Partnership’s 2024 Trust Summit explores the value of a nonpartisan civil service
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Partnership’s 2024 Trust Summit explores the value of a nonpartisan civil service

June 27, 2024

Amid mounting proposals to do away with the merit-based, nonpartisan civil service in favor of hiring based on political loyalty, the Partnership for Public Service hosted its second annual Trust Summit, which focused on the role of civil servants in our democracy and convened leaders across government, media, business and philanthropy to discuss the consequences of politicizing the federal career workforce.  

During the summit, we also released new data showing that, although overall trust in the federal government is declining, Americans hold civil servants in high regard.  

Majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe an effective civil service is crucial to a strong democracy and that civil servants should be hired and promoted based on their merit.  

Main takeaways from the convening 

1. Building public understanding of who civil servants are is key to building trust in government.  

“People think of bickering politicians when they think about the federal government, not the amazing work going on at the Department of Veterans Affairs or at the naval shipyard,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, emphasizing that federal employees are experts in their fields and highlighting the need to ensure government continues to hire the best and the brightest.  

Speakers, from Partnership President and CEO Max Stier to bestselling author Michael Lewis, also emphasized the need to better tell the story of who civil servants are and what they do to help distinguish public servants from elected leaders in Congress. 

2. Qualified civil servants are essential to good democratic governance, which is essential to innovation and development.

In a discussion on why politicizing the career civil service would harm the business community, co-founder and CEO of the Leadership Now Project, Daniella Ballou-Aares, and general manager of Microsoft’s Democracy Forward initiative, Ginny Badanes, emphasized that good democratic governance relies on a qualified, effective civil service and is key to innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Rhett Buttle, Daniella Ballou-Aares and Ginny Badanes during a panel discussion titled, “The Intersection of Business, Innovation and the Federal Civil Service.”

“Microsoft makes 97% of our income from the world’s democracies. And that’s not a coincidence,” said Badanes. “We know that when we work in a democracy that there’s rule of law, we know that we can trust the system is going to treat us fairly. We know that our employees are going to have a good standard of living. We know that innovation can thrive, that there’s an environment where creativity can exist.”  

Ballou-Aares added that many businesses joining the Leadership Now Project are concerned about risks. “At the core of that is [concern over] rule of law … [do we] have a system where there is faith in the institutions,” said Ballou-Aares, adding that the ability of civil servants who underpin these institutions to do their job consistently is critical to instilling faith.  

3. Good government reform requires cross-sector collaboration.

“It takes all of us to think about what the challenges are and figure out the solutions,” said Jenny Mattingley, vice president of government affairs for the Partnership.  

“So much does work about government on a day-to-day basis but … there are some things that need to be modernized, funded [and] upgraded, so how do we find those issues and make sure government both works for the people who are getting the services [and] the people inside the government who are doing the work?”  

Ballou-Aares and Badanes also examined the role and responsibility of businesses in changing negative narratives about public-private partnerships and supporting good democratic governance.  

“Microsoft has a responsibility. We are leaning in. I just don’t think we can solve these things alone,” Badanes said. 

Rep. Kilmer underscored that there is no silver bullet to fixing government. “It’s more like a silver buckshot,” he said.

James Hohmann and Rep. Derek Kilmer during a keynote fireside chat on “Modernizing Government to Deliver for the Public.”

There is indeed no one-size-fits-all approach to fixing government. Different approaches will work for different sectors, and everyone has a role to play to ensure government better delivers for the public.  

If there is one thing for certain, however, it’s that politicizing the nonpartisan civil service is not the right strategy.  

To learn more about our trust work, visit our website and our Trust in Government Dashboard. For more resources and tools on our democracy protection work, visit our Protecting Democracy page.

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