Last night, I sat in a room of 600 federal employees with tears streaming down my face. As I tried to stem the waterworks with my napkin, I wondered how I got to this point. How was a Pittsburgh coal miner patting my shoulder consolingly while dabbing his own tear stained cheek?
My typical Wednesday nights are not usually sob fests – that’s reserved for Sundays and Hallmark movies. But this Wednesday was clearly unique, because I was invited to attend the annual Service to America Medals (also called the Sammies) gala, hosted by the Partnership for Public Service.
Often called the Oscars for government employees, the Sammies represent the best and brightest government employees. And man, do they deserve some recognition. The Sammies honorees break down barriers, overcome huge challenges and get results. Whether they’re defending the homeland, protecting the environment, ensuring public safety, making scientific and medical discoveries, or responding to natural and man-made disasters, these men and women put service before self and make a lasting difference.
And last night we as an audience got to say thank you. (You can find all the winners here.)
But as each of the ten winners took the stage I was struck not just by their incredible accomplishments – leading the Ebola disaster relief team, developing life-saving treatments that stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells, protecting our computer networks – but by their desire to serve the public.
“The earthquake is inevitable, the disaster is not,” said Lucy Jones, Science Advisor for Risk Reduction, U.S. Geological Survey. “We have the power to inform the public and prevent physical and economic disaster.” Jones won the Citizen Services Medal for her work explaining sciences – in particular natural disasters like earthquakes – to the general public. “I get to go to work every day and inform policy makers on how to make our communities more resilient and safe. The science allows us to make informed decisions, decisions that can save lives.”
Jones’ desire to change lives was shared by each of the finalists. Dr. Stephen Rosenberg, Chief, Surgery Branch, National Cancer Institute has held his position for more than 40 years admitted, “The Director of the NIH, Mr. Francis Collins is here tonight, and Mr. Collins I have a secret to share with you. I would do this job for free. I would come in everyday and do this job for free because it is a job I believe in. It is something I am passionate about and it makes a difference. I couldn’t ask for a better job. So thank you, for giving me the opportunity to do my job for 40 years.”
We all know the government is far from perfect. There are real challenges that need to be addressed. But for one night, government got to shine. Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd who presided over the awards, noted, “In the media, we talk about the parts of government that aren’t working. We don’t talk nearly enough about what’s going right. We don’t talk about the thousands of planes that land at National Regan Airport safety. We talk about the one crash. We need to do a better job of sharing what works. Of learning from each other. But we can’t be the only ones who share. You need to tell your good stories too, and tonight that’s what we are going to do.”
Without the Sammies I wouldn’t have known about my tablemates – the Pittsburgh coal miners who were nominated for their work to improve mine safety in the wake of the 2010 Montcoal mine explosion that killed 29. Their efforts reduced coalmine fatalities to an all-time low of just 16 in 2014.
Government has the power to affect change on an enormous scale. It’s high time we started talking about some of its achievements.
So now I turn to you, our loyal community. What government stories would you like to share?
*Photo credit, Aaron Clamage.