The civil service is little more than a droning hum in the background of our lives. Dealing with bureaucracy is often merely one destination on a long list of daily errands, but I would frame it differently. That slow beating of the federal workforce is the lifeblood of our democracy.
We are blessed with an excellent, loyal federal workforce that keeps our country going in times of crisis. The government operates in a stable fashion as administrations come and go, as top people churn and as world history marches on. We owe it all to the myriad, silent, front-line troops of the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, the Foreign Service, the FBI, the intelligence services, and many more.
Of course, those directives are not clarion trumpet calls — more like muddled trombones. Congress passes laws and courts interpret them and the civil service is beholden to all. Obviously, the president is far too busy to set more than a general policy, so it is up to the civil service to fill in the cracks, which is most of the government.
Elected officials are the face of the government, but a civil servant is the one that makes the government function. A leading newspaper printed in its July 4 edition that "Leaders ranked worst of USA," expressing the general sentiment that people are unhappy with elected leaders. This has happened before, and it's the civil service that has carried us through trying times.
During the Nixon administration America lost faith in the executive branch. Insofar as the Presidency was concerned, the government was falling apart. However, the executive branch steadily marched onward. Despite the celebrity and responsibility that comes with being the face of the government, even if the president becomes unable perform his or her duties, it's the civil service that keeps the country going.
The civil service is the "deep state" that President Donald Trump often speaks against. It is the government that persists between administrations. Our elected president and his top appointees are supposed to make policy, and the civil service is to carry it out in a fashion that is faithful to the administration with an Aristotelian sense of virtue. But, we also expect the civil service to uphold our sense of morality in the face of the ethically questionable. We do not want our civil servants blindly following orders. Under our system, their options are to resign or fall in step with new policy. Under the Hatch Act revisions, they can be politically active on their own time to some extent, but ideally they are supposed to be non-political.
With all the dramatic news coming out of Washington, D.C., these days, how does our government keep going? I suggest it is because of the excellent core of federal workers we have. It appears President Trump is embarking on a whole new approach to government, and the civil service is struggling to do its best to support the new president. In England, our mother democracy, the civil service also enjoys a good reputation. Every time a new prime minister or government takes over, they essentially have new bosses and they must adjust to follow the new lead.
Currently it is thought that many in the British civil service disagree with the political decision known as Brexit, or the decision to leave the European Union. Ideally, the British civil servant is supposed to carry out the wishes of the new government. However, we sometimes expect the civil service to object if something is immoral. The Nuremburg trials or the My Lai Massacre stand as examples. The non-policy, front line people were held accountable in some instances. We have whistleblower legislation, which encourages civil servants to speak up if something improper is being done.
I frequently speak to college students and urge them to consider a career in the civil service. A career in the civil service does not yield a life of wealth. One can make a decent living, but we should be paying them more. I am one who opted for a public career, and I found the rewards great, but I did not become a wealthy man. Another approach is to enter private enterprise and make enough money to give substantial amounts to good causes. A career civil servant would not be able to do that.
Clayton Christensen, a leading Mormon author and businessman, gave an address at Harvard out of his book, "How Will You Measure Your Life?" He states that in the end, you will probably measure service to others as the primary criteria for a satisfying and successful life. By that measure, civil servants lead very satisfactory lives.
So, my report from Washington is that all is OK with our civil service. Politicians like to berate and blame the civil service, and those front-line employees cannot reply, but we have to remember, especially in western states, all the good those done by the folks in the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. They make for a stable life in the American heartland. A poor civil service makes for an unstable country. Despite all the crisis-level news we have heard, we have a stable democracy thanks in part to the eternal vigilance and dedication of the civil service.