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"People don’t even know you exist ... I mean, federal workers are this invisible face."

That's from the First Lady while addressing federal employees at the Department of the Interior last week. 

The "people who don't know" seem to be anybody in the United States. Of course, the publicly unappreciated federal employee is an old story. And I don't think our job is to be really visible to the public; our job is to be really useful to them (see these great discussions from Nick Charney and Jeffrey Levy).

But inside our agencies, it should be different, right? After all, every way that we interact with the world outside our walls is largely shaped by what's going on inside. If we're going to keep pushing the notion of customer service, don't our employees need to be well-served themselves?

I'm tossing softballs with those questions — most anyone would nod along and say, "Yes, duh, of course." 

Well, then let's take a look at some fed.-wide results from the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey in categories that represent internal culture and communication; the number after each statement below is the percentage of agreement out of 100:

  • I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders. (61)
  • In my organization, leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. (53)
  • My organization’s leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. (54)
  • How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization? (64)

Much of these perceptions haven't changed in a long time, and they are greatly affected by what's going on outside of an organization's control (sequestration, for example). But if we're so keen on transforming the way gov. delivers service and value to its citizens, I have to wonder:

  • When a shutdown or sequester looms, why are we restricted from telling our employees anything but "The President is confident an agreement will be reached"?
  • Why do memos about significant policy or leadership changes get out weeks after the fact?
  • Do we ever respond to legitimate employee concerns and inquiries with near the urgency or enthusiasm of a media, Hill, or Administration request?
  • Or is this just a realization of the you-always-hurt-the-ones-you-love truism — should we be thankful we have a job, shut up, and get back to work?

You tell me: Does government take its employees seriously?


Shameless self-promo: If you think this a worthy topic, please vote for me in the NextGen Speaker Contest at (voting closes May 3). I'd like to present on treating employees like customers, and I need your help making the top 5. Thank you!

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Tags: customer service, internal communication, you tell me

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Government takes its employees abstractly.  That is, management cares, but apart from line supervisors, is often so far removed as to not have a good sense of the realities, and in turn how to respond to them.

I work in the area of employee surveys.  I'm the poor sap who has to read all the (anonymous) comments people submit with their surveys, in addition to working with the checkmark data itself.  I have one comment taped to my wall that is 3 solid continuous pages of 10pt Arial Narrow with 3/4" margins all around, and no indents or paragraph separations.  It is clearly an outlier, but reflects how deep feelings can run.

For a variety of operational reasons, I end up reading tales of sorrow about HRM tragedies some 8 months to a year after they've happened.  I liken myself to a highly-trained paramedic who is only allowed to show up to the scene of the accident after everyone involved has bled out and died.  I don't get to save anyone; I just get to count the bodies and cart them away.

What management wants from me are numbers.  Now, I am a dyed-in-the-wool quantitative research guy, so numbers that tell a clear story and shed light are an absolute source of delight to me.  Every shipment of fresh data brings a sparkle to my eye, and a skip in my step.  And I fully understand how management's dance card is so full that there is no time to read these comments, so they want, and need, a quick 3-paragraph summary of the hundreds of pages of misery and frustration I've plowed through.  And I know that management are good caring generous people.

But there is something missing.

And that's why I don't broach it in terms of caring or not, in terms of taking them seriously or not, but in terms of abstractly vs concretely/realistically.  What we desire is what transpires when people are close.  What we all too often get is what happens when people are separated by distance.

And, I might add, the numbers you cite are also a product of what happens when staff are separated from senior management and head office.  Keep in mind that most of the federal agencies included in the FEVS results are distributed across the union and sometimes around the world.  Their leadership may not know them, as employees, but they don't know their leadership, either.  That distance can breed mistrust, or at least reluctance to trust.

Great comment, Mark (no surprise).

Abstractly is a great way to characterize the mgmt. view of employees in a large, diffuse organization (and to a certain extent, I'm playing devil's advocate above). As you say, it's far more efficient to paint in broad strokes for managers than in fine detail. Some of this will never change so long as senior leaders don't walk into every employees cubicle (being "close", as you say) and tell them what's happening.

