How to make the federal workforce feel respected once again

Thursday - 5/22/2014, 4:00am EDT

Sen. Jon Tester speaks with In Depth host Francis Rose.

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Commentary by Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
Chairman, Homeland Security Subcommittee on Efficiency
and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce

Pay freezes. Sequestration. Government shutdowns.

Federal workers have been through a lot these past few years.

In an attempt to reverse this trend and demonstrate the importance of supporting an efficient government, earlier this month I held a hearing on employee morale in my subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce.

(Courtesy of Sen. Jon Tester)

The hearing showed that we need to shift the perception of federal workers. Too often, Americans don't appreciate the positive impact government employees have on their lives.

They don't think about who makes sure Social Security checks arrive on time, who is securing our borders and fighting forest fires, or who is delivering the mail. The federal workforce is not a faceless, nameless group of folks. The work they do every day matters.

As a farmer, I know the difference it makes when you feel valued in your work. When I haul my grain to a buyer who says, "It's good doing business with you" rather than "I'll take it because I have to," I work harder for that buyer. People work better and more efficiently when they feel respected. And lately, Congress hasn't done a lot to make federal workers feel valued.

Pushing for pay freezes, sequestration and the government shutdown may score political points back home, but it's not sound policy. It sends a message to workers that they are expendable.

We all know that's not true.

These are the same folks who want to balance the budget on the backs of government employees. Let me be clear: federal workers didn't upend our budget, and we won't get our fiscal house in order by cutting their salaries or benefits.

Witnesses at my hearing reiterated the need to improve federal workers' skills and find more ways to recruit and retain the best and the brightest to serve our country.

We must improve worker training programs and do a better job bringing talented folks into government ranks. And once they are there, these workers must be offered opportunities to advance if they put in the hours and demonstrate results.

I also often hear from folks who want to work for the federal government, but are turned off by the long application process.

As a result, I am looking into legislation that makes it easier for agencies to share certification lists. That way, if one agency does the legwork to vet an applicant, but chooses not to hire them, the candidate won't have to go through the same lengthy process when applying for another job with another agency. This will save time and money. It's a common-sense change.

Moving forward, I will work with the Office of Personnel Management to make sure the agency has the tools it needs to build a federal workforce for the 21st century. One that is innovative, diverse and versatile.

Farmers are solution-oriented folks. Out in the fields, we have to figure out how to get the job done so we can provide for our families and get our products to market. That's why at each of my hearings, I'm looking for solutions. We've had enough talk in Washington. We need results.

My next hearing will examine how government can improve its information technology systems. We'll be looking at electronic health records and the sharing of data between agencies.

My work won't stop there. I promise to continue to fight for solutions that recognize the hard work of our public servants while making government more efficient.

Federal employees make American lives better. We must honor their efforts by making government and the federal workforce the best it can be.


Sen. Jon Tester is Montana's senior U.S. senator and a third-generation Montana farmer. He serves on multiple committees including Veterans Affairs; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Appropriations; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Indian Affairs. He is currently the chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce.