Last month, the Washington Post reported that the staffs of 12 of the 15 Cabinet departments shrank during the first year of the Trump administration. This net loss of 16,000 federal government workers during the first nine months of 2017 was largely driven by voluntary departures, perhaps because career government workers feel that the current administration’s priorities are out of sync with their public service ethos.
Most public servants chose government work because they believe in the ability of government to create a more equitable nation, provide a safety net for people facing tough times and generally make people’s lives better. As deep spending cuts to the bureaucracy are one of the signature priorities of his administration, the current president not only eschews this belief in the power of good governance but is also actively working against the government’s ability to function. For example, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, does not believe that the organization he was asked to lead should exist. Many positions that require Senate confirmation remain unfilled, causing the Cabinet departments to lack the sense of mission and direction that top leadership provides.
Given the current administration’s disregard for public service, it would be understandable for public servants to want to leave the government for the private sector, where their education and experience would be valued. They might also feel that they can’t stomach working for a president who disdains experience and expertise and whose policies aim to make the country more unsafe and less equitable for a majority of its citizens. But now more than ever it is essential that public servants resist joining the mass exodus from government employment. Career public servants are our last hope to retain some normalcy in the government as a check on the destructive policy aims of the Trump administration. To maintain people’s faith and trust in government, public servants should not actively sabotage Trump administration policies, however vehemently they disagree with them.
However, public servants can insist that proper procedures and the law are followed. They can be an oasis of intellectual rigor and clear, rational thinking amidst the chaos and incompetence emanating from the West Wing. Even if public servants are powerless to change the outcome of Trump administration policies, the country will be better off for the thoughtfulness and good intentions they apply to policy making. In continuing to work in the federal government, public servants in no way implicitly endorse Trump administration policies. Instead, simply by bringing rationality and fact-based thinking into the executive branch, they are members of the Trump resistance.
Of course, the argument for public servants to keep working in the federal government has limits, and public servants have the right to decide what circumstances would constitute what they feel is a moral imperative to leave their jobs. But before they abandon the government for the private sector, public servants should consider that someone who is less experienced and less reasonable would likely take their place if they resigned. The Trump administration is already placing the ability of the government to function normally under assault, and it would be even worse if every thinking person refused to work in the government.
Unless they have prominent positions, public servants probably do more good by quietly staying in their jobs and trying their best to minimize the damage of the Trump agenda rather than resigning in protest. Public servants are justified in thinking that working for an organization that implements policies they profoundly disagree with is more than they signed up for. However, they are doing the nation a great service in trying to maintain some normalcy in government over the next three years.