In Appreciation of a Public Servant

Government employees don’t get much public respect these days. We should pay more attention to people like the late Jeff Appel, Terry Hartle writes.

December 9, 2019
Jeff Appel

Many Americans have a visceral distrust of the federal government and anyone associated with it. Long-term federal employees are routinely portrayed as fools, knaves, dupes, loafers or worse.

Anyone who works closely with government officials, of course, understands that this is completely wrong. The truth is that a huge number of highly skilled men and women spend their professional lives working in government and trying to make the world a slightly better place. Rarely do they get the notice or attention that their contributions merit.

Which brings me to Jeff Appel. Jeff was smart, hardworking and thoughtful, and he personified the type of civil servant whose only goal is to make government work better for the public. Sadly, he died on Nov. 29, far too young at the age of 56.

After graduating from the University of Arizona, Jeff was promptly hired by Congress’s Government Accounting Office (today known as the Government Accountability Office) and assigned to its Education, Workforce and Income Security team, where he worked on higher education issues. He would later earn a master’s degree in applied economics at Johns Hopkins University, which gave him extraordinary quantitative skills to apply to the massive federal student loan program with its mind-numbingly complex array of component parts. He surely would have made more money in the private sector, but his belief in the intrinsic value of public service made him a government lifer.

In 2007, he went to work for the House Education and Labor Committee, where he was part of a team that made huge changes in the student loan program -- including the move to 100 percent federal direct lending.

In 2011, he joined the Obama administration’s Department of Education, where he eventually became a deputy under secretary. His biggest achievement there was undoubtedly implementing a technical-sounding change in student aid policy called “prior-prior year.” This made it possible for students to apply for federal financial aid as much as six months earlier than before and greatly enhanced their ability to plan an education.

While widely supported, implementing the change created enormous operational challenges. One Obama official told me point-blank, “Without Jeff Appel, prior-prior year would not have happened. Period.”

So great was the respect for Jeff’s technical skills and even-handedness that he was kept in a senior position by the Trump administration and acted as chief enforcement officer for the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid. This put him in the unenviable position of having to defend the Trump administration’s record handling federal student loan cancellations in a hearing before the House committee where he used to work. But Jeff did this the way he did everything -- professionally and effectively.

In 1937, University of Chicago political scientist Louis Brownlow wrote a report on staffing in the executive branch that began with the remarkable sentence, “The President needs help,” and went on to call for creating a cadre of neutral professionals who were committed to public service.

They should have, wrote Brownlow, “a passion for anonymity.” In today’s social media world, nobody is anonymous. But Jeff personified the type of civil servant that Brownlow wanted -- highly skilled, with unimpeachable integrity and a complete commitment to effective and efficient delivery of government services.

Ultimately, our best hope for a functional and responsive federal government is that the nation will continue to produce young people who will be attracted to public service because it offers a chance to do good and important work that matters to real people. They will not find a better role model than Jeff Appel.

Thank you, Jeff.


Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.


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