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Does Your Agency’s Reputation Precede You?


There are lots of jobs with stigmas attached to them. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all heard at least one or two lawyer jokes in our lifetime. Speaking of which…

A lawyer walks into a bar.

Just kidding…I’m not going down that road.

Government employees sometimes get a bad rap, but the truth is we have some of the best minds working non-stop on extremely important issues to help keep the nation running. But the bad rap doesn’t stop with government employees; the stigmas we face aren’t always tied to our jobs. The larger hurdles we have to overcome are typically more about the agencies we work for than the jobs that we do.

Back in February, the Pew Research Center released findings from a survey it conducted about public opinion of federal agencies in January 2015. The survey results show that although overall trust in government is low, individual agencies are, for the most part, viewed favorably.

The survey asked respondents about eight agencies and this is how they ranked in terms of favorability:

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – 70%
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – 68%
Department of Defense (DOD) – 65%
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – 59%
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – 54%
Veterans Affairs (VA) – 52%
National Security Agency (NSA) – 51%
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – 45%

Public opinion (understandably) sways with the times and major events going on around the world. The CDC was recently criticized for its handling of Ebola cases but the agency seems to have bounced back well from that. The VA is seen less favorably in light of recent scandals related to its handling of veterans’ care. And the good ol’ IRS…recent scandals aside, that agency may never get a reprieve in the court of public opinion.

The results from the Pew’s study are interesting, though not altogether surprising. But, a recent viewing of a particular episode of one of my favorite shows, Will and Grace, has me wondering how these rankings would re-stack in terms of people’s willingness to say who they work for.

In the episode, Will goes to a wedding and chooses to make up a back-story for himself; he tells people he is a professional tennis player to avoid the inevitable jokes and remarks at his expense when he tells people he’s a lawyer.

One of the people he meets points out that there’s another professional tennis player in attendance and guesses that they must know each other. The other tennis player helps Will cover his tracks when he is at a loss to come up with a story about where they may have met, and after thanking him, he asks “So tell me, what’s it really like to be a professional tennis player?” The man replies, “How would I know? I work for the IRS. You ever tried saying that at a party?”

So if we take a look at the eight agencies featured in Pew’s study, here’s how I think they rank in terms of people’s inclination to say where they work:

1. NASA – Seven out of ten people a NASA employee talks to will probably have an inner child wake up from a deep slumber if they said where they work, regardless of whether or not their job is in any way related to space exploration.

2. CDC – I don’t think anyone has a problem with the CDC figuring out how to contain and/or treat diseases and such. Plus, back in 2011, the CDC showed how ‘with the times’ it could be when it played off of the pop culture zombie craze with a public awareness campaign called “Zombie Preparedness.”

3. DOD – This department is HUGE with a good mix of civilian and military employees. That being the case, its members are often easily identified without any verbal communication being necessary; many “announce” who they work for via their military uniforms.

4. EPA – Whether people agree or disagree with climate change, or choose to live a green lifestyle, protecting natural resources is an important issue for our health and survival. No one wants to drink dirty water or breathe polluted air.

5. VA – The VA has had a rough go of it lately, and people working for the organization might be tired of talking or hearing about it, which is the only reason why I’m putting it a little lower on the list.

6. NSA – NSA folks probably don’t want to answer any more questions about Snowden. And what they do seems so complex I imagine it’s difficult to talk about to a layperson anyway.

7. IRS –Everybody has IRS jokes. Whether people have had a negative experience with the IRS or not, not many people have warm and fuzzy feelings toward this organization.

8. CIA – First rule about working for the CIA? Don’t talk about working for the CIA. Seriously. If you look at the job postings on the CIA website, each one says that interested applicants should “exercise discretion and good judgment in disclosing your interest in a position with the Agency.”

Keep in mind, the list above features my own personal thoughts on the idea.

All joking aside, public service is important work. There will always be challenges for agencies to overcome to be more favorable to the public. Some will never be rated much higher than they were in that last Pew survey. But regardless of the agency, an employee who shows up, works hard, and remains mindful of their mission and goals can go anywhere and proudly talk about being a public servant. Unless doing so means sharing privileged information. Don’t do that. Pretty much any agency would get really mad about that.

Mackenzie Wiley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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