A Salute to Public Service

I was a federal government employee. Yesterday I officially lost my job.

Finally, the swamp being drained.

Or not.

I was a political appointee, so by definition I served at the pleasure of the President.

I’ve heard no plans for the incoming team to reduce the number of political appointees they will place within the executive branch. As a member of the Obama administration, I will simply be replaced by a member of the Trump administration.

From that point of view, the swamp will remain as swampy as ever. Just with different water.

To truly drain the swamp would require getting rid of lots of public servants who have chosen — as their career — to serve you, me, and every other American.

Regardless of president. Regardless of ruling political party. Regardless of policy direction.

I grew up in Elysburg, a town of 2,000 in rural Pennsylvania. My father’s law practice was located in Shamokin, PA, a town with a proud heritage of coal mining. I attended the local Catholic elementary school, then was graduated from the public high school with 87 other classmates.

Through it all, I never aspired to work in government. If you had asked me back then, I would have laughed at you.

Yet growing up in Central Pennsylvania instilled in me strong values of family, community, and country. Ever since I heard Sister Regina Eileen read aloud the commitment stories of the apostles in second grade, I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to others.

I had strong models. In addition to their varied community activities, my parents took in a brother’s friend to live with us for several years when his home life fell apart. They stepped in to stop domestic violence affecting a sister’s friend.

And my teachers reinforced these values everyday. Years after I graduated, a group of them even pooled their money to contribute to a partnership I set up to sponsor my pro tennis aspirations.

Ultimately it led to a career focused on reducing poverty, working for volunteer organizations, charities, and foundations. I joined the Obama administration because, after 20+ years in the trenches, I saw a chance to touch the lives of many more people than I’d affected previously.

I found myself working alongside career civil and foreign service employees.

Bureaucrats, most of us call them.

It has been one of the great privileges of my career.

I have been singularly impressed with how hardworking and dedicated my colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department were: dedicated to our national interest, and dedicated to getting the job done.

Since a presidential administration is by definition term-limited, I expected to be up all hours of the night, doing as much as possible in the limited time we had. I didn’t expect regular answers to my emails at those late hours by colleagues who have spent 15, 20, 25 years delivering for you and me, no matter who the president is.

Together we accomplished a great deal.

You probably haven’t thought much about Ebola lately. It’s easy to forget that, not so long ago, we were worried about a widespread outbreak here in the United States. USAID coordinated the US government response, and together we partnered with others to turn that emerging pandemic into an afterthought.

Survivors of Ebola leave their handprint on a wall of the Bong County Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia — the facility that saved their lives.

The eleven focus countries for our investments in agriculture and food security have seen poverty drop by 7 to 36 percent. Other efforts resulted in 18 million children getting better nutrition, and nearly four times more people in the world receiving lifesaving HIV/AIDS treatment.

Along the way we achieved a global agreement among the 193 countries in the UN to end poverty while protecting the earth’s resources.

As people’s lives get better, they have more reasons to stay put rather than leave their countries. Fewer reasons to fall into radical extremism. And that record of success at USAID is accomplished with less than one percent of the federal budget.

These are the same colleagues who will now follow the direction of the new president, no matter how different or contradictory.

Under our direction, they executed the Affordable Care Act and tackled climate change. Under the new team’s direction, they may be asked to reverse course.

If they were miners for the old collieries that once dominated Northumberland County, it would be as if they’d spent the last eight years mining a vein and now, under new management, were asked dismantle it, turn 180 degrees, and start digging in the opposite direction.

And they will do it. Because they’ve chosen service to our country as their career, and that means heeding the priorities of the president.

Reasonable people can disagree on the best ways to achieve the American ideals that we hold in common. Passionately. That is what our democracy is about.

But it pains and worries me that in the midst of the divisions highlighted by the election, we are making a casualty of one of our core American values:

Public Service.

That is a major threat to our democracy.

My father, who died when I was in high school, believed that public service was one of the highest callings to which we could aspire. He saw service in government as its epitome. I know now how right he was.

To all the civil servants in the US government, here and across the world, no matter what you do:

I salute you.

An Indonesian child salutes after delivery of food and water by the U.S..

And I ask all of you reading this to salute them too.

They embody the spirit of public service that makes America great.

We forget this at our peril.

Tony Pipa is a native of Elysburg, PA, and served multiple positions during the Obama Administration, most recently as Chief Strategy Officer at USAID. A version of this story was published by The Daily Item, a daily newspaper serving Central Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania.