A few months ago, I met a young woman recently hired by the Environmental Protection Agency. I asked her what it was like to work for an organization embroiled in political controversy.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t been there long enough.”
It was a tactful response.
She went on to describe the work she was doing, monitoring water quality and assessing human health risks. She had graduated from college, completed a research internship and was looking forward to a career in public service. She was passionate about her work, evident from the way she discussed the health risks to children posed by lead and other contaminants in drinking water.
Like many young people, she was a little naïve, perhaps, but her enthusiasm was contagious. She had worked hard to acquire knowledge and a set of useful skills. She was going to use that knowledge and those skills to help others. She reminded me of many of my college students.
I wonder how things are working out for her now.
Scott Pruitt, director of the EPA, is under fire for several decisions that call his judgment and integrity into question: renting an apartment from a lobbyist; lavish office spending; giving huge pay raises to friends; increasing his security detail; traveling by first class; demoting officials who questioned his conduct; firing a security officer who refused to use sirens to speed through Washington traffic.
The question is: How important are those decisions? Do they really matter?
Pruitt’s defenders claim the criticisms are overblown: The rent he paid for the apartment was reasonable, the first-class travel and increased security were justified in light of threats, and his other expenditures are minuscule in comparison to the cuts he is making to the agency’s $8 billion annual budget.
Mainly, however, they defend him because he is carrying out President Donald Trump’s agenda: rolling back far-reaching environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration.
That, of course, is what he was hired to do. Pruitt has arguably been the most capable of Trump’s cabinet appointees, which is, in large measure, why he is under such scrutiny from the opposition.
But since when did doing one’s job, even in the face of stiff opposition, justify ethical lapses?
We put ethics rules in place to prevent officials from abusing their power, but such rules have limited efficacy. That is because we routinely let leaders get away with things as long as they are giving us something we want.
Chris Stirewalt, politics editor for Fox News Channel, thinks that is shortsighted. “Ethical conduct matters more than policies,” he wrote, regarding the Pruitt controversy. “If we continue to degrade the trust and confidence that American’s have in our government and institutions, people will come to believe that there is no virtue left among their leaders.”
Some would argue that is precisely the condition we are in now. Those who identify with both ends of the political spectrum are especially likely to see things that way. Unfortunately, they are also the loudest voices on cable and social media.
But I think most Americans are not that cynical. We care about our government. We want our agencies to be effective at carrying out their responsibilities. We understand that they will undergo course corrections when new administrations come into power. We accept that, and we accept the fact that we will sometimes disagree with the agencies’ policies.
Still, we expect those in charge of our agencies to be honest, fair and, above all, committed to serving the American public. We want them to be servants first and to put their personal interests aside for the sake of the common good.
Surprisingly, perhaps, private companies understand this better than government agencies.
Year after year, Fortune Magazine’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For is dominated by companies that practice servant leadership.
In a servant-led organization, power is used responsibly in service of some common goal. In a corrupt organization, power is used to serve the leaders.
One piece of advice I give college seniors is, if possible, to make sure their first significant job is with a servant-led organization. Such organizations put an emphasis on developing young employees. They set high expectations connected to their mission, and they take care that employees have the resources and support to meet those expectations.
Is it too much to ask that our government agencies be good places for people to work, that they put their mission and culture ahead of the leader’s ego?
Would you want your son or daughter to work for a government agency like the EPA, the Veterans Administration or the Internal Revenue Service? Do you think they would find the work fulfilling, would they grow as people, would they have an experience of working in an ethical culture?
If the answer is “no,” we have only ourselves to blame. After all, we are the ones putting their leaders in place.