Celebrating the Feds

On the ground at Public Service Recognition Week.


God bless the $200,000 X-ray van and the brave public servants who operate it.

The high-tech U.S. Customs Service unit was just one of the grossly underappreciated government services that I, along with thousands of impressionable youngsters, explored last Friday on the National Mall in Washington.

It was a classic D.C. spring day: Hot, humid, and sunny enough to motivate ambivalent workers to call in sick and get a head start on the weekend. So it was shocking to see scads of employees hard at work on the Mall. More shocking still: These were government employees. But then, it was all for a good cause–their own aggrandizement.

In case you missed it, last week was Public Service Recognition Week. As part of the celebration, the quasi-governmental Public Employees Roundtable (PER) and the President's Interagency Council on Administrative Management sponsored a gargantuan display of administrative and military might on the east end of the Mall.

The most striking displays included an attack helicopter, a fighter jet, tanks, and drug-sniffing dogs. Perfectly groomed young men from a military honor guard stood at attention and handed out pamphlets to curious tourists while an attractive female Air Force officer took time away from the wild blue yonder to distribute candy.

Such high-profile, interactive displays were necessary, according to event organizer and PER representative Adam Bratton, to drive home what government workers do to make this country great.

"People just don't realize what government does, what it offers for our society," Bratton said from behind an information table at the event. "This is an opportunity for [citizens] to realize what government does for American society."

I was especially lucky to wend my way through the gathering on Friday, as it was Students' Day. PER's executive director Marion Fitch Connell estimated that as many as 5,000 youngsters–from as far away as New Orleans and Tennessee–were on hand to learn about the wonderful work accomplished by public servants. The students, she told me, participated in a scavenger hunt that allowed them to "learn more about the government and careers in public service."

Connell ought to know. While PER is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational coalition, some of its staffers are "on loan" from federal agencies. Connell said that she has worked as a program manager with the Department of Housing and Urban Development since the late 1980s, where she "designed and implemented customer satisfaction surveys," before shifting to PER. She said the federal agency can recall her at any time if she is needed at her old post, but hopes to stay on with PER as long as possible.

The kids, Connell said, were especially fond of the Customs Service display, which showed live drug-sniffing dogs at work. I noticed another group of students enthralled with the UH-60A Blackhawk, "the largest, most powerful helicopter used for airborne law enforcement anywhere in the world." My own favorite scene involved a guy from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. He deputized kids with little plastic badges. (I managed to get my hands on one, but I am still unclear as to the powers it conveys.)

In the end, I couldn't help wondering if the children will have a different perspective on drug-sniffing dogs once they get to college, or be a bit more skeptical of the Marine Corps' MK 153 (a shoulder-launched multi-purpose assault weapon) the day they sign up for Selective Service.

The kids were too dazzled to be thinking such thoughts. In addition to the tanks and the dogs and the guns and the speedboats, the Social Security Administration was also sharing important information, too. Ditto for the Office of Personnel Management, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and a host of other federal agencies. The FBI even had a cartoon activity book for the kids, complete with a delightfully multicultural cast of characters (albeit with outdated haircuts), and a crossword puzzle with exciting answers such as "support personnel," "fugitives," and "white-collar crimes."

There were fewer activities designed for older participants at the celebration, but luckily, PER had helpfully prepared a 25-page handbook titled "How to Celebrate." It informed readers that "the week is also an opportunity to show appreciation to public employees at the federal, state and local levels who ensure that our government is the best in the world." It also provided information about how to kick-start a celebration in your local community, how to get funding, and how to get other people involved.

Your tax dollars at work. Or perhaps more appropriately, at play.