I began my federal service going into my sophomore year of college. I didn’t realize when I began my job as an administrative assistant that I’d be kicking off a federal career that has now allowed me to celebrate 10 years of service. In reflecting on my federal service, I’ve been able to think about how much has changed with the agencies that I’ve interacted with. These past 10 years have been an especially interesting, and at times volatile, time in our country. While some organizations have been able to regularly embrace and evolve with change, many still struggle with modernizing and growing with the times. Allow me to share some perspective on what I feel some of these struggles are and ways that we can try to move past these barriers.
Q.) Based on your area of expertise and responsibilities, what are common perceptions that are not true and make it difficult for agencies to evolve?
A.) I wouldn’t necessarily say that the barriers that I’ve experienced are untrue. However, I feel they are treated more as “excuses” versus restrictions.
One thing I’ve found that agencies claim to be a barrier is budget. Naturally, this is a valid concern, and if given the option to have more money for resources, we would always say, “yes!”
The other restriction that I’ve experienced is organizations claiming that they don’t have time to allot to focusing on change. Change is exhausting and, in many instances, can require a big overhaul within an agency, workgroup or whatever that might look like.
Q.) How is that misconception communicated? What types of reasoning do you hear from those who believe it?
A.) I’m sure we’ve all heard that one of the weakest sells of a federal career is that it doesn’t pay as well, even if the benefits are very solid. We also don’t have the luxury of receiving gifts, general adjustments are not guaranteed and cash awards are few and far between. Some claim that because of this, it’s hard to motivate employees or find the right talent for the job. I’ve also heard frustrations such as faulty equipment, poor facilities and outdated systems as road blocks for properly doing the job.
As far as the time constraint, typically it is, “I don’t have time and that’s that.” A manager is scheduled in meetings day in and day out. An employee is given a larger workload than they can handle. From the second you log onto your machine to the second you log off, you can barely go to the bathroom. Or so it is said.
Q.) Why is this a myth and how does it hold agencies back?
A.) I’m by no means claiming that the constraints of money and time are myths. However, I believe that our perceptions of them are skewed. Very often we play victim and claim that we cannot do our jobs better, or grow with the times because of these issues. But is that the main factor?
When it comes to claims of money and not being able to properly motivate staff, agencies should remember one thing: motivation is not one size fits all. Just because you can’t award someone with money doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to motivate and encourage others. Chances are the people who only do a good job for carrots aren’t necessarily the people you want anyway.
Now, employee resources may be a bit of a different story. However, I’ve been able to find a lot of free or cheaper resources out there. Especially with a shift to the virtual world, more opportunities can be found online. Our very own GovLoop offers tons of online trainings for free, LinkedIn offers lots of free training opportunities with just a library card, etc.
As far as the time issue, it’s very true that many agencies have been asked to do more with less. But we get the job done. In my experience, I’ve noticed it’s not necessarily so much a time constraint, but a comfort issue. If a manager or an employee believes they don’t have the time to do something, it could be because they don’t understand or don’t feel comfortable doing that task or duty. And yes, it would take time for them to get comfortable with it, and they may not grasp the scope of how much time it will take and automatically assume, “Nope, I don’t have time for that.”
Q.) What is a better way of thinking about this issue/viewing it?
A.) It’s really a matter of looking at the “what can I do” versus “what can’t I do.” It sounds cliché but it’s true. It’s what gotten me by when I’ve faced roadblocks with projects that I’ve wanted to complete. Even if I’ve been faced with a difficult boss. We cannot change others but we can change ourselves.
Of course with the scope of whole agencies, we’re going to need to flex those creative muscles. What can be done with the resources that we do have can benefit from a good old-fashioned brainstorm. My organization has internal on-the-job training, shadowing and mentorship programs to help employees stay engaged and motivated. And these barely cost the agency anything aside from man-hours.
As far as the time issue, sometimes it comes down to a matter of re-prioritizing what’s important. Now, overall agency missions are often very admirable and make sense. I notice a lot of these time-sucking issues come down to a smaller organization or office within the agency. Helping to identify the tasks that these smaller offices are doing and whether they are really vital to the goals of the agency can help identify tasks that are actually important to the mission or…whether they are honestly just busywork.
Q.) What’s at stake if this myth continues?
A.) It’s no surprise. If we don’t either allot more funding or find better ways to use the funding that we currently have to move forward and develop our workforce, we are going to lose that talent. I’ve been at organization where I tried and tried to share my ideas and develop the office to be a better place to work and overall be more efficient, and I was shot down again and again. And guess what? I left.
There’s already a poor view of a lot of government agencies as being inefficient, lazy, what have you. But if we fail to modernize and try to pick up and encourage our workers, we are at risk to continue losing that trust in our customer: our local, state, or country-wide communities. It’s as simple as that. Show that we are willing to change and develop. We are never going to be perfect, but we need to at least put in that effort to be better.
Q.) What talking points can you share with others who want to have a conversation around this myth and change perceptions?
A.) I find that change starts like a drop of water. You are only one person, but even if you encourage the slightest change in your work group, that can flow out to others. Start with your team. Are you noticing areas that can be improved? Have you found a new resource that you’d like to share with your supervisor or management? You will never make waves sitting on the beach. While the reception may differ based on the mindset of the folks you interact with, it never hurts to try, and try in different ways. Persistence and resilience sound exhausting but can often lead to the change that you seek. Remember, what didn’t work a year or two ago may work today or tomorrow.
Myranda Whitesides is a Performance Support Specialist for the Interior Business Center, the Department of Interior’s Shared Services Center. She conducts personnel and payroll systems training for over 50 federal agencies, as well as providing training in Diversity and Inclusion for her peers. Myranda also serves as the Education Co-Director for the Mile High Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), coordinating Educational content for Human Resources professionals in the Denver Metro area. Myranda also enjoys singing, camping, and exploring local breweries and restaurants with her husband, Daniel.