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I work for the government and I am NOT the enemy

It seems that the country is becoming more and more polarized. Right wingers have become far-right-wingers, and left wingers are moving far-left, all are becoming wing-nuts. I've been a federal employee for (gulp) 25 years and it's rarely been something to be "proud" of to non federal people, i.e. the general public. Perception of federal employees as lazy, overpaid, incompetent, among other adjectives are widespread. With the Obama administration there seems to be some recognition that this perception is an actual problem.

When people observe the wasteful practices generally perpetuated by congress, they associate that with a wasteful incompetent government and of course those working in the government must also be wasteful and incompetent.

I just have this bad smell of growing numbers of people claiming we are overpaid (http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2010/03/05/federal-pay-gap-reversed/) and more frighteningly to be attacked. The attack on the IRS building (http://www.theledger.com/article/20100308/NEWS/3085004/1308/TIMEOUT...) in Austin Texas last month strikes me as a canary in the coal mine type of behavior. Of course everyone loves to hate the IRS (no I don't work for them) but the reality is they are just feds doing their job. In the press everyone condems this as the isolated actions of a crazed individual, and often that is followed up with, statements such as "yeah but I understand his frustrations". Thus implicitly condoning the action or at least tolerating it. Let's not forget about last weeks Pentagon shooting also linked to anti-government thinking http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iCKwXk17aAr3T_8Z9.... Finally AOL reports on a rapid rise of anti-government groups http://www.aolnews.com/nation/article/anti-government-groups-show-a....

So my question is simple, how do we change this perception of federal employees as the enemy?

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Comment by Joshua joseph on March 11, 2010 at 11:48pm
Reading through the comments, notice a number of people commenting on the negative public views of federal employees and what drives them. Think I can add some insight based on a study/survey we did with Gallup in 2009, just before Obama came into office.

We'd read all the literature, saw the trend lines in declining views of fed gov't over the past 40 years and wanted to understand the dynamics better. A key question was whether we could separate views of federal workers from the politics and politicians. I can't pretend there's any foolproof way to do this, but using a question framed to separate these things out, we found differences of 10 to 15 percentage points in terms of favorable ratings when asking about the performance of "men and women in the fed gov't (37% favorable), compared with views on "Dept's and agencies of the fed. gov't (27% favorable) and Congress (22% favorable). Of course, all of these numbers are anemic compared to views about "men and women in the US military" (90%) the "the US military (79%) and even "local gov't elected officials" (46%). Top line results of the In The Public We Trust study can be downloaded here.

The data were also pretty clear that government does better when you start asking people about specific recent interactions they have had. biggest drivers of positive views of the federal govt were positive interactions with government. Overall, about half of the interactions people reported with government agencies were positive. And of those that had interacted with government, people who had good experiences were three times more likely to believe government was performing well (41%) than those that had bad experiences (14 percent).
You won't be surprised to know the the biggest driver of satisfaction with an interaction was whether government had "solved the problem" that people had. But almost as important was the way people felt treated by gov't (combining things like "fairness", "respect' and 'listening"). These things could literally influence the way an outcome was perceived. In other words, it wasn't just a matter of whether you got the passport or benefit you applied for (outcome)...the same outcome could be viewed as positive or negative depending on the interaction. Not rocket science but it suggests that in a number of public facing agencies at least, we do have opportunities to shape public opinion every day through these individual interactions.
Comment by Giora Hadar on March 11, 2010 at 3:51pm
Right on Sandy. I've in the government a bit over 30 years and I'd say I'm proud of it. The public, especially the Tea Party (please don't call them a "movement") people love to hate Congress, and they tend to lump us with Congress, not understanding we part of the Executive Branch.
Comment by D. Scott Cobeen on March 11, 2010 at 1:47pm
Kudos...Jude,
Cha-Ching dead on....we the Feds/fed employees need change the perception to a better reality...

Comment by Jude Schiavone 1 day ago Get the media to focus on what's good and instead of the old "F*ck up and move up" way of doing things, hold people responsible, penalize, prosecute and publicize what we do to make things better. Too many "TMZ" moments. The IRS is an easy target since Cabinet appointees and Agency heads can go years without paying taxes then suddenly get a 'do-over and wipe the slate clean'. Jest Plain Folks get salary garnishments and liens on property-
Comment by D. Scott Cobeen on March 11, 2010 at 1:18pm
"Perception of federal employees as lazy, overpaid, incompetent, among other adjectives are widespread..."
I also work for the people and have almost 30 years between the uniform and now the CIV uniform...and the perceptions are extremely accurate...however I base that on real desk side computer skills/technical abilities regarding the overpay...sure many can type 40 words a minute but that’s where it ends abruptly for all too many of our DoD/Gov employees...
No, I do not condone the hostile actions, rather to either train our employee workforce on the technologies they are required to use (Daily) or stop hiring under/non skill people regardless of age and oh by the way..The generation has nothing to do with knowing how to leverage the computer as a business tool or collectively the tools on the computers, those things are still not even taught in college let alone high school. So when do we get taught…?or start teaching...
The laziness thing is called the "Bureaucracy"....it's self induced...how many times can we do it wrong to get it right approach....it is the common.

