Premier awards program boosts agency efforts to highlight and expand their public impact

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Premier awards program boosts agency efforts to highlight and expand their public impact

Two federal agencies are raising their public profile and advancing their mission thanks to the recognition bestowed upon their employees at the 2023 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals®, the nation’s premier awards program for public servants. Since 2001, the Service to America Medals, or the Sammies, have honored more than 750 federal employees.

Melissa Emrey-Arras, a director in the Education, Workforce and Income Security Team at the Government Accountability Office, and Michael Camal, a senior advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, have transformed the lives of millions, shaping and developing programs that enable students to access federal aid and helping aviation personnel reduce human trafficking.

The Sammies brought these unsung accomplishments into public view, illustrating for Congress and the wider public how GAO and DHS save taxpayer dollars and protect our national security, inspiring young people to federal service.

“The Sammies opened people’s eyes to what I do and why it is important. When an organization like the Partnership for Public Service recognizes you, it helps build support for your work and reshapes public perceptions of government,” Camal said.

Melissa Emrey-Arras, Government Accountability Office

Advancing the mission in Congress and the media 

For Emrey-Arras, who won the 2023 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement Medal, which recognizes employees who have served more than 20 years in government, this support came in the form of additional congressional meetings.

In 2022, she discovered that more than 90% of U.S. colleges and universities were not providing accurate cost information in their financial aid offers, leaving students uncertain about how much they needed to pay to attend school under various aid packages.

The Partnership arranged for Emrey-Arras to meet with Rep. Katherine Clark, the House minority whip about her work. During the meeting, Emrey-Arras further championed legislation to address the cost information issue.

“It was a great opportunity to inform a House leader about our work and the need for legislation to help a lot of students,” she said.

As a finalist for an Emerging Leaders Medal, reserved for federal employees under age 35, Camal was featured in a Boston Globe story on the Blue Lighting Initiative, a burgeoning cross-sector program he leads that helps the aviation industry reduce human trafficking.

Camal, who completed four federal internships before landing a job with DHS after earning his undergraduate degree, said the story has helped him grow the number of partners in the program by dispelling the notion that associating with human trafficking work leads to bad press. Thirteen new partners have joined the campaign in the last six months, bringing the total number to 137.

“The publicity was very helpful for the movement, and the extra attention would not have happened if not for the Sammies,” he said.

Michael Camal, Department of Homeland Security 

Inspiring young people to federal service 

Emrey-Arras and Camal believe this publicity is helping to reshape public perceptions of their agencies, particularly among young people.

Emrey-Arras acknowledged that GAO is less known outside of the Beltway but said the recognition she received as a Sammies honoree has led to “more immediate interest” in working there and fostered a better understanding of the ways GAO makes a difference in people’s lives.

Camal added that the Sammies help DHS demonstrate that it focuses on more than just southern border issues and that the opportunity to work on a range of national issues—including anti-trafficking—is worth the challenge of navigating a complex federal hiring process.

“In the last fiscal year, our agency assisted over 730 human trafficking victims, but no one talks about that. More young people will apply for federal work if they see people like me and the other Emerging Leaders finalists solving national security problems,” he said.

Making a lasting impact

By shining a national spotlight on the federal workforce, the Sammies inspire exceptional public servants like Emrey-Arras and Camal to expand their impact.

Emrey-Arras noted that being recognized enabled her to reflect on her career achievements and stay resilient in the face of adversity; Camal asserted that the recognition has fortified his “personal brand” as he considers exploring other federal opportunities in national security.

The awards also help to reduce the government’s trust deficit by presenting more positive stories about federal agencies and their employees. While more than two-thirds of Americans report rarely or never hearing these stories, the vast majority want to, making the Sammies an important vehicle for reconnecting government with those it serves.

“The Sammies are a whole other ballgame. They give you and your agency the opportunity to shine,” Emrey-Arras said.

Watch the 2023 Sammies gala, nominate an exceptional public servant for a 2024 award and read more about how the Service to America Medals help agencies expand their impact.

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