.  I realize that, often, there will be a desire to make those decisions in such a way that it benefits those we like or gets the most people to like us in return.  However, that is not our responsibility.  Good governance is not a popularity contest.  Our decisions must be based on what best upholds our ideals as a nation, even if it
upsets some people.  I can tell you that most people will support your decision, even if they may disagree, if they understand you to be an honest broker with their best interests at heart.  Notice that there is a difference between agreement and support.  You will never get everyone to agree with every decision, but you can absolutely get everyone to support every decision if you make it openly, honestly, and with a clear commitment to common principles.  With that being said, you should also know that the public will just as quickly recognize disingenuous attempts to benefit yourself or
your benefactors at their expense.

I believe that good judgment is, at its core, an innate talent that just comes naturally to some people.  However, good judgment can be, with exceptionally hard work, learned by those who don’t possess the gift.  I truly hope that, in short order, you begin putting in the diligent work required to improve your temperament and judgment to more accurately reflect the weight of the commitment you have made.

I intend to write you a letter each week of your time as a government employee offering my analysis, opinions, and advice on various issues of current import.  Some letters may highlight personal stories that cast an important light on a particular policy issue.  Some may be policy analyses.  Some may simply highlight nonprofit organizations to which my wife and I are devoting our time or resources.  I recognize
that you probably do not want my opinions or advice.  However, I also recognize that people like my father, like my former students, like the factory workers that my grandfather fought for, need their voices heard.  I hope that, in some small way, I can help to amplify their concerns and help you to understand them.  Some day, if my son asks me what I did when Donald entered Federal service, I want to be sure I can say that I spoke out, in at least my small corner of the world, and tried to make things a little bit

I am almost certain that you will not read any of these letters and that, even if you do, you will not heed my advice. However, I am committed to writing them nonetheless.  Congratulations onyour new employment, and remember that we are here always to serve others, and never ourselves.

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