Chatting with Uncle Sam

Oh, the joy of Labor Day Weekend. Beach? Check. BBQ? Check. Pool-side chillin’ with some bureaucrats?

Ummm…I’m guessing that may not be your idea of a good time, but the significance of public engagement for government agencies cannot be overstated. Citizen inclusion, transparency, and participation all help promote a functioning democratic process and society. And while it is important for public managers to focus on ensuring such constituent engagement, they must also remember to engage their own employees. This can dramatically boost employee morale and productivity, which in turn benefits the constituents the agency serves.

I experienced working in a highly engaged environment this summer (no pool trips, unfortunately) as an intern at the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB): the watchdog agency created from the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. There are half a dozen divisions within CFPB – I worked in Consumer Education and Engagement (CEE), which currently has over 1,000 employees. Today, the magnitude of CFPB’s staff and mission scope would be almost unrecognizable to someone only familiar with the Bureau’s small but ambitious beginnings in 2011. Despite significant changes throughout the years, however, I observed how CPFB continues to engage and prioritize the “C” within their hip, lower-case acronym: the consumer.

For a federal agency, CEE is especially engaged with consumers, largely through online content and technology, but also in more direct ways. Part of their mission includes developing multi-lingual guides and interactive tools for consumers. These resources inform citizens about a myriad of financial issues, covering everything from mortgages, student loans, and credit cards.

One example of outreach comes from the “Ask CFPB” app, which contains hundreds of answers to consumers’ most pressing questions. Recently, CEE gave consumers the opportunity to tell their stories regarding good or bad experiences with consumer financial products, which can then be shared online to inform others. More directly, heads of the Office of Servicemember Affairs within CEE have visited hundreds of American veterans and active servicemembers across the globe to address financial concerns particular to active and retired members of the military.

Back in the office, there was a great deal of staff engagement. I helped plan and implement an office retreat with around 70 staff that was focused on employee communication, engagement, and cross-office collaboration. The staff was able to discuss matters of concern with one another and to associate directors of CEE as well as the director of CFPB, Richard Cordray, which subsequently led to actionable items. My supervisor and I also reached out to the office to learn of different processes that staff was confused about or unaware of. After identifying these topics, staff voted on the most pressing/relevant ones and developed standard operating procedures to quell further confusion. Probably one of the coolest things, however, was how accessible Director Cordray was. I – just a mere, lowly intern – was able to chat with Cordray on at least three different occasions: a planned intern meeting, the CEE retreat, and one time when I just happened to share an office elevator ride with him. In these ways and others, managers as high up as the Director consistently engage with staff.

Everyday, it is crucial for public entities to remember their core purpose, which is to serve and benefit the public. Citizen engagement can help in this respect and can be done at all different levels of government through various means (sorry, probably excluding pool parties). At the same time, public managers should not forget the needs of their employees – especially around Labor Day! And, remember, it never hurts to chat with the interns once in awhile.

For more insights on citizen engagement, be sure to check out our recent report.

Photo credit Marc Wathieu Flick creative commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcwathieu/2980385784/

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