Solutions…start actually having real hiring standards of/against our real tools being used…here is my point, the one skill/educational/duty position/rank equalizer of most employees is the computer…you can watch someone with a PHD…look like they have a 3rd grade education based on their inability to simply use the simple software tools in front of them….and those folks are generally ranking GS employees…overpaid is an understatement.

Just my daily observed perceptions…

Scott
Comment by Heather Hutchinson on March 11, 2010 at 11:10am
Great comment Kathy! I totally agree with you. I have only been federal worker for 2 years - but a worker in the private sector for over 20. I saw more waste, theft and discrimination in the private sector than here in the government. I am proud of being a federal worker and the little piece of the "cog" that powers our Country.
Comment by Leila Sadeghi on March 11, 2010 at 10:01am
A majority of the negative perceptions surrounding federal and government employees in general (including state and local) can be atttributed to negative media imagery. How often do you see the media highlighting positive cases of government agencies/employees?
Comment by Kathy Sciannella on March 11, 2010 at 9:35am
I think that the great work that many Federal employees perform should be highlighted more than it is. If it were not for the Federal employes,, vets would not get benefits, senior citizens would not get Social Security, and who would protect our homeland, our airports. Many Federal workers perform imprtant jobs every day which are vital both to our way of life and our national security.

Federal government employment is different than private sector. I have worked in both and there are pluses and minuses. Another important aspect of Federal employment is that the Federal government routinely employs disabled Americans, and I can't say that about private sector companies. Also, in our current economy, the Federal government is more age averse and hires employees from a larger age pool than some private setor companies.

Is the Federal government workforce perfect? No, but the same issues I witnessed in private sector I see in Federal sector too. To all those people who whine about the useless of Federal government employees. if some of the services these employees provide disappeared, you would be significantly impacted. I am proud to be working for my country, contributing in my own way. Perhaps we need to educate our fellow Americans at the grass roots level?
Comment by Peter B Meyer on March 10, 2010 at 4:43pm
Thanks Sandy and GovLoop for this great topic which I think about all the time. I agree with many of these comments and will add some fuel to the fire. These things are systemic and individual low-level workers can't fix them but OMB can move them forward:
(1) Identify things that federal workers complain about and address them. Then the federal worker becomes part of the public-relations solution automatically. Because when federal workers complain about their work, it can feed into a public impression that the government is painfully inefficient. To fix that, OMB should keep asking civil servants in various ways "do you have the tools you need to work efficiently?" and suchlike, then ACT. Innovate. It's pretty easy -- just stop suppressing and delaying so much of the innovation that's trying to happen. Specifically:
(1a) Imitate cheap but smart things done by other agencies and state and foreign governments, like cross-agency computer services. Don't spend a lot, but act! Experiment, then learn and fix, the Silicon Valley way.
(1b) Bring the inspector general offices more to life; expand their authority maybe and reduce the legalism. Tell them that too-expensive or demoralizing mis-management IS relevant; they can investigate things that aren’t crimes, and make recommendations. They can make the world a better place in a routine and sometimes friendly way. Maybe bring some MBAs into the IG offices in lieu of attorneys, and rotate computer and other specialists in from elsewhere in the same department.
(2) Simplify the tax code! Some people suffer so much when they pay for the federal government that they naturally resent it at that point. If your electric company required a form for each of the appliances in your house, you'd resent their bill too, and dismiss how amazing their service is. (Example improvement: add a little tax per security-transaction (stock, bond etc) and get rid of the detailed distinctions between 30-day holdings, short-term, and long term. The new structure could have the same behavioral and revenue effects approximately but be much easier to manage for the taxpayer. The coercive power of the state isn't well used by scaring many individuals into spending many hours on careful number crunching.) This would help address the problem of people paying late. Speaking for myself, it’s crushingly hard to figure out what I owe; that’s why I pay late.
(3) Investigate Medicare fraud. Hard. And smartly, please. Make a database of known legitimate medical providers, and routinely investigate the institutions who send bills that aren't on that list. Quickly. Don't let them fester and collect millions. Then this particular inefficiency story in the press will go away.
Comment by Jim Moore on March 10, 2010 at 2:50pm
[private sector employee]

It is very unfortunate that front line federal employees suffer as a result of political conflicts for which they have no control. My condolences to the IRS staff that were injured and killed when Mr. Stacks primary complaint was with congress.
Comment by Laurel Bowen on March 10, 2010 at 8:49am
My external perception of federal employees (I am a contractor) is that the vast majority are extremely dedicated, work long hours and put in much overtime (I can contact them at home and on weekends). I work mostly with DOI employees and most specifically, FWS. They are committed to their responsibilities to preserve our natural resources, and their attitude is that they serve the American people, preserving natural resources on their behalf. Yet when I talk to others about my experiences with federal employees, they are usually very skeptical. I do believe that the trend towards open government and having employees use social networking tools will put a personal face on govt offices and will help tremendously with the public's erroneous perceptions.

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