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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 Jim Moore on March 9, 2010 at 11:41pm
Phillip,

Thanks for your response, and candor. "Sorry to burst the collective bubble, but the only waste and injustice I see from inside is the inescapable need of people of a certain political persuasion to not want money spent on certain things by the federal government. That's certainly a fair subject for debate, but lets call it what it is - a policy disagreement - and not cast it as some grand witch hunt where federal employees would be loved if they'd only stand up and do the "right" thing. That's a red herring at best, and a disgraceful comment from a fellow citizen - unless of course you don't really think its just to spend money on defense, or clean water, or basic healthcare, or basic public education. Then sure, we're all wasting money and acting unethically, immorally, and unjustly."

I did not mean to offend but do not consider effectiveness a red herring for policy. After working for local government for two years it was made clear to me that requesting extra assignments was not appreciated. I first thought this was great--a cushy, well paying job. Soon I got bored and played games trying to see how early in each month I could complete my work (twice I did it in two weeks but almost always in three). I did not have the courage to complain but this practice was dishonest and, in effect, stealing. What does this have to do with politics? I've said nothing about what public policy should or should not be.

If you're effective at your job than you can better defend us or keep more of our water clean. If your department/division is operating well than I'm all for you. However, many of the comments in this thread say otherwise. For example, being frustrated when incompetence is promoted.

You're in the best position to provide feedback to top management and congress when your work is not achieving the stated legislative goals.

Anyway, my first comment was in response to Sandy's use of "just doing my job" as a defense.



Have you really never come across
Comment by Nancy Harrity on March 9, 2010 at 8:36pm
Sandy -- many good points made in your post and in the comments.

Three things we could do within government to improve the image of government and government workers:

First, the public's memory of $500 hammers is strong. Government doesn't talk about all the ways it saves the taxpayer's money. A lot of government workers are out there finding ways to save us all money every day. We need to celebrate those who save the government money in public forums outside of government.

Second, when a citizen looks for information from the government, he has to have some idea of how the government is organized to find that information. Put another way, we organize information according to how we, inside the government, see our organizations rather than how the CITIZEN sees government. We need to put the focus on the citizen and make how government is organized irrelevant to the citizen. After all, if it weren't for the citizens of our nation, the government wouldn't exist.

Third, involve your friendly government public affairs/communications professional when you talk to the media or want to engage the public somehow. They have a wealth of information and experience and want to use it to engage citizens in a meaningful way. And don't think for a moment that just because you can write an email, take a photo or post on a blog that you don't need their knowledge and experience. They need their help too. Share the success stories you'd want to see in the press. They can't be everywhere and they don't know everyone.
Comment by SteveWonder on March 9, 2010 at 5:06pm
Federally, there's this Virginia/Maryland/DC, Mid-Atlantic "Old-Guard" regional poltical culture of laziness, poor work ethics, and elitism permeating to other US public sector levels away from the eastern seaboard. This may be a reason why states tied to Capitol Hill's east-coast, "Washington is the Center of the Universe" budgetary allocations and inactions, can't get things done for their citizenry. This appears especially true for places far from DC, wishing to be national, progressive, "get it done now leaders" (i.e. California, Texas, etc.)---those who want to break free from the scandalous "left behind," geographically- shortsighted eastern US purse strings handlers.
Certain Western states and Central states want certain processes and justices done NOW, not in 50-100 years. Those with the puppet strings east of the Mississpppi might would rather see such changes, if indded permited, happen to those areas closest to them first. That's why both hard-working Repubs and Demos away from Washington often hate and resent Capitol Hill's puppetry moves that seems year-after-year, to unethically favor lazier, "get nothing done, more culturally backwards" eastern states closest to DC/Maryland/Virginia.
Comment by Hannah Zerphey on March 9, 2010 at 4:45pm
@Ken Mac Garrigle - the pay raise is required by law, which doesn't make it right, but it also doesn't give the public the right to persecute us.

In terms of the benefits - it takes a federal employee 25 YEARS to get those that you stated. Additionally, as a fed working in Chicago I have yet to see a snow day. Telework is not in all offices, nor are alternative work schedules (which are also private sector practices).

I think the public's disdain for federal employees is misdirected. It should be geared towards lawmakers and elected officials - not the boots on the ground employee.
Comment by Ken Mac Garrigle on March 9, 2010 at 4:40pm
2% pay raise - that some Feds whined "wasn't enough" - was the tipping point.

Compare to private sector -- NO pay raise, unemployment, furloughs, layoffs, stress, etc.

A Fed for 25 years in D.C. gets: 26 days Annual Leave, 13 Days Sick Leave, 10 Holidays, Snow Days, Compressed Schedule, Free Metro, etc. I don’t see anything there to whine about.

