The past two weeks have made me ask myself two fundamental questions: What does public service really mean, and what is my responsibility when I am told I cannot serve?
I am a public servant in my heart and in my career. I have devoted 20 years to serving people who are homeless — starting as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in the early 1990s and now as director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s office on homelessness. I live and breathe this work, and HUD’s incredible staff and partners have made a positive difference in the lives of people who experience what most of us cannot imagine: having no safe place to call home.
The federal government shutdown is wreaking havoc on me, my staff, our grantees and the people we help. I don’t sleep because I worry about the single moms on my staff, the grantees who cannot access funds to pay staff and rent, and the homeless people who may be going without services. I worry about the delays in funding and the backlog of important work that builds each day the shutdown continues. I worry about the pressure all of us will face when we are finally allowed to return to work.
In a year in which we have had to implement painful cuts to programs that assist the nation’s most vulnerable, this shutdown is a further affront to public servants who take their jobs and missions seriously, as well as to those Americans who rely on us and our government.
Progress on our mission — which is to end homelessness — has already, undeniably, been compromised. So has the work of the public servants who protect the environment, monitor food safety, run our national parks, conduct lifesaving clinical drug trials, provide IRS taxpayer services, process government-backed mortgages for low- and moderate-income home buyers and so much more.
To me, being a public servant means I pursue my mission with fierce determination, a strong work ethic and with the big picture in mind, even as I deal with the minutiae of the federal bureaucracy. It means being a leader to my team and to service providers across the country, even when the situation is difficult. It means making decisions that are in the best interests of everyone touched by our programs. I am not always right, but I try hard to do all of these things with integrity and transparency.
Working for our government is not just a job. It is a calling. Public service is filled with individuals like those I work with at HUD, who are devoted to helping people, making the country stronger and making our world a safer and better place to live.
So, the answer to the questions I asked is this: My responsibility as a public servant is to inform our political leaders about the impact their actions have on the people of this country and on those who serve them. It also is my responsibility to remind them that they, like me, are public servants.
Please act like it.
Ann Marie Oliva is director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs.