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Working for the government isn’t good enough

Since you’re on this site, chances are you’ve found yourself—at least once—answering the question “So, what do you do?” with some variation of “I work for the government.”

I certainly have. And I wonder if the other person has ever thought, “Wow; thanks, chief. That really paints a vivid picture of how you’re justifying the appropriation of my taxes.”

They’d be right to think that. “I work for the government” isn’t good enough.

What if someone told you, “I work for a company”? That’s what you call a useless statement; it has no element of function—what does this person or their employer actually do?

If someone says he or she is a lawyer or a pilot or one of those creepy birthday party clowns, at least you generally know what their duties are and how they were trained.

“Government employee” doesn’t even give you that, but until recently, I think it told many people all they thought they needed to know: Oh, you do boring, lazy, paper-pushing work that comes with nice benefits and a well developed sense of obstructionism and redundancy. And many government employees were probably content to leave it at that.

It’s pretty clear that these attitudes are ripe for change. Young people say they are more interested in public service, and government, with motivation from the stimulus plan and demands from the public for transparency and interaction, is making a concerted effort to “prove it can work.”

And I’m excited about that. See, I really like my job. I believe in government work and the usefulness and service it offers the public. I want citizens to trust, embrace, and take advantage of it. I suspect most of you feel the same way.

So as a government employee, I hope you’re into your job enough to think it worth explaining to others. And as a citizen, I hope you don’t sell yourself short by not caring to know what your government does .

Imagine getting to a point where everybody knows how we serve them, and they want to talk with us about it. Where the products of government get them as excited (at least occasionally) as commercial products do. Where you’d look like an idiot for just saying, “I work for the government.”

I look forward to a society where I am that idiot. Will you join me?

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Tags: government, jobs, mostcomment, public, service, transparency

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Comment by Dave Hebert on March 18, 2009 at 4:56pm
Tell me about it, Ken. And I think fed overload in this town (DC) has made people want to find anyone else to talk to as soon as they hear you say "government." Which is why I try not to start that way anymore.
Comment by Ken Mac Garrigle on March 18, 2009 at 4:49pm
In Washington D.C., anyway – ‘What do you do?’ Is always sentence #1 or #2 in a conversation (just in case you’re someone ‘important’)…
Comment by Kenneth Watkins on March 16, 2009 at 3:46pm
Dave,

I agree. If you look around Gloop, you'll see all types of weak unsubstantiated reasons for why people say they work for government. I'll stake my explanation against the President's (lol). With that said, I believe that there are a lot of us that do not understand our job/duties within government service well enough to give an adult or substantive response to the question, "what do you do?".

However, I do feel it's our duty as public servants to learn how to clearly explain what we do, why we do it, how it is funded, and the public benefits.

That's what I think, but I sympathize with the variations on most government employees' ability (or inability) to explain themselves when asked about their work. It just means that it's an area of professional development that we have to improve. Well, that's my take, but I do your concern is legitimate for public servants.


the Pragmatic Bohemian
Comment by Dave Hebert on March 16, 2009 at 11:59am
I.J,
I usually find myself writing, editing, trying to help my agency's leaders and employees connect and share info, managing my agency's intranet home page, working on and instigating social media projects for employees and the public, and offering communication consultation inside and outside my agency.

I work for the USGS (www.usgs.gov; stupid work filters don't let me use Govloop's formatting features, so I can't link), and we are, as far as I know, the largest earth science agency in the world, with almost 9,000 employees in 400 locations nationwide and around the world. We are part of the Department of the Interior, and we research everything from climate change to water quality, from human health to energy, and from natural hazards to ecosystems (and other stuff, too).

And I really like working here:-)

Andre,
Those diplomat programs sound like a great idea!
Comment by Andre Goodfriend on March 15, 2009 at 1:18am
Well, from my time doing visa interviews I can't tell you how many times people told me that they were "businessmen" and had difficulty describing the kind of business they were in. But, that's a different story.

You're absolutely right. For me, serving as a consular officer overseas, there is a line that I and my colleagues always have in the back of our minds -- "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." We know that the connotation is ironically negative. Yet, since generally consular officers have the role of being from the government and often contacting American citizens in order to help them, it's a negative connotation we often have to overcome by reaching out in advance and explaining what we do.

The sense of public disinterest Thera Hearn describes towards her state agency is similar to my federal agency which focuses on the international arena.

That being said, many of us have explaining what we do as part of our professional responsibility. While generally we are explaining what we do to people overseas, we recognize that our fellow citizens living in the U.S. don't necessarily understand what their diplomats and other State Department employees do, so we created a Hometown Diplomat program to provide opportunities for our diplomats to explain what they do when they visit their hometowns. We also have our Diplomat in Residence program both as a recruiting effort and to familiarize college students with the work of the State Department.

We're proud of our work, and maybe if we can explain it better and shine the light of transparency onto what we do, saying we're from the government really will bring a smile of understanding from our fellow citizens because they will know that we are there to help.
Comment by I.J on March 14, 2009 at 11:43pm
So Dave what do you actually do for the Government?
Comment by Thera Hearne on March 14, 2009 at 11:22pm
As a state government employee that takes the time to explain what she does, often I find out a lot of people I have met in my community of Sacramento are not interested. I think that our local media has done such as wonderful job of demonizing us, especially during the current budget crisis and the subsequent court battles between the Governor and our constitutional officers. A lot of my co-workers are questioning their commitment because we feel our getting it from both sides. On our local newspaper comment pages, our non-government working neighbors think we are all whining about our furloughs while they are getting laid off. Most of us are just trying to figure out to adjust to the changes, budget cuts, and the increased workloads while continuing to provide quality services. I will continue to tell people what I do for the State of California, no matter what role I am in, even if the people I tell think they already know. Sorry, for my rant...just a little venting from Sacramento, CA.
Comment by Scott Horvath on March 14, 2009 at 9:20pm
As a govy, I have to admit that I enjoy my job now more than any job in the past (sorry, past employers but it's true). I personally love going to work on a Monday morning and working the entire week. Sounds crazy, but I do. I have a creative personality and I work in a position that forces me to be creative each day (web developer, social media-er). I get excited about the work that we do and I'm more than willing to share that excitement with others.

I think Government gets a bad rep a lot of the time. If someone says, "Did you hear about happened at 'IT Company X'? Bunch of idiots"...it's only that specific IT company that gets the bad rep...not ALL IT companies. Now, replace "IT Company X" with "Government Agency X" and that bad rep is immediately applied to the ENTIRE Government...not just one agency. That's just how many people think.

For some it's hard for them to be excited about what they do...it's just another day at the office. But those employees that DO get excited about their work are the ones that help show others that there is more to the Government than just pushing papers. We [the Government] can do great things. We will do great things. We have always done great things.
Comment by Barry Everett on March 14, 2009 at 9:15pm
OK. If FEDs stopped every day to remember that we all took an Oath of Office very similar to that taken by our Presidents, it might remind us that we have both a serious responsibility and a position of honor in every job that we hold, no matter how seemingly ordinary or mundane. I am Spartacus - I am Obama - I am part of the most powerful organization the world has ever known. :-)
Comment by Adriel Hampton on March 14, 2009 at 5:08pm
I'm with you (as I think are most GovLoopers, it's why we're here) - great post!

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