Civil service jobs are apolitical

There are 2 million federal employees in the U.S., and a lot of them work in and around DC, but we do not hear them talk about politics. Why?

Civil service jobs are apolitical

There are 2 million federal employees in the U.S., and a lot of them work in and around DC. But we do not hear them talk about politics. Why?

In a nutshell, it is because civil service jobs are *apolitical.* As a civil servant, you work for the United States of America - the whole country - not any political subset of it.

This is exactly how it should be. As an everyday citizen, you don't want to call up the Department of Education for a loan (or pick any agency and reason for calling) and get different service because of your political party. You are an American citizen, political party is (should be/must be) irrelevant to the service you receive.

Anyway, what keeps federal employees directed towards the will of the people and focused to do their job apolitically? If you ask a federal employee, they might mention two things in particular: the Constitution and the Hatch Act.

The United States Constitution

First, let's talk United States Constitution. Most federal workers work for the Executive Branch, whose powers the Constitution designates to the President. But since the job ended up being too big for one office, over time various responsibilities were gifted to new federal agencies established that still all report to the President to this day. For example, the Department of State (est. 1789) handles foreign affairs and reports to the President. But even with now so many agencies, under the Constitution a federal employee's job is still to serve whichever President in office (within bounds of laws, rules, and regulations).

You work for an agency, but the people elected the President, and the Constitution puts the President atop the entire Executive Branch. So you work for the President.

In practice, what that means in the daily life of an everyday federal employee is you go to work, and you have guidance from the President's political appointees who are there leading your agency. Their job is to manage the agency on the President's behalf, since the actual President is too busy to be at your agency, etc. But that is only half the story. You do not just take orders and run at the blind whims of the political appointee because you have subject matter and execution expertise that the political appointees probably don't have - they just got there, and maybe you've been there for 5, 10, or 20 years - and if the appointees want to succeed they probably need you. So it becomes a symbiotic relationship of power and expertise.

If this sounds like it could be a tug of war, that is true. Think Trump versus Fauci - the knowledge and experience power of an international infections disease expert versus the legitimate ("I'm your boss") power of the nationally elected president with Constitutional authority - but on a smaller scale. It is not always pretty.

But in the best case (and probably usually) what we the citizens get is civil servant & appointee teamwork that looks like objectives set by the President (elected by the people) and appointees within the bounds of laws, rules, and regulations (may change over time), all to some appropriate extent co-created, informed, and executed by civil servants, given their subject matter area and job expertise. And then, say, if you or me a citizen calls the Department of Education about your educational loan, someone at that agency picks up the phone, and you are taken care of.

As an aside, there is at least one process to try to prevent the very least qualified and least fit political appointees from damaging an agency: Congressional approval. If the President wants to appoint an incompetent bum, hopefully the Senate votes no. (Hopefully but not always, a rabbit hole I will save for another time.)

...moving on...

The Hatch Act

A second factor that helps keep civil servants and working in your interest apolitically is the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from doing certain political things while they are employed in the federal service. Since the Hatch Act affects all federal agencies, this page is as good as any to share.

Because violating the Hatch Act can be a big deal - you can get fired - many federal employees limit themselves to "exercising the most basic rights of civic participation, such as voting, making political contributions, and expressing individual opinions," as the FDA website puts it. And what opinions they do express, typically it won't be on social media because that can go viral.

This is why if you know a federal worker, they are probably not trying to hit 100k views on TikTok. They may not even be liking Twitter or Facebook posts, unless it is a cute doggie or something innocuous. They are probably mowing their lawn, making dinner, etc. This is part of what makes them good at their job and comes with the territory - a much less publicly politically opinionated life.

We should all be appreciative of federal workers who do this because that is what we need from federal workers. A politicized Department of Defense, Department of HUD, or you name it, would be a total nightmare for the USA.

If do happen to you want to look for political opinions from Washington people who work somewhere in government, generally speaking look to the Legislative Branch. You'll hear plenty because that is where politics is the job. You can find legislative aides galore on Twitter. It is the yin to the yang.

Politics versus Policy

Before I close this post, let me make one more Hatch Act distinction, which is between *politics* versus *policy.* Because I am not a lawyer, I will keep it inexact.

Basically, federal employees have to be careful publicly talking politics. For example, it can easily be a Hatch Act violation to say something like "this specific politician or political party is bad" because this is highly political and in many circumstances out of bounds. In spirit, you don't want this associated with an agency that is supposed to be apolitical.

But it is a different story for policy. For example, if you think there are too many potholes in the road, my understanding is it is basically fine to go ahead and say, "our roads are full of potholes." Or if you think the pandemic is dangerous, it is OK to say "COVID-19 kills people." These are transportation & health policy issues. In spirit, if a federal employee speaks on policy issues, they remain apolitical - they are only recognizing policy issues that concern the public - and they may even have special expertise in that area.

Or to use a real world example - when you hear Dr. Fauci talk publicly about COVID-19 public health guidelines, that might annoy Trump, but it's not anything close to a Hatch Act violation. Fauci never says "Trump (adjective)" or "Republicans (adjective)." He only talks public health policy. Which is exactly appropriate given his position.

Header photo by Maria Oswalt / Unsplash