Honoring the federal employees who are solving America’s biggest problems

The past two years have tested the U.S. government’s response to crises after a global pandemic, struggling economy, tumultuous election and natural disasters. And while oversight committees and the media focus on the problems within government, one organization chooses to highlight the good, through the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or "sammies," which are being awarded Thursday.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A global pandemic, a struggling economy, a tumultuous election, natural disasters.

    The past two years have tested the federal government's response to crises. And while congressional oversight committees and often the news media focus on the problems within government, one organization chooses to highlight the good through the Samuel J. Heyman to America Medals, or Sammies, which are being awarded tonight.

    Max Stier, CEO and President, Partnership for Public Service: We're finding the innovators and the people who had done things that had made a real big difference for the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Max Stier is the founding president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which recognizes civil servants through the Sammies, known as the Oscars of government service.

  • Max Stier:

    We were looking for the people that were ultimately solving these big problems for the American people, and they were unheralded. No one really was celebrating their accomplishments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why not?

  • Max Stier:

    I think the first reason why is that we tend, when we think about government, to think about the policy and not the implementation, not the execution.

    The second is, it's a lot easier, I think, to find a problem than to find a solution. Internally, the federal government work force itself, they're incredibly modest. They don't tout their own horn.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we will.

    Many honorees this year are recognized for their work responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Over one weekend in January 2020, two doctors at the National Institutes of Health designed the basic structure of the COVID-19 vaccines that would later save millions of lives.

    As the virus spread globally and shuttered borders, the State Department oversaw the return of more than 100,000 Americans traveling abroad. Back at home, doctors established programs that increased COVID-19 testing and vaccine trial participation among minority communities.

    A director at the Food and Drug Administration worked with pharmaceutical companies to accelerate their timelines for vaccine development. And, as Americans lost their jobs, three women at the Internal Revenue Service led the distribution of $600 billion in stimulus payments.

    There are more accomplishments recognized in the world of science.

  • Max Stier:

    There are scientists at NIST that are figuring out how to address problems with 3-D printing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Others are recognized for their work monitoring mammal populations, strengthening aging dams across the country, surveying children's health, developing vaccines and therapeutics for Ebola, and a breakthrough medical treatment for children with inoperable painful tumors.

    The Sammies honor a range of accomplishments that Stier says exhibit why our government is so important.

  • Max Stier:

    It really is our only tool for collective action that has the imprimatur of the public and taxpayer resources behind it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Accomplishments in outer space, two successful astronaut flights to the International Space Station, and the landing of a rover on Mars.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Max Stier:

    And, on Earth, the coordinated national response to an active hurricane season made more difficult by the pandemic.

  • Man:

    You're going to see that storm surge from Louisiana all the way back to Florida.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One honoree reduced the backlog of veterans' disability appeals by 87 percent in two years. Another led the presidential transition after a tumultuous election, devised a new method for forensic labs to safely identify opioids and toxins, improved the Department of Agriculture's I.T. operations, and created new ways to break down disinfectants and packaging into harmless substances.

  • Max Stier:

    There's a team at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who are focused on children who are in the foster care system and making sure that, when they age out of it, that they're actually taken care of.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Civil servants are also recognized for combating misinformation around the 2020 census, their work in robotics, developing a new weather-forecasting system, and improving pre-travel security screenings.

  • Max Stier:

    There are people at the Department of Homeland Security focused on trying to make sure that we don't bring in goods that are created by slave labor in other countries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That team at Customs and Border Protection led by Ana Hinojosa and Eric Choy, won the Sammies People's Choice award for their accomplishments.

    Ana Hinojosa, U.S. Customs and Border Protection: In a number of countries where we have found forced labor, the governments are making changes to their laws. There are significant improvements that are happening for workers' conditions in those — in those countries. And it's a real benefit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hinojosa and Choy say they and others stay motivated despite often low public regard for government workers.

    Eric Choy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection: To hear the type of criticism that civil servants and government employees are lazy and are not effectively working, I would say that that is just not the case, in my experience.

    They are incredibly dedicated, incredibly focused on the mission. Knowing that you know you are contributing to the broader good, that you are affecting folks' lives overseas is an honor, and is very self-satisfying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And five individuals are recognized for their full careers in public service, working on infectious diseases at the CDC, studying the transport of invasive species by cargo ships, driving the country's wireless revolution at the Federal Communications Commission, saving coral reefs as an oceanographer, and engineering data collecting systems for the census.

  • Max Stier:

    It's everything and anything. It's an extraordinary array of achievement and the American people should be immensely proud in their work force.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And because they have done so during such a challenging time, we salute them.

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