And as a data guy, you know that you have to be very careful with results from surveys like these: they are NOT facts or the truth. They are the answers that best represented the feelings of the respondents at the time to the multiple choice questions that were asked. That's an awful lot of extenuating context.

However, part of that "something missing" is urgency -- managers can't do a quantitative check in every 6-12 months, analyze the data 8 months later, and say "We did what we could." That's not true; there are several ways (short web polls, idea sharing/voting, town hall meetings, blog comments, etc.) to get input on a regularly basis and then paint broad strokes with that feedback. 

The burden on managers is to look at that feedback and say to employees, "Ok, here's the picture I think you painted for me. And here's my response." Rinse and repeat.

The way I try to characterize the goal of such feedback and communication is to be thorough enough that no one can claim "no one told me" unless their intentionally out of touch/being contrary. And for those (hopefully few) folks, sometimes you just have to move on.

Government takes its employees abstractly ... so they want, and need, a quick 3-paragraph summary of the hundreds of pages of misery and frustration I've plowed through.

And therein lies some of the problem.  Condensing hundreds of pages of misery into a few numbers and a paragraph or two in a 1-page memo enables the abstraction.

Not that you can force management to read the raw comments, or even get them to read a 3-page memo when they've asked for one page -- you need to deliver what you're asked for. 

But perhaps you can find ways to make some of the results more concrete and visceral -- and less abstract.  Imagine finding a big blank wall someplace and taping up print-outs all the *negative* comments in one grouping, maybe on yellow or pink paper, and next to that a grouping (presumably much smaller) of all the *positive* comments, perhaps on green paper.  Then imagine a photo of that wall included as an illustration in your one-page memo.  Square feet of angst would make the statistics much more "real" than a bar chart.

That's just an example, but if the problem is -- as you've speculated -- an issue of abstraction, it can't be addressed by reporting it in abstract forms of statistics.

Thanks, Randy and Dave.

I'm going to stretch so hard right now, that the seam in my pants is in jeopardy.  (Look out world!)

The issue of abstraction and its unwitting victim - urgency - is not unlike the difference between economic theory and real life.  The abstraction is true, and economic theory can be true, but they are truths that march to a different time frame.   Yes, markets self-regulate, yadda, yadda, yadda, but they do so over a period of time much longer than my landlord is willing to wait for the rent, or my kids are willing to wait for their next meal, or than the shoes on their feet will last.  What people want and need in their lives are not the outcomes of economic models over a 12-year period, but something that impacts on their life right now

And similarly, the executive summaries, quantitative summaries, "dashboards", accountability frameworks, etc., and the planning retreats they feed, are all well-intentioned, and thoughtful.  But they move in the time-frame of abstract thought, and do nothing about one's circumstance, motivation, impact, respect, etc., right now.

There is often no conflict between the truth of one's life as an employee, or as a citizen, and the truth of management's or "government's" ideas, or the truth of economic theory.  But there is a big gulf between the time frames that each thinks in terms of.  Someone else's plan for my economic or career future may be perfectly in line with what I desire as employee or citizen, but the timelines are not.  And often, the difference in timelines, simply because one deals in the abstract and one in the concrete, is such that the folks who deal in the abstract seem disingenuous.

To be taken "seriously", as the question at the heart of the thread implies, is to be responded to in a tangible manner within a timeframe that seems sincere.  We treat the turnaround time as symbolic, meaningful, and a barometer of both sincerety AND seriousness.  I don't know that it would ever satisfy all that many of us to be told "Hang on, we're working on it", but at the same time one needs some realism about the different time universes occupied by "them" and "us".  They're an important divide.

Government tries to suppress its employees via cumbersome internal processes and policies that disempower and anonymize the individual in favor of the institution.  However, social media is available 24X7 whereas employees are only on the clock for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week on average.  This means that the average government employee can amplify his/her individual voice via blogs and other social media tools.  So, while the institution may not take the employee seriously, the rest of the world often does. 

