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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 ( and more frighteningly to be attacked. The attack on the IRS building ( 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 Finally AOL reports on a rapid rise of anti-government groups

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

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Comment by Timothy Power on March 9, 2010 at 3:24pm
I am an attorney representing federal government contractors so I regularly work with government employees, contracting officers, attorneys, and technical experts. I used to work at a firm whose attitude was that all federal employees were either stupid, incompetent, or lazy. If they were not they would be working in the private sector. I found this a false and imprudent approach. I prefer to think that all federal employees I deal with are competent and results oriented. When they are it forms the basis for a good relationship. When they aren't I change my approach. My point is that there is only so much a federal employee can do to change public perception. The public perception can overcome all the good a federal employee does. Perhaps federal employees need to work on a person-by-person basis and assume that those they deal with in the public will have a good perception or can be educated on the good work federal employees perform. We all need to see each others as individuals and not just cogs in a giant machine. I wish I had a better comment on how to help these misperceptions.
Comment by Richard Clarke on March 9, 2010 at 3:24pm
This is not unique to your public service - this is a more general attitude that streaches around the world. It is complex and there are many factors at play - many beyond the control of public servnats themselves but not all. One thing we can all do is try to do better than our clients expectations each and every time we serve them. I like you have been a public servant a long time - I try to remember that every dollar I spend at work as been take out of someone's back pocket and so it is incumbent on me to use it very wisely.

I think if we provided excpetional service all the time and we can do that regardless of the role - we could retain the trust and confidence of the public that pay our salaires
Comment by Hannah Zerphey on March 9, 2010 at 3:00pm
There are several things at play here:

1. Government managers have to work with two hands tied behind their back. It is all but impossible to fire incompetent workers and to reward those that go above and beyond. This inevitably leads to low morale and government workers that fulfill these stereotypes.

2. Government workers have to learn to support one another. I've read too many comments from staff that have worked for the Feds for several decades complaining that a young person with less "experience" (typically meaning time) has a higher position than they do. On the flip side, I've seen younger workers get frustrated with older co-workers because they don't think alike (I'm to blame for some of this myself). This approach doesn't do anything to help our plight as a workforce on the whole. We have to learn to support our co-workers, young and old alike; we are all government workers together and without internal support how are we to fight public misconceptions.

3. As other commenters have pointed out, the public sees "government" as Capitol Hill, the Presidency, and elected officials. How are we to fight that perception? Additionally, the only time government workers are mentioned in the media is when one us is caught for some sort of unethical behavior. We need to work with the media to show that not all of us are corrupt and out to screw the taxpayer; in fact 99.9% of us are here to help support the taxpayer.

So what can we do to help:

1. OPM reforms that allow for easier hiring and firing and enable managers to actually manage their staff.

2. Begin working toward a more cohesive workforce where young and old, experienced and not, work together to fight the common battles.

