It’s never easy to be a civil servant when the White House changes hands, and especially when it changes political parties. When a new president ascends to the Oval Office, he becomes at once civil servants’ new boss and the personification of whatever changes he promised on the campaign trail—changes, that is, to the very work those civil servants were dutifully executing until the moment he was sworn in on Inauguration Day.
Rarely have those revisions been as dramatic as the ones pledged by then-candidate Donald Trump, and never before has civil servants’ role in government taken on such significance. Throughout the president’s chaotic first year in office, civil servants—the public officials who make up the federal government’s silent majority—have continued the essential work of administering federal programs, overseeing regulatory regimes, and generally keeping operations humming as best they can.
They’ve also influenced the direction of government in 2017 in subtle, but crucial, ways: by containing some of the excesses of a new administration and by pushing the White House toward sounder policy outcomes. But should civil servants grow more emboldened to assert their collective power in ways that actively undermine legitimate policy choices of the current leadership, it could exacerbate existing tensions within the government, with detrimental consequences for the country.