John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
At a recent town hall meeting, President Obama had an exchange with a federal employee who was losing her job.
The questioner, Karin Gallo, was in a delicate situation and a delicate condition. Seven months pregnant, she was losing her job and looking to the president for guidance: "Just under three years ago, I took a job with the federal government, thinking it was a secure job. Recently I've been told I'm being laid off," Gallo said. She described herself as "nonessential employee number seven" at the National Zoo. "I'm stressed, I'm worried, I'm scared."
The president was gracious, offering congratulations and encouragement.
"Let me just first of all say that workers like you for the federal, state and local governments are so important for our vital services. [I]t frustrates me sometimes when people talk about 'government jobs' as if somehow those are worth less than private sector jobs. I think there's nothing more important than working on behalf of the American people."
As the CEO, it was important for President Obama to send the message that every public worker matters. Whether you work at the zoo or on Navy Seal Team 6, the president should send the clear message that your effort is appreciated.
It doesn't always happen that way though. Those who hold the belief that government is too large often improperly translate that belief into an unacceptable derision for government workers.
For example, it was one thing for President Reagan to call for a reduction in the size of government, or to point out the problems of waste, fraud and abuse. It was quite another thing to joke at the expense of those who worked for him: "The 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, 'Hi, I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.'" Many federal workers took offense at being the butt of their boss's joke.
But President Obama failed to address a problematic premise in Gallo's question regarding job security. Gallo expressed the expectation that along with her federal position came a promise of endless job security. "I thought I'd be more important and secure," said Gallo.
"I agree with you," replied the president.
This was an opportunity missed. The president could have taken this chance to explain that public employment cannot be assumed to represent a lifelong promise of employment security. Just as work in the private sector entails shifts that are sometimes difficult, so too the government must continuously reassess what it does and how it does it in order to provide taxpayers with the value they deserve. Change is a reality of all employment, and change sometimes hurts.
The president, in rightly defending the value of public workers, wound up undervaluing the private sector: "Now, the truth of the matter is, our biggest problem when it comes to jobs right now is not in the private sector. We've been creating a lot of private-sector jobs. The reason the unemployment rate is still as high as it is, in part, is because there have been huge layoffs of government workers at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers -- they have really taken it in the chin over the last several months."
No doubt these are some hard times for public workers, with some layoffs. limited or no pay raises, and the like. But looking at the big picture, the numbers show that there continues to be a big problem in the private sector, which has shed millions of jobs from its 2007 peak. President Obama went overboard in his defense of public workers to the point of undervaluing the private-sector taxpayers who pay their salaries. There are a lot of worried, stressed out and scared people in the private sector, too.
While it is fine to express appreciation for every public employee, it's also important to acknowledge that there are some areas of government that need streamlining. As new technologies, new priorities, and yes, budget realities take hold, public leaders have to insist that the public workforce embrace changes that promote efficiency.
Confronted with a sympathetic employee losing her job, the president was put in a tough position. He needed to be a good boss and show appreciation of those who work for him. At the same time, he could have sent a message that the public sector must embrace necessary change, and to resist the notion that public employment comes with an implicit promise of forever.