Advice for federal employees and contractors: Take notes and draw lines

By | 2018-02-26T09:42:57+00:00 February 26th, 2018|0 Comments

Last month, Nancy McEldowney published a Washington Post op-ed that I’m sure a lot of federal employees have bookmarked: “How to work for a president who loathes the civil service.” McEldowney recently ended a 30-year career of public service, including serving as director of the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and senior VP of the National Defense University from 2011-2017, which involved training military and civilian officers from federal agencies. She knows what federal employees’ responsibilities are: “Public servants must loyally serve every administration with discipline and dedication. They must carry out the orders of their agency heads, even ones they disagree with. At the same time, they are also duty-bound to refuse instructions that are illegal, immoral, or based on false or destructive premises.”

McEldowney has six pieces of advice for federal employees in an era when the president is deriding civil servants and appointing cabinet officials who are openly hostile to the missions of the agencies they lead:

  • Hold the high ground — “uphold the most exacting standards of personal and professional integrity,” even if the president is doing the opposite.
  • Lock the partisan trapdoor — showcase public servants’ loyal service even if the administration tries to impose partisan litmus tests.
  • Take notes and names — “extensively document decisions and their ramifications.”
  • Don’t leak, but do blow the whistle — use available channels to report “illicit, illegal and destructive activity.”
  • Speak up and out — push back against a destructive trend of demanding blind loyalty “by respectfully and openly expressing their views and fostering frank debate whenever possible.”
  • Draw bright red lines — public servants should clarify “the red lines of principle and policy that they will not cross. When those lines are approached, they will then have a clear path: Refuse to comply and if necessary resign.”

In keeping with the advice about drawing lines, a growing list of long-time federal employees like Mustafa Ali, Joel Clement, and Elizabeth Southerland have found it necessary to resign when agency officials crossed lines that made it impossible for them to keep performing their work to the standards they had set. Those who remain are just as important for upholding high standards, though, and can support their agencies’ missions in important ways even as their budgets are cut, their carefully crafted regulations are rescinded, or their expertise dismissed. Among McEldowney’s recommendations, this one seems likely to apply to a large proportion of federal employees:

Take notes and names.

This administration is attempting to affect widespread changes in policy, programs and personnel, often without documenting the rationale or the intended outcomes. From civil rights enforcement to scientific research on climate change, long-standing government practices requiring written instructions and comprehensive record-keeping are being brushed aside in favor of word-of-mouth directives that are impossible to accurately source or effectively track. All federal employees, especially those with management responsibilities, should extensively document decisions and their ramifications. In agencies experiencing budget cuts and workforce reductions, it will be crucial to document lost capacities and discontinued services. Taking copious notes and maintaining thorough records have always been encouraged in the federal government, and chances are high that these practices will become increasingly vital, both to understand ongoing changes and to retain institutional memory.

This is the idea behind a new “Make a Note to the Record” guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Project on Government Oversight, Government Accountability Project, and Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (I also contributed to it). The basic idea is simple: We encourage federal employees and contractors to take detailed, accurate, timely notes, and keep them secure. Documentation is useful in any workplace, but it’s especially important when employees are concerned about instructions, policies, or actions that might undermine their organization’s mission. A thorough record can be useful for restoring data collections, reports, or programs that are eliminated. It might also be important in the case of legal action.

The guide stresses that employees should know what the rules are — for instance, notes maintained at government workplaces may be subject to subject to subpoenas, FOIA requests, or review by supervisors. If employees want to report a concern they’ve documented, they should know what kinds of disclosures qualify for whistleblower protection (“To constitute whistleblowing, an employee must reasonably believe the information being disclosed evidences a violation of a law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; a gross waste of funds; abuse of authority; a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety; or censorship related to research, analysis, or technical information that is, or will cause, any of these forms of misconduct.”) Whistleblowers play an important role in bringing abuses to light, but not everyone can or should go this route.

The organizations behind the guide all offer resources for federal employees and contractors who are wondering whether legal action might be required:

I’m grateful to the many federal employees who continue to uphold their agencies’ important missions in the face of adversity. Their commitment and persistence are crucial to preserving the public health gains the federal government has made over the past several decades.

About the Author:

Liz Borkowski
Liz Borkowski, MPH is the managing editor of the journal Women's Health Issues and a researcher at the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Her blog posts are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer.

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