What do you do when you’re a federal employee working for an administration and you don’t agree with its policies?
I have some experience with this question. Ronald Reagan signed my commission when I entered the State Department as a Foreign Service officer, and Barack Obama was president when I retired. Over the intervening 24 years I was present for multiple presidential transitions. Like most of the government, I was rank-and-file, a lifer, not a political appointee chosen by a president to serve only during his term.
There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about President Donald Trump’s first 100 days and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and now suggest civil servants and intelligence officers will resign en masse. Pundits say Trump is... different, ignoring the fact that change is part of elections, sometimes the point of elections (witness the ideological swings from Carter to Reagan, Bush to Obama). Yet to many in 2017, the current transition appears dramatic, even frightening.
Some of the concern among federal workers comes from lack of experience. Looking at my old employer, the average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years. Overall within the government the average is less than 14 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have seen only one Democrat to Republican presidential transition. Still, no matter how much or little experience one has, not everyone is going to like what is coming next. On a practical level, what can you do?
READ MORE REUTERS COVERAGE OF THE 45TH U.S. PRESIDENT:
Take a deep breath and remember this is what you signed up for. Every federal employee takes an oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. If you’re thinking of resigning because the wrong candidate won, you’re probably in the wrong business.
If you stay, the strategy many have followed in the past is patience. No president – or policy – lasts forever. Ideas promoted in an election can disappear overnight as world events intervene. Political appointees, ideologues and amateurs (and there are always a few good ones mixed in with the bad; the best ambassador I served under was an appointee from a party I didn’t support) can move on quicker than expected, often backfilled with steady careerists. Perspective helps: can anyone claim they supported every decision of any administration?
Staying can be hard, but there are ways to make it easier. One is to seek out offices and programs with less of a partisan focus. Once faced with a job coordinating educational exchanges that turned into a full-time propaganda operation, I found more comfortable circumstances moving to an office dealing with technology.
There are those who will want to change the system or alter policy. That goal needs a tough-love reality check: how much effect on change do you have now under the best of circumstances? Don’t expect your powers to level-up just because there was an election; in fact, it may be the opposite. The political appointees Trump will send into federal offices have as their purpose driving his agenda. They have the ear of powerful people, and you likely don’t.
Those who have strong objections to a policy or program may consider, within the law, working with a journalist to amplify their concerns. Don’t make a call or send an email without speaking to a qualified lawyer first. And remember unofficial leakers are not treated kindly by the federal government, and security clearances can disappear on thin pretenses as a result.
The final option is to consider resigning. Everyone has limits to their conscience.
But you’ll probably be alone, or near enough. Policies of significant moral consequences over the 15 years of the “war on terror” are not new – torture, drone killings, spying on Americans and allies, manipulated intelligence. There were few public resignations as a result, certainly nothing reaching anywhere near “en masse.” One of the most divisive events inside the State Department in recent times was the decision to send diplomats in large numbers to Iraq in support of the 2003 invasion. Internal opposition grew so strong that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened to compel people to work in Iraq, breaking State’s long more-or-less volunteer tradition for dangerous assignments.
The result? Most people ended up voluntarily going to Iraq when needed anyway. Out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over Iraq, one other related to Afghanistan. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.
Resignation from federal government service is a nuclear option that affects everything: family relationships, security clearances, future government and contracting jobs, mortgages student loans and one’s own mental health. Pensions and other retirement benefits require 20 or more years on the job; few people 17 years in are going to quit. The decision to risk all is deeply personal and cannot be made en masse.
For me, when the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the U.S. reconstruction program in Iraq under Presidents Bush and Obama reached the limits of what in good conscience I could participate in, and after failing to see any change by going through channels, I chose to blow the whistle via my book, We Meant Well. My opposition was to a policy pursued under two presidents, one of whom I actually campaigned door-to-door for. The State Department in response flirted with sending me to jail, tried to fire me and strip me of my pension, and in the end pushed me into an early retirement.
It is early days for the Trump administration. Slow down. Focus on specific policies of concern as opposed to a person. Think practically, not emotionally. Consider options if conscience calls. You can take a principled stand, but expect to pay for all you take.
For more Reuters Commentary coverage of Trump’s first 100 days, click here.
(Peter Van Buren is the author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” The views presented here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Department of State. @WeMeantWell)
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.