Why have a blog these days if you can’t rant a little? This one has been building for awhile, triggered by a high-ranking official at my place of work mentioning that it was time for the annual posting of the Hatch Act. The law was passed in 1939 to restrict the political activities of federal employees. I suspect that at the time, communists were the main target of the act. Over the decades, a whole culture has been built around the notion that federal employees are held to a higher standard of behavior. Back when I was a seasonal employee, signing a loyalty oath to the government was part of getting hired every year! Each year we are subjected to a review of ethics. Not only can we not have a conflict of interest, we can’t have the appearance of a conflict of interest. We can’t use our jobs to benefit personally. We can’t let personal relationships with family or community influence any agency action, or vice versa. No playing favorites. Stay on the straight and narrow. People are watching and listening to scanners, just waiting to catch a government employee doing something wrong.
I don’t object to accountability—I think it’s a good thing. But I detest the culture of fear that has grown like weeds around the agency. The high-ranking official warned us to erase any trace of our employer from our online presences. Don’t mention it on Facebook, or blogs, or anything. Don’t have a personal opinion while wearing the uniform. Don’t do or say anything that might be offensive or controversial. The Washington office issues “white papers” with “talking points” designed to help employees know the official company line. Must keep official behinds well-covered.
It’s easy to Google the Hatch Act and read it for yourself, which I did. It specifically covers partisan political activities. It doesn’t prohibit federal employees from having a presence in the digital world, only from using government equipment to do so while not on official business. So anybody can go to my author page and learn who I work for. I don’t have to mention it, but the fact that I get paid to work outdoors as a public servant is somewhat important to the understanding of my writing.
One of the great things about the Internet (and there is plenty to criticize) is that it’s messy and hard to regulate. It’s a tool for democracy. It’s a tool for my constitutionally-protected right to free speech. And certainly employees of my agency have criticized it publically in the past, causing some changes for the better. The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics still exists, and it should.
I don’t like propaganda. I don’t like having it fed to me, and I won’t spread it. My employer has no control over my critical thinking or opinions, especially when I come home. My employer says that it values diversity, but it doesn’t always act like it. I reserve the right to point this out. My first loyalty is to the Land in public land, and second to the Public. If the agency can’t state and follow a clear mission for itself (which it can’t), then I will follow the one that feels true to me. And I can do that without taking sides in partisan politics. I’m still waiting for elected officials to be held to the same standards of behavior that I am.
Now back to your regularly scheduled reading…