From my own blog, and an recent article that is linked below:

In a new book, “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath,” author Nicco Mele argues that global cynicism is not only warranted, it’s the inevitable result o... wrought by what he calls “radical connectivity.”  That is, our ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly and globally using breathtaking new tools that “empower the individual at the expense of existing institutions and ancient social structures.” These include government, businesses, entertainment, military, schools, media, religion, and other big institutions designed to protect and sustain people.

I want more than a job. I want to make a difference and I want to work for an organization that wants me to want to make a difference ... unfortunately most of that gets lost in paperwork, er, translation.

...or the paperwork required to arrange for the translation?  (Canadian joke)

While I can only theorize on the bureaucracy behind this Canadian joke, I bet I know what dynamic is at play here: the process of government is treated as more important than the actual mission/service of government.

And to your comment, Nick, my goodness, that is frustrating.

Nah.  Nothing quite as deep as that.  We just have a legal obligation to provide documents in both official languages - English and French.  And even though a great many folks are fluently bilingual, for purposes of dealing with the public, dealing with staff or coworkers, or making pitches in management meetings, the officially approved terms for things can sometimes be different than what is used in any given conversation, so stuff generally needs to be "sent for translation", regardless of the level of fluency of the writer.  Translation costs money, and much like degrees of parcel delivery service, the cost can depend on the turnaround time you require.  I've had papers that never saw the light of day, partly because the translation costs were considered prohibitive.  Well, that, and they were bloody long because...well, it's ME, eh?

In the DoD world...there are things called PD's.  Everyone gets one.  Whatever is on that sheet of paper along with your Desktop Guide, that is what you do, day in and day out.  If you are a GS 09 or below, innovation is not warranted, you do what you do in 8, and go home.  You have no power to change policy, as it has to go way up the food chain.  I can surely understand Mark's point.  It doesn't make it that far.  Ah, the paper tiger.  If you work in government, you learn to live with it, in triplicate.  

Hey Dave – very thoughtful post! I commented on Jeffrey's as well.

I think we all have – at some point in our careers – experienced moments when we didn’t feel appreciated in the workplace. But with or without applause, it is still our responsibility to understand our call to duty which is to serve the public. Such is the same with military families and the struggles they face. Do we know the faces and names of every current or former military member (several in my family) who sacrifice to protect us? While unbeknownst to the public, individually we have to remember the oath of office we all take when we enter duty – I keep a copy on my desk. :-)

It’s not always a rose-colored journey – there will be sacrifices, misunderstandings, and moments of doubt. Yet, there can also be triumphs, satisfaction when the job is done well, and a humble truth that we can master when we realize we have been called to serve and simply to make a difference. Sometimes the thanks comes when you least expect it and sometimes you won't see it. But the truth is, the public isn’t concerned about what makes our internal procedures work or who didn’t get their pay raise. They just need us to do what we have pledged to do.  

An unhappy workforce will inevitably produce less than desired results, but I think we all play a role in our environment. So, I don’t know if we are truly ready to answer the posed question until we look further within ourselves. We all know that coworker or two who don't have the highest aspirations and are content to just "get by." Given the circumstances of today’s economy and high-demand for jobs, I’m not so sure we have much to bargain with anymore. But yes, it does make you wonder what really impacts the numbers.

I think we can all benefit from learning what it takes to be happy and “How to Love Your Government Career” (I’m just as shameless as you!) And I do think you raise a valid question!

Thanks, Bernetta. I like your presentation concept, too, and think that it's an important one at a time when gov. employees are getting beat over the head.

In response to your comment: To a great extent, I don't think we should expect to win the battle of public perception/appreciation.

Government is sort of like air conditioning: When it's working well, we rarely say, "Boy, I just can't get over how nice this a/c is -- I think I'll contact the manufacturer and praise them." When it breaks, however ...

I can accept that. What I can't accept is that sort of dichotomy playing out inside of government. We serve at the involuntary pleasure of the taxpayer. We should therefore deliver the most efficient and effective government that tax dollars can provide. If we can't attract and retain great employees with excellent pay and public glory, we should attract them by otherwise being a great place to work.


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