06/21/2011 12:46 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

When Washington Works

If you have no personal experience with Washington other than paying the tab in mid-April, you might be tempted to buy into the Republican line about government: that it's full of loafers and ne'er-do-wells who spend all day pushing paper around, taking holidays and generally finding ways to waste your money, as Rome burns. And if your only knowledge of the place is what you see of our elected representatives, I'd be reluctant to quibble.

But what you don't see, and rarely hear about, is the silent army of civil servants who do the actual work of running the institutions that make up our government. Take the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a federal agency tasked to advance America's foreign policy by "expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world," according to its website. Funded with less than half of one percent of the federal budget, USAID strives to reduce poverty and disease, spark economic growth, and nurture democracy and peace in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East--effectively, the entire developing world. Pause for a minute and think about that.

The organization is run by people like Eric Postel, who was sworn-in last Friday as Assistant Administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade, making him one of a handful of senior leaders -- or administrators in USAID parlance -- to carry out the mission. His ceremony was held in an ordinary meeting room in the Ronald Reagan building on Pennsylvania Ave, and watching were other senior leaders, former colleagues (including me), family and friends.

Dr. Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, performed the ceremony. Shah is an imposing and impressive man. A brainiac with an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's from the Wharton School, Shah came to USAID after a brief stint as chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture and seven years at the Gates Foundation. Fiercely analytical and driven by technology, Shah is known as a quick study who is eager to modernize USAID. Also at the ceremony was Hilda Arellano, Shah's Counselor, a tri-lingual, 24-year veteran of the agency, recently back from Cairo, who met with some of us before the ceremony to discuss how the agency is training and managing its new hires. USAID's General Counsel, Lisa Gomer, with degrees from Harvard Law School, Johns Hopkins and Stanford, told us about her determination to convince mission directors stationed overseas to embrace reasonable risks and to take the initiative at their USAID posts.

Eric is another one with a big brain and a bigger heart. Educated at Wesleyan University and Stanford University, and armed with experience from his 25 years working in emerging markets, Eric is modest, lovably nerdy, and one of the warmest people you'll ever meet. He speaks with a slight Wisconsin twang, but his mind works at warp speed, devouring impossibly complex problems like procurement reform and biotechnology, and then translating it into English for the rest of us. Even rarer, he can unite competing viewpoints, which he was called on to do many times during his work on the bipartisan HELP Commission, a federally-appointed and rancorous body created to recommend reforms for U.S. foreign assistance. In our work together -- I helped write the HELP Commission report -- he was the first to ask "how are you doing?", the quickest to volunteer for a Saturday in the office, and the last one on the line in our all-day, final-review conference calls.

In his acceptance speech, Eric shared what drives him to work 14-hour days, six days a week:

Our mission is never about us. As you all know so well, it is about things such as the 100,000 plus people uprooted from their homes in just the last two weeks in Southern Sudan. It is about disappearing forests, animals, clean water and reefs. Is it about struggling entrepreneurs in Kenya not getting a fair day in court. And, it is about the millions of people who die each year from disease, starvation or violence. I, like all of you, am coming to work every day because I am motivated to do my little bit, working as a part of a huge team, to try to make a tiny positive difference in developing countries.

After thanking everyone who helped navigate him through the "cruel uncertainties associated with a 26-month selection, vetting, nomination and confirmation process" -- yes, more than two years for this man to be allowed to work for his country -- he read part of a letter he'd written in 1988 to then Professor Madeline Albright, asking to be considered for a job at USAID. With a tremor in his voice, Eric thanked everyone for coming, shared his gratitude for the privilege of serving in the U.S. government, and reminded us that "dreams can come true."

These are some of the people who run the nation. If they are the face of America overseas, then we are very fortunate indeed. They are not starry-eyed idealists who look the other way when reality intrudes on fantasy -- when aid has the unintended consequence of building dependence, warping local economies, or fomenting corruption, as David Brooks discusses in the New York Times. They are deeply serious, profoundly dedicated, and driven by logic and reason to deliver the best possible results to the neediest people with ever-shrinking resources. Who among us can say that about our work? So the next time you hear Sarah Palin and her ilk prattle on about gettin' government off our backs, think about my friend Eric, sitting in a hot office on a Friday evening in June, running one last analysis of the numbers, scanning one more pile of documents for a missing variable, reviewing one last impenetrable proposal before finally calling it a day. He'll be back at his desk on Saturday.