5 Ways To Counteract Those DC Stereotypes

Photo of the National Archives Building by WallyG via Flickr

For those of us in the metro D.C. area, it’s sometimes hard to see ourselves “outside-in.” As in outside the Beltway, in New York or California or Florida or the Midwest.

You might not actually care about perceptions of Washingtonians naturally. Except there are a few reasons to do so. For one thing, bias against the federal worker (“lazy, overpaid, incompetent“) means automatic negative judgment when budget times get tough.

For another, it just doesn’t feel good to be laughed at. Hey – we Feds are people too!

It occurs to me that maybe we government employees don’t know how to fight those stereotypes. It’s not – to me – about saying what we’re entitled to but rather proving our worth every single day. A totally different paradigm than what people are used to hearing from us.

Here are a few ideas:

1. Think private sector. Dress & think corporate. Get that MBA or at least read the business journals.

2. Air things out a little with partnerships. Federal, state, local is only part of the story. We should be working with the private sector, engaging entrepreneurs, bringing in the interns. D.C. should be an open door for the rest of the country to get engaged in government.

3. Make customer service our #1 priority. We are paid by the taxpayer, we serve the taxpayer, we ought to be delivering on what they need. Similarly inside our Agencies we ought to be falling all over ourselves to help out our colleagues – let’s get the work done. No more “I don’t handle that” type of talk. If you get called about an issue, it becomes your issue, even if only to direct someone to the person who really ought to help.

4. Be a living brand ambassador for good government. There are always going to be things going on you disagree with. You’re a citizen too. But that has nothing to do with your commitment to doing public service the right way. In every interaction take the time to explain what you do. Do this in terms that make sense to the person you’re talking to. You don’t have to proselytize for Administration policies but rather for the concept of a highly functional civil service.

5. Be yourself on social media. All of us government employees are specialists in subjects that have both public and private sector applications. Yet we are all part of a special family as well. (Don’t laugh when I say “special” OK? I hear you.) It’s important when you’re out there “branding yourself” to establish your professional expertise, that you also are unafraid to stand up as a proud member of the civil service. Of course you have to follow the law and ethics rules – you don’t ever want to speak for your Agency, for example, unless you are a designated representative. And you should use a disclaimer – “all opinions my own.” But nothing prevents you from making it clear that you have a lot of value to contribute. Go ahead and do it, in a positive and direct way.

There will always be snots who throw those “Walmart is more efficient than government” emails your way. But a lot of that has to do with jealousy and frustration.

If you are a “govie,” hold your head high. You’re worth it.

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David B. Grinberg

Another epic post, Dannielle. I agree with almost all of your points, which are excellent. However, I have an issue with #1. Let’s not forget there’s plenty of corporate malfeasance, greed and scandal in the private sector — AIG, Enron, BP, big tobacco companies, etc. Remember the iconic movie Wall Street (the orginal)? That pretty much still holds true today, except Gordon Gecco was reincarnated in the likes of Bernie Madoff and other stock market spinsters out for a quick buck while screwing over the public. Put it this way, if the private sector were such a role model then we wouldn’t need countless gov agencies to regulate corporate America. I say that the federal gov is a model workplace compared to some of the unsavory, unethical, criminally negligent practice of the private sector. Just something to think about.

Also, it would be great if gov agencies paid for senior staff to earn their MBA, but that’s not happening — rarely if ever. Thanks for considering these points.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

That’s a really good point on #1 David. The public has lost trust in most major social institutions because of the lack of integrity they’ve displayed and the corporate world is most definitely included in that list.

At the same time government suffers from the stereotypes people have about it. They think of us like this – remember Vicki Lawrence who played “Mama” on “Mama’s Family” – scolding, nasty, entitled. We do not want to be perceived like this.

Or if not like the above perhaps like the guys from “This Old House.” Affable and knowledgeable but of dubious relevance most of the time.

We need to imagine ourselves constantly in an interview. A diverse group of professionals. Like this.

It would be interesting to see some other images – how people think we’re perceived, how we want to be perceived. This one is my “vision map.”

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

On reflection the stock image was ageist and still not diverse enough. So just to put a few more images out there: Lucy Liu (actress/correspondent), Indra Nooyi (Pepsi), Iyanla Vanzant (life guru), Meryl Streep (actress), Dennis Haysbert (actor/you know him from “24” and the Allstate commercials)

This obviously does not reflect the contributions of Federal law enforcement officers – it’s just a sketch.