5 Traits of Public Servants

One of my favorite parts of running GovLoop is that I get to meet so many public servants across all levels (federal,state, local, international), functions (IT to public works to HR), agencies (environment to budget agencies), and countries (US to Singapore to Italy).

I was reflecting the other day that no matter the differences there are some core traits that I think define a public servant. So here we go – 5 traits of public servants

1) Willingness to Help Each Other – Every day you see this on GovLoop as members help each other on discussions and blogs. But every day I see it even more ways – when we host our GovLoop mentors program, almost everyone is willing to sign up to be a mentor and help a fellow govie. This continues as I often introduce people – I’ll meet X person who is struggling with Y issue and I’ll email introduce them to a friend who just went through that & 99% of the time people help each other out. If a public servants waves his hand in need, 9 out of 10 times a fellow public servant will help him or her out.

2) Passionate about Mission / Want to Make an Impact – It is true – public servants go into government because they want to make an impact. It’s amazing to see the empathy most public servants have for their mission and citizens. Sometimes this passion gets jaded over time but it can easily be brought back if you appeal to their mission and show this isn’t talk but real action making impact. Even with furloughs, I find most public servants are willing to take them with a big “if” – if there is shared sacrifice across all levels (including Congress) and will truly make an impact.

3) Cautious – Most public servants are cautious. Whether it’s a trait of individuals going into government or the culture breeds it, it definitely exists. I see this when I’m in Washington, DC and people talk about the “Washington Post” test and how this would look if we took a risk & appeared in the paper. The funniest thing about this test is that it exists in Canada and is the called The Globe & Mail test & exists in every city/state just with their paper.

4) Struggling Navigating the Bureaucracy – When I talk to public servants about new ideas or concepts, I often hear frustration on navigating the bureaucracy. Sometimes that’s someone who is pushing an initiative internally and finding it super difficult. Other times, a person is too scared to take on the challenge – they’ll say “that’s a great idea. But you don’t know our agency / our lawyers / our IT security folks – they’ll never allow that.” I think there should be a course on navigating internally (and a support group)

5) Want to Learn about Others – I’ve found public servants are often curious how other government agencies are solving a problem. Especially with new technologies, most public servants (and their agencies) don’t want to be first but also dont’ want to be last. So they want to hear about the 5 other examples that solved this problem and then they’ll move.

Bonus – Other ones I often see – a) Feel beat up / disrespected by media & general conception b) Inferiority complex that private sector is so much more efficient/better (not true imho)

As we work to improve government, it is important to harness the energy of these traits and provide solutions to deal with the issues.

What do you think are common characteristics of public servants?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Good post, Steve. Tied to #3, I think one of the big traits I see in public servants is wanting to get it “right” (measure twice, cut once). In being cautious, public servants want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. So it’s one part being wary of the press and being depicted with a “gotcha” headline, but even more so I think it’s a deep respect for acting with with a sense of stewardship over the resources and programs that they manage. This reality connects to #4, too, as many new folks want to move faster than a bureaucracy allows, but the checkpoints are in place to be deliberate in slowing down and making sure all i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great List Mr. GovLoop: To expand:

  1. Helping Others – Volunteer community service helps those who are frustrated by their lack of opportunities.
  2. Passionate About Mission – This element always scores the highest on annual viewpoint survey.
  3. Cautious – This includes being cautious about using social media. Most public servants avoid it altogether.
  4. Beauracracy – We lack trust because of all of the abuses that we see. With trust, we can fix this.
  5. Learning About Others – Our cautious nature and bureaucracy inhibit learning.

Public servants are dedicated and ready to serve others. We just need managers who can channel these strengths to overcome our weaknesses.

David B. Grinberg

Awesome assessment, Steve. Also excellent comments by Andy and Terry too, with whom I agree.

I would just add that, unfortunately, I think many public servants today feel beat up, bruised and disrespected by the public at large — especially those of us based in the DC-area at agency HQs.

Why? Many reasons to list: low morale, sequester, furlough, questionable leadership decisions, etc.

But perpetuating all these factors is non-objective draconian fed-bashing by the press, politicians and external groups (especially those of a particular ideological persuasion) who scapegoat “Big Gov” as the poster child for all America’s problems.

Of course, Congress the media and public don’t factor in all the facts: federal gov is smaller now then it’s been in a while, feds have been under a pay freeze for three years, and sequestration — along with attrition — means that most feds are doing the jobs of two or three employees.

Media sensationalism about gov “scandals” of the month (whether real or perceived) is likewise casting feds in a negative spotlight. It appears we’re in a prolonged periods of “a feeding frenzy” on feds.

If the Congress, media and stakeholders would pay as much attention to the all the overwhelming public good done by gov workers nationwide and around the world, then the real story would be told and public perception would change accordingly.

Therefore, kudos to you and the GovLoop team for accentuating the positive and showcasing all the beneficial actions and outcomes that are possible because of public servants and government generally.

Daniel Crystal

I actually think we need to stop being “cautious” and embrace risk smartly. With shrinking budget, brain drains from retirement, etc., we need to be better about embracing technology, recruiting risk takers, optimizing resources, and getting rid of unnecessary red tape.

Dick Davies

I surely miss “Provides daily breakthroughs to taxpayers” If that’s not the job, what’s the viability of the job?

I remember a Pentagon Admiral who would regularly question his process navigating Commanders with, “And what have we done for the fleet today?”

Karen "Kari" Uhlman

I recently had the experience of trying to add another carpooler to our group. The County recently hired him and assigned him two buildings down from my work site. He was impressed with our flexibility to meet his needs. We offered to do all the driving in exchange for his share of the cost of fuel and change our work hours in order to accommodate getting him to the bus station on time after work. In addition, I reassured him that is what being a government employee is all about…passionate for a cause and a willingness to help.

Melissa Wideman

I think you’ve captured the core traits – all of these resonated with me. Navigating the bureaucracy is a tough one that can also lead to demoralization and disengagement (along with getting beaten up by the media and public). What keeps me going is the connection to the mission and those bright spots when I hear from stakeholders that the work is making a difference.



This “Steve” hope to meet you/shake hand at rescheduled (from last Thursday) WordPress event next Thurs 6/20!


SteveWonder – looking forward to it

Melissa – Agree – connection to mission & excitement from hearing stakeholders hearing impact