December 11, 2013
NSPE TODAY: OUTLOOK
BY PRESIDENT DAN WITTLIFF, P.E., F.NSPE
It's a privilege to serve the public. Millions of Americans serve as appointed or career public servants at the federal, state, and local levels. If you look through a list of NSPE members, you will find many who are dedicated public servants. In fact, one in six NSPE members practices in one government agency or another. They work for cities, counties, states, and the federal government.
Some of these employers include departments or commissions of public health, transportation, energy, utilities, and environmental protection. NSPE members lead river authorities and other water supply organizations. They serve in defense agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. And still others lead state licensing boards for professional engineers and surveyors, either as employees or appointed officials.
An elected few of our profession serve in Congress or state legislatures as senators or representatives. In my home state of Texas, Representatives R. Wayne Smith, P.E., William Callegari, P.E., and Bennett Ratliff, P.E., are continuing a tradition of leadership and distinguished service to the state. Their colleagues rely on them to provide critical oversight and advice on STEM issues and other issues affecting public health and safety.
Each of these public servants and NSPE members provides a key service to develop, design, evaluate, permit, inspect, or maintain important parts of our nation's critical infrastructure. Most of the enabling statutes for the employers of government engineers task these engineers and their employers with protecting public health, safety, and welfare, as well as protecting the environment and critical resources.
For all of their contributions, however, public servants don't always get the respect they deserve. I've experienced it firsthand.
After a 14-year career with an electric utility in West Texas, I was chosen to be the first chief engineer of the Texas environmental agency. In this position, I served as chief technical officer for a 3,000-person agency with about 1,800 engineers and scientists. It was a unique opportunity to serve my state and make a positive difference in public health and safety, as well as the environment. I was privileged to lead or assist in the development of state rules on air pollution control, water quality and availability, wastewater discharges, and soil contamination remediation.
But when controversial issues arise, the criticism of public employees can get ugly. The stakes are high, and the rhetoric gets heated.
Chief among the challenges faced by public employees are: 1) caps on positions and salaries, 2) budget constraints on funding for much needed upgrades to critical infrastructure, and 3) communicating an understanding of complicated technical issues to the general public.
In addition to the fiscal issues, there is a pervasive skepticism of, and sometimes hostility toward, government and government employees. A December 2012 survey showed that 67% of Americans believe government employees don't work as hard as private-sector employees but get more in return. Just 5% of respondents think public-sector employees are harder workers.
Further, 54% of respondents in a 2012 Pew Research Center survey believe the federal government is mostly corrupt.
In the face of these challenges, NSPE seeks to recognize and publicize the vital role played by engineers at all levels of government. Since 1980, NSPE's Professional Engineers in Government has sponsored the Federal Engineer of the Year Award; and in 2005, PEG began the PEGASUS Award to recognize outstanding PEs employed by a state, regional, county, special district, or municipal government.
The 2013 FEYA ceremony will be held on February 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This year, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin will be keynote speaker. As surgeon general, Benjamin is the operational head of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and thus the leading spokesperson on matters of public health in the federal government.
The 10 FEYA finalists all have made outstanding contributions to public service. Their amazing work has involved building schools in Rwanda, evaluating and repairing damaged infrastructure in Haiti, implementing water safety plans in South America, developing software that determines real-time flood inundation mapping estimates, and converting uranium enrichment tails into usable fuel. (For all the details, see p. 34.)
In closing, I believe it is incumbent on all practicing professional engineers to raise the visibility of the contributions made by engineers practicing at all levels of government. They form a vital part of our profession's efforts to protect public health, safety, and welfare as well as the environment and our natural resources.
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