2017 Sammies finalists, career feds impress new cabinet secretaries

Cabinet secretaries have learned a lot about their new colleagues during the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

They say they have a greater understanding of the dedication career civil servants bring to their work and the impact they have on the public — like the IRS Impersonation Scam Team who led an investigation and awareness campaign to stopped thousands of Americans from paying millions of dollars in bogus tax bills.

Or the team from the U.S Agency for International Development who led humanitarian efforts in Syria and parts of Iraq, delivering food, medicine and safe drinking water to people in need.

These employees in particular have made significant contributions. They’re among the 26 finalists for the Partnership for Public Service’s prestigious Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) this year. Yet many cabinet secretaries say they see commitment throughout the rank-and-file.

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“I was told, as many others are, that people in government didn’t work very hard,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said during a short speech at the Partnership for Public Service’s May 9 breakfast in Washington honoring the Sammies finalists. “That has not been my experience at HUD. People have been extremely dedicated to what they’re doing.”

The award has often been compared to the “Oscars” of federal service, an analogy that Carson also acknowledged.

“Today we’re honoring the real deal, men and women who have extended themselves tremendously for their fellow Americans,” he said. “They’re not going to be followed by paparazzi. They’re not going to be chauffeured around in limousines. They’re not going to take private jets to Tokyo for a special dinner. When they leave here today they’re going back to the buildings and the offices that they work in every day for the sake of their fellow Americans.”

Similarly, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he’s learned from the career employees.

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“Having been now at Treasury for a relatively short period of time … I couldn’t be more impressed with the career staff across the department,” he said. “I couldn’t feel more honored to be serving all of them.”

The announcement comes in the middle of Public Service Recognition Week, a time in which agencies, lawmakers and others acknowledge the work and impact federal employees have on the country.

“You understand that while you work for an agency head or you may have a level of accountability or oversight here in Washington, D.C., at the end of the day the work that you do is for the great people of this great country,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management. “It’s that commitment that you make everyday, that some days I bet you feel is under-appreciated — not really recognized for the sacrifice that you’ve made, whether it’s salary or time. People have different ideas about what public employees do.”

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Heitkamp sponsored a Senate resolution recognizing Public Service Recognition Week and the contributions that federal employees make. The resolution has 20 co-sponsors, including two Republicans, two independents and 16 Democrats.

In a May 5 proclamation recognizing Public Service Recognition Week, President Donald Trump said he’s seen civil servants’ hard work throughout the first 100 days of his administration, and he called on the federal workforce to do its part and help their agencies as they prepare to reorganize and comply with his executive order.

“I am counting on our civil servants to seize upon that order and make our government dramatically more accountable, effective and efficient by going beyond the modernization efforts of the past and re-examining the operational core of our executive departments and agencies,” Trump said. “Together, through these and other efforts, we will fulfill our responsibilities to make our government work better for the American people.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin kicked off Public Service Recognition Week by greeting his employees at the front door of VA headquarters Monday.

“It actually should be Public Service Recognition Year … because I now recognize, having come from outside of government, what all of you do every day and… the sacrifice that all of you give in your service to the country,” he said. “I don’t think most Americans realize. They think about us as coming into work, [as] nine to fivers. They don’t realize what we really all do. These are some of the hardest working people that I’ve ever met, dedicated people working nights and weekends.”

Shulkin said career civil servants have inspired him and others to join the federal workforce, and they serve as role models for young people.

For Shulkin, Rory Cooper is one of those inspirational figures. Cooper is the director of VA’s Human Engineering Research Lab in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he draws from his own experience in a wheelchair to design innovative equipment, which helps veterans with disabilities and others move around more easily.

Cooper’s work earned him a Service to America Medal nomination this year.

“Rory, you once said, ‘If you have the ability to make a difference, you have the obligation to do that,'” Shulkin said. “You live that and we see that every day in the work that you do.”

Seven nominees will be chosen to receive a Service to America Medal. The Partnership will announce the winners at a Sept. 27 awards gala.