The GSA and Secret Service scandals: Where's the public virtue?

The misconduct of Secret Service agents and General Services Administration (GSA) workers must lead to reforms and better education of public workers about their special role.

Fernando Llano/AP Photos
US Secret Service agents walk around the convention center in Cartagena, Colombia, prior to the Summit of the Americas April 14. Two days before, a dozen secret service agents sent to provide security for President Obama were relieved from duty after an incident of alleged misconduct.

One can measure the quality of a society by its civil servants. For many Americans, that simply means judging the wait time at a motor vehicle registry. Or how quickly a letter is delivered. Or how soon a tax refund arrives.

But when scandal hits a few federal agencies that are icons of public service, it is time to recall why a person should work for the government – and it shouldn’t be for the benefits.

Washington is now probing recent misconduct by small groups of workers in the armed services, the Secret Service, and the General Services Administration (GSA). One scandal involves hotel carousing and the use of prostitutes by as many as 20 Secret Service and military personnel during President Obama’s recent trip to Colombia. The other is an extravagant, $820,000 conference for some 300 GSA workers at a casino spa hotel near Las Vegas.

Both scandals reflect badly on the majority of career federal workers who are ethical, hardworking, and cost-conscious. And the timing of the revelations – during an election season and just before many Americans pay taxes – only adds to a rising distrust of government.

Scandals are hardly new to Washington, although the federal bureaucracy is probably cleaner and more efficient than the days before a professional civil service was instituted. Scandals can also be overblown for political purposes.

Closer to home, scandals in state and local government usually have a more direct impact. The most common ones of late involve public employees who somehow gained unusually high pensions at a time when states are struggling with outsized costs to fund employee retirement benefits.

Each new scandal usually brings reforms. Yet the best reform is to make sure public workers – and would-be ones – know the special meaning of such jobs. For many of those in the civil service or the uniformed services, an oath is often required – to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution. They work for all members of society and are stewards of the money provided by taxpayers.

Following a rule book and the law is a given, but more important than that, government employees must operate out of selfless virtue and a sense of public trust, even when “off duty.”

“Character is not a private issue” for public servants, says Navy Capt. Chuck Hollingsworth, who recently commanded the Navy’s Center for Personal and Professional Development. “Regardless of one’s spiritual inclination, professional and ethical behavior can and should be the expectation.”

“The American federal workforce is unique,” he states. “We are called to serve – not a supervisor or boss, but a proud nation and set of higher ideals.”

Improved reform of government is always needed, such as more protection for whistle-blowers or better congressional oversight. Codes of ethics are useful, but they only work if government workers have a well-trained idea of professional public service.

The public’s often cynical view of “bureaucrats” can be overcome if more government workers live up to the expectations and ideals of those who employ them.

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