Federal Connections – The Fog of Government

The New York Times magazine section this Sunday features an essay by Noah Feldman, “In Defense of Secrecy” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15wwln_lede-t.html?ref=magazine ). He makes the point that for all the emphasis on greater transparency in government, there is still a need, at times, for government secrecy: “The effective operation of even the most democratic government requires secrecy and surprise as well as transparency and predictability.” Well, yes, of course, but it strikes me that there is more to transparency than a debate over degrees of secrecy.

As many of us who work in government know, the obstacle to transparency often is not secrecy but something more mundane, something we might call the “fog of government.” Even as we understand intellectually that as federal employees we are at the service of the American public, too often, in practice, we become inward-focused — caught up in our work, caught up in process. Our duty to the individual American gets lost in the dust as we battle it out in the inter-agency process, or up and down the bureaucratic food chain.

As a diplomat, the number one question I am asked by fellow Americans is not a delicate question of sensitive policy, but simply, “So, what do you do as a diplomat?” People can imagine (accurately or not) what a doctor does, or what a lawyer does, or even what a soldier does. But they often are hard put to describe what a diplomat does. So, too, with the work of a federal employee – I am not sure that most Americans put a face to the term “federal government employee.”

One reason for this may be that for many Americans, the interface with the federal government is not “people”-based, but “program” or “transaction” based. Fill out the federal tax form, get the social security number, fill out a form for a passport. I wonder how many Americans, when asked about federal government employees, draw on the image of the friendly postal worker who delivers the mail? Or of the American soldier, or AID worker, or State Department official, or Peace Corps volunteer serving abroad?

President Obama set out a vision of transparency in government, and is taking steps to advance the effort (for example, by easing the rules for Freedom of Information Act requests). But it is up to those of us who are federal employees to do what we can to help make it happen. (That’s what bottom-up change is all about, right?)

What can we do as individuals to lift the “fog of government”? I would love to hear your ideas. It seems to me that, for starters, all federal employees need to make public outreach a part of our job. In some cases, for example, for the person delivering the mail, the task is already built in. But for others among us, extra steps need to be taken.

As a diplomat, my marching orders when overseas include devoting myself to public outreach. Yet when I get back to my own country, there is a sense that “someone else” is going to do it. Certainly, there are more federal government voices back in America than when I am overseas, and these voices are often more powerful and more effective than mine. But I still have my own plot of land to till, my own civic duty to fulfill. For me, that means going beyond the general “we are serving the American public,” to the specific, “I am serving this local student body,” or “I am helping that person who is on the other end of the phone.”

When I lived abroad and my children were younger, I would remind them as we went out the door to watch their behavior. If they misbehaved, people were not simply going to say, “Oh, that unruly child!” but rather, “Oh, look at that American kid!” Whether they liked it or not, they, too, were representing America. These days, I think back to that and try to apply it to myself, for example, when I get an email from someone trying to figure out who in government can answer a question, or when someone asks what I do. Some days, I am embarrassed to say that I fail miserably at it. But I know that when I get it right, I am contributing not just to a positive image of the federal government, but to increasing transparency and lifting the fog of government, too.

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Adriel Hampton

Abigail, thank you for your commitment to clearing the fog. Of course some things must be secret, but the vast, vast majority of data should be much more readily available for the public. The majority of Americans, I believe, would also readily accept that their officials are human, if those officials were by and large more willing to come off of their pedestals. I do like making public outreach a component of public service. Like the question you get about what diplomat’s do, and example from my work: I wonder what percentage of the public knows the difference between a city attorney, county counsel, district attorney, and public defender?

Allen Sheaprd

Ms Hampton you are but too kind.

Most interaction government interaction is not people based. When it is, well pictures of FEMA trailers and failed programs come to mind. People forget the highways, CDC, the dams, census and passports.

IMO, diplomats not only help put a face on a country but facilitate understanding on both sides. We need to know who they are and they need to know us. Our government started out that way. People could talk to representatives. As late as Lincoln people could walk upto and into the White house proper for the chance to speak with the president.

Sadly things became more like a monarchy whith the president safely secluded. It is only with blogs and web 2.0 that federal employees can interact with citizens. Is this important? Look at the business that do it in order to foster good customer relations, resolve problems and find out what people want.

Here is a thought that seems right from Rod Searling’s “The Twilight Zone” : Federal government to foster customer relations. Seems odd to many, sad to others and scary to a few. It should not. For whom does the federal government serve ?

Please tune in for HHS webcast on Mental health during a pandemic on Wednesday Feb 18th at 2 pm Go to pandemicflu.gov for more.