Opinion polls find that public trust in government is at historic lows, and it’s fashionable among the chattering classes to reinforce that skepticism. Trashing government is blood sport in Washington.
But that cynicism inflicts a grave injustice on the many thousands of dedicated public servants who toil anonymously, for relative low pay – and even less public esteem – to keep Americans safe and improve their lives. For the most part, their work goes unnoticed, and we know of their success only by the absence of calamity.
That’s why, for the last 15 years, the Partnership for Public Service has awarded its Service to America medals to honor the nation’s most remarkable public servants. Known as the “SAMMIES,” these awards are rightly known as the “Oscars of government,” and they were bestowed last night at a black-tie gala emceed by NBC journalist Stephanie Ruhle and actor Michael Kelly (who plays the exemplar of a dedicated but seriously misguided public servant on House of Cards).
The awards given last night reflect not just the extraordinary achievements of a group of extraordinary individuals, they serve as a powerful reminder of what government accomplishes on behalf of its citizens. Last night’s winners, for example, included Kirk Yeager of the FBI, the nation’s pre-eminent expert on terrorist-made explosives, and Tate Jarrow, a 33-year-old Secret Service agent who helped nab the perpetrators of one of the worst cybercrimes in U.S. history – when hackers broke into JPMorgan Chase and other financial institutions to steal the personal data of more than 100 million consumers. They also included a team at the Department of Justice, led by Thomas Mariani, Steven O’Rourke and Sarah Himmelhoch, who won a record $20.8 billion settlement against BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, which contaminated 1,100 miles of coastline in the Gulf of Mexico after an oil rig explosion.
Government workers, such as a team at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services led by Paul McGann, Jean Moody-Williams and Dennis Wagner, have saved tens of thousands of lives by helping hospitals reduce medical errors. They’ve also stopped the illegal trafficking of rhino horns and elephant ivory, via an international effort led by Edward Grace and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And they invented the “Energy Star” ratings that consumers use to buy the most efficient appliances – an effort spearheaded by the Department of Energy’s Kathleen Hogan.
Doctors and scientists working for the U.S. Army, led by Jaque Reifman, have created an artificial intelligence system that can detect internal hemorrhaging to save the lives of trauma patients and soldiers in combat. And through the efforts of William Greg Burel and the Centers for Disease Control, the government maintains a emergency $7 billion stockpile of the antibiotics, antitoxins and medical supplies we would need in the event of a pandemic or terrorist attack. Another federal effort, led by Lisa Jones at the U.S. Treasury Department, has unlocked $852 million in loans to boost the redevelopment of low-income communities.
At the Washington Monthly, we’ve long made it our mission to champion good government and to challenge the federal bureaucracy to do better by its citizens. But we are also proud to honor excellence where it already exists. To the Partnership for Public Service and the 2016 winners of the Service to America Medals, congratulations.