3. Continue to put a good face on bureaucracy by engaging in social media and streamlining our actions to fit the 21st century. We need to prove to the people that we are capable of change and that we, as government workers, want change as much (if not more than) as the public.
Comment by Jude Schiavone on March 9, 2010 at 2:23pm
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 Philip L. Hoffman on March 9, 2010 at 2:08pm
The fundamental issue is nationally elected politicians who claim to stand outside "government" even though the Constitution enshrines their existance just as much as ours. When I hear a Senator saying "Government in the problem" he is, usually, trying to indict us. The probelm is, he is also indicting himself. I think we need to repeatedly point this out in the public square.
Comment by Samantha Donaldson on March 9, 2010 at 2:01pm
Thanks so much for the great discussion around this important topic! I thought you would be interested in listening to Partnership for Public Service's President and CEO Max Stier's Stop Blaming Federal Workers commentary that aired yesterday on WAMU. To listen, please click here.
Comment by john f penrose on March 9, 2010 at 1:52pm
To improve the current perception of government employees, we must first identify how it came to be so bad. I was in DOJ from 1970 to 1991 and observed first hand the sea change wrought by Ronald Reagan ("government is the problem, not the solution") and his "starve the beast" mentality. Government service is an honorable and important calling, but until another president makes that a central theme, often communicated to the public, the ghost of Reagan will continue to walk among us.
Comment by Jeremy Michael Long on March 9, 2010 at 12:17pm
I hear you man, were not the enemy that a lot of people think that we are, were also not lazy and overpaid. Like you say, we're just regular everyday hard-working American men and women who work for the public sector, in this case the Federal Government, who work hard, do their jobs and get fair pay for it. I've been working for the Federal Government for a combined four years and am very proud of it. I couldn't ask for anything better, especially with all of the benifits you can get, including healthcare and retirement. You don't get all these benefits working with the private sector. With the private sector, its usually an either/or type of routine. With the public sector, you have it all. And what really annoys me more than anything is that comment about the guy who crashed his plane into the IRS building, like you mentioned, the people who say "Yeah, but I understand his frustrations" and his daughter calling him a "HERO?" In my opinion, this guy is in fact, nothing but a low-down coward and also a murderer because when he crashed his plane into that building, he claimed the life of an IRS employee as well. And with people understanding his frustrations, that's just a classic example of what Steve Wilkos (The Steve Wilkos Show) calls "Comforting the Monster." In this case comforting the monster who, first of all, sets his own house ablaze and then crashes his plane into a building, thus killing an IRS employee in the process. In my opinion, cowards such as Mr. Stack deserve to "Rot in Hell" for their grusome and horrifying actions. I know that must have been a horrifying act for those who actually witnessed it, especially those motorists who were driving along the adjacent interstate highway there in Austin, Texas. While we hear about waistful practices in Congress and in the Government, I'm quite happy to say that there are also lots of areas within the Federal Government, such as us here at the FDA's Division of Dockets Management, who are trying to set a good example for the waistful ones and show them instead, how to "Go Green!"
Comment by Leonard Sipes on March 9, 2010 at 12:15pm
I must live in an alternative universe; there are federal workers who doubt their reputations and allegiance?

The federal system is one of the best places to work bar none. All we have to do is watch the pensions of corporate workers disappear and witness the steadily declining salaries of family and friends in the private sector. Work for state government and see the discrepancies in funding. Within the federal system, we have a fighting chance to accomplish objectives.

And I believe that the average citizen greatly respects the work we do. My daughters are never sure as to what I do for a living, but they and their friends do know that I’m a “fed,” and they use the term with respect.

We can and should do more to promote our fellow employees and that’s just what we do at CSOSA through “DC Public Safety” radio, television, blog and transcripts at We are the internet’s most popular social media site on crime and justice issues and most of our programs feature rank-and-file employees.

If the federal system did more to promote its employees, maybe misperceptions would diminish.

Best, Len.
Comment by Patrick Quinn on March 9, 2010 at 11:54am

I don't dispute that there are occasional examples of government applying new tech to public outreach, and (once in a vy great while) even acting on the data thereby acquired--I'm involved w/ one such effort--but it cannot be seriously argued that all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds "Government 2.0" has in any substantive way increased government accountability in this country. (Or for that matter, anywhere else.) In almost every case, new technology is acquired and deployed to improve intra-agency comms or agency-to-agency comms.

Heck, our opinion doesn't matter. The only opinions that matter are those of the public. Search for a national commentator hailing "Government 2.0" for opening up the black box and letting the public see inside--you won't find one. The agencies most-often cited in stories about "Government 2.0" are Homeland Security and TSA--it's unrealistic to expect that such stories inculcate warm fuzzies in the general public.

I believe the end of this story is already written: Government will be radically transparent. It will be held accountable in public forums. It will spend more time serving the people, and less time trading awards and going to conferences. All of these things will happen--the only question is whether they are done voluntarily from within, or forcibly mposed from without.

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