Here's a start for fellow Feds - THANK the taxpayers instead of waiting for them to thank you.
Comment by Eric Egger on March 9, 2010 at 4:30pm
The problem for me (as a federal worker) is that I see a fair number (granted not all) of employees who view their job as an entitlement. Promotions and raises--entitlements. You can see evidence of this mindset in the estimated number of federal workers who are delinquent in their taxes (nearly 278,000) as of December 2009. Problem is, it doesn't take a very large number to gain negative press that makes us all look bad.

I seriously doubt we'll ever have a special place in the hearts of our countrymen as long as Congress behaves the way it does. Don't forget, the "board of directors" of our company has an approval rating that's barely floating above 20%.

Given that level of frustration, all the PR in the world isn't going to do much good. Besides, do you think the federal government, spending tax payer dollars to let people know how good government is would be well received?

I get agitated whenever I see the looney Census commercials, which aren't necessary either. "Feel good" Ad Council campaigns for the gov't aren't appropriate uses of tax funds.

What can we do? I'm pretty pessimistic on this front--as I said--with Congressional approval rates so low, and with increasing polarization in the populace, I don't think federal employees aren't going to find much love anytime soon.

But those on the tax man's list could pay up, and we can all keep doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, and ensure we're giving the taxpayers the best value we can for their dollars.
Comment by Philip L. Hoffman on March 9, 2010 at 4:06pm
"What if you're asked to break the law, or at least significantly bend it?"
Then I'd resign and go downtown to the Washington Post and blow the whistle as loudly as I could.


"Does stating, "the reality is they are just feds doing their job" relieve you of responsibility if you are encouraged to be dishonest or unproductive in your work?"
No, it doesn't, and most o f the "waste, fraud and abuse" scandals that have hit the MSM the last few years have been started by Feds being told exactly that, and refusing to go along.

Sorry to burst the collective bubble, but the only waste and injustice I see from inside is the inescapable need of people of a certain political persuasion to not want money spent on certain things by the federal government. That's certainly a fair subject for debate, but lets call it what it is - a policy disagreement - and not cast it as some grand witch hunt where federal employees would be loved if they'd only stand up and do the "right" thing. That's a red herring at best, and a disgraceful comment from a fellow citizen - unless of course you don't really think its just to spend money on defense, or clean water, or basic healthcare, or basic public education. Then sure, we're all wasting money and acting unethically, immorally, and unjustly.
Comment by Jim Moore on March 9, 2010 at 3:57pm
[Non-federal employee.]

Does stating, "the reality is they are just feds doing their job" relieve you of responsibility if you are encouraged to be dishonest or unproductive in your work? What if you're asked to break the law, or at least significantly bend it?

To change public perception, you need to do something that's almost impossible; put your jobs at risk by standing up to waste and injustice. The perception that you're just sheep "doing their jobs" will change when there is evidence that you don't unjustly benefit from an artificial environment where there are no consequences for poor performance.

If the reports are accurate that you live not as public servants but in a higher paid, protected political class, then you should be aware that, when they eat more than their hosts, some parasites do kill their hosts. Witness Greece and California. Are we far behind?

Script excerpt from Cool Hand Luke where a prison guard follows unjust orders to put Luke into a sweat box.

Boss Kean opens the box.

BOSS KEAN
(to Luke)
Ah'm jus' doin' mah job, Luke. You
gotta appreciate that.

ANGLE ON LUKE IN BOX

LUKE
Boss, when you do somethin' to me
you better do it because you got to
or want to... but not because it's
your damn job.
Comment by Anita Arile on March 9, 2010 at 3:48pm
I agree with Mr. R. Clarke comment a few minutes earlier, "This is not unique to your public service - this is a more general attitude that stretches around the world."

He really hit the nail-on-the-head with this... I'm on Guam and I feel-for-you too! I think i commented that there is a merit system in place on Guam, but because it is an island, everyone is connected to someone somehow and quite close too! I have to keep my lip closed and restrain from throwing a fit whenever I see an employee get promoted just by being clever enough to "mold" their application to qualify for a position (based on the Position Description)! It's quite appalling to know that the bad apples of a barrel are those public servants who act like they're "above the law" and "better than the public" of whom they are employed to serve.

So, to change the perception of a government employee as the enemy - first we must ensure that the employee is REALLY qualified for the position. The merit system MUST be revised to ensure background checks on an individual's qualifications. Thus, ensuring that the public confidence is cushioned from the bad perceptions of the few "bad apples".
Comment by Philip L. Hoffman on March 9, 2010 at 3:29pm
The whole "If they were worth anything they'd be in the private sector" canard really biols me. I'm a fisheries oceanographer - I love my job - and there aren't a lot of private sector job opportunities in my field. My colleagues and me work in the government and academia because this is important work to us, and becaue Booz Allen doesn't hire our like.

And I agree whole heartedly that excelletn customer service can help - for those owrking in such jobs or agencies.

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