The current turmoil in the Trump administration, with high profile departures of the nation’s Secretary of State, chief economic adviser to the president, and the communications director, all within the past month, is demoralizing the backbone of the American government — the millions of civil servants who administer the day-to-day work of public service, from ensuring our food and medicine are safe, to helping American companies and citizens abroad, to protecting consumers from fraud, to administering the safety net for the millions of elderly and low-income residents.
Yet, it is not just the high-profile political appointees who have resigned or have been sacked. Many lower-profile but high-ranking career civil servants have resigned in protest, including recently the U.S. Ambassador to Panama, John Feeley. The most memorable quote in his resignation letter is perhaps this: “As a junior foreign service officer, I signed an oath to serve faithfully the President and his administration in an apolitical fashion, even when I might not agree with certain policies. My instructors made clear that if I believed I could not do that, I would be honor bound to resign. That time has come.”
With the departure of so many dedicated civil servants at the highest levels of our agencies, many junior officials just starting out their careers are faced with the same personal dilemma: Can one faithfully uphold the oath of office – which is to serve the President in an apolitical fashion – even when core American values such as promotion of democratic values, freedom of press, and respect for the rule of law have been eroded directly due to the behavior and actions of their top boss?
Yes, our country needs bright, innovative, and dedicated citizens to be in our government because career civil servants carry on the day-to-day research, strategic thinking, execution, and implementation of Trump’s policies. These civil servants are subject-matter experts in their respective policy areas, and their daily implementation of policies and programs require first and foremost a sacrosanct devotion to facts and the truth. Any distortion of the truth and facts threatens to undermine our national security and economic prosperity, and is not what civil servants have signed up to do.
As sad as it may sound, the leadership of the current administration has turned the entire career civil service upside down by precisely violating this sacrosanct devotion to the truth and facts.
On issue after issue ranging from the nation’s fiscal health, to international trade and commerce, to infrastructure investments, to immigration, to environment and climate change, to education — no longer are America’s civil servants in many agencies given the chance to provide sound, fact-based, and rigorously vetted policy recommendations to the political leadership. No longer do many civil servants feel that their projects, initiatives, and long-term research are appreciated by the political leadership. No longer do many civil servants feel there is a minimum level of trust, deference, and respect from the political leadership so they can continue their apolitical work. Given these constraints, it is understandable that many civil servants may be in a better position to continue serving the country by providing objective policy recommendations from outside the government rather than within a system that effectively stifles and muffles their voices.
One could argue that under these dire circumstances, it may be even more “noble” for career officials to continue to serve as opposed to resigning under a president who injects constant agony, unpredictability, and uncertainty. Yes, we do need voices of reason inside the government to ensure that at best, our government can still carry out reasonable policies and serves the people, and to restrict the worst impulses of the president that may harm our country. But this is the exact voice of reason that has been systematically dismantled under this administration. Elevated intolerance of constructive criticism, immediate rejection of reasonable dissent based on alternative facts, and most destructively, suspicion of career staff based on preconceived notions of their political views are minefields for civil servants trying to exert voices of reason, especially at the junior or mid-career official level.
For the younger civil servants, these times are tough. Many may see better opportunities to continue serving by joining a think tank where one can more honestly raise concerns regarding the trajectory of current policies, a media organization where one can shape the public opinion to some degree, or a myriad of corporate sectors where one’s knowledge of government regulations, processes, and policies can be valuable.
As long as the White House and senior political appointees in the Cabinet agencies continue to rely almost exclusively on a small cabal of political patrons, campaign staff, and swamp-deniers who are really swamp-creatures whose only goals are to elevate one’s own personal status in the eyes of the president, bright and principled civil servants will continue to go for the exits. Our political leadership needs to be reminded of the fact that many career government officials have chosen a career to serve the country over other, potentially more lucrative careers. Our top leadership needs to restore an environment where each government official, no matter their seniority, can see how his or her work is contributing to a positive mission advancing our country’s national security and economic prosperity, and above all, is devoid of political influence where opinions are formed based on alternative facts.
We, as a nation, need to recognize the value of the apolitical civil service because our republic, and more importantly, our Constitution, depends on their principled stance and service.