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What the Government Shutdown Could Do to the Federal Workforce

by Edward Alden
October 7, 2013

U.S. Park Ranger Melanie Turner posts a sign on the gate of the Paramount Ranch to close the National Park Service site at the Santa Monica Mountains in California (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Park Ranger Melanie Turner posts a sign on the gate of the Paramount Ranch to close the National Park Service site at the Santa Monica Mountains in California (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters).

It may be too soon to start talking about the long-term consequences of the government shutdown, since it could go on for a lot longer. But here’s one that worries me a lot and is getting no attention: the lasting damage it will do to the federal workforce.

Whether you like all the things the government does or not, having good people in government matters enormously. The people performing critical security or safety functions–transportation safety or air traffic control or visa security–have to perform flawlessly in what can be mind-numbingly repetitive jobs. Those who write regulations to ensure the safety of your bank deposits or prevent mortgage rip-offs require detailed and complex knowledge about the potential impacts of arcane rules. Those who enforce the laws, whether they’re Justice Department prosecutors or agricultural inspectors, need to make difficult judgments about how and where best to use their often immense legal authority.

This is not to say that all federal workers are geniuses and saints. I have run into my share of petty bureaucrats, yes men, and spin-meisters–though in my experience more of these tend to be temporary political appointees than career civil servants. But most are smart, hard-working people doing a demanding job for modest pay and few accolades.

And I fear that in the aftermath of the shutdown, many of the best are going to leave. The reason is not primarily money–though the wage freeze of the last three years, and unpaid furlough days due to the sequester are certainly taking a big bite. The reason is respect.

Most of the federal workers I know–like the best employees anywhere–are very proud of what they do, and believe they are making an important contribution to their fellow citizens.

But look at what has been visited on them. First, there is the arbitrary division between “essential” and “non-essential” workers. I have a great deal of admiration for the military and the civilian defense work force, but the idea that the entire defense complex is “essential” but those who run Head Start programs to give struggling children a chance at a decent education are “non-essential” is offensive. Even within agencies, many offices are now being being staffed by a handful of those who do exactly the same work as their furloughed colleagues, only a lot more of it now. Are the others deemed  “non-essential”  going to return with the same loyalty and commitment they had before the shutdown?

And they may be the lucky ones. The essential workers who are carrying the load may feel heartened by the designation, but how good will they feel to be working twice as hard for paychecks that don’t arrive? Yes, they will be paid eventually when the full government returns, but depending on how well they have saved, work pressures will be amplified by money worries at home.

Further, some of those workers are being asked to carry out humiliating tasks in the name of the shutdown. Employees of the National Parks Service — perhaps the government’s worst-funded, most over-stretched agency – are told to shutter the very monuments and parks that they work every day to preserve and share with all Americans.

The effects of all of this are hard to predict for certain, and depend on how long the shutdown continues. But it is a safe bet that some of the best federal workers–those with the most options outside the government–will decide not to stick around for the next time their employer decides to give them unscheduled leave. The government that’s left will be weaker and less effective as a result, with lower morale and fewer exemplary employees as leaders.

Just consider that the next time you’re boarding an airplane or sitting down for a hamburger and a spinach salad at lunch.

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