It seems that the country is becoming more and more polarized. Right wingers have become far-right-wingers, and left wingers are moving far-left, all are becoming wing-nuts. I’ve been a federal employee for (gulp) 25 years and it’s rarely been something to be “proud” of to non federal people, i.e. the general public. Perception of federal employees as lazy, overpaid, incompetent, among other adjectives are widespread. With the Obama administration there seems to be some recognition that this perception is an actual problem.
When people observe the wasteful practices generally perpetuated by congress, they associate that with a wasteful incompetent government and of course those working in the government must also be wasteful and incompetent.
I just have this bad smell of growing numbers of people claiming we are overpaid (http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2010/03/05/federal-pay-gap-reversed/) and more frighteningly to be attacked. The attack on the IRS building (http://www.theledger.com/article/20100308/NEWS/3085004/1308/TIMEOUT?p=3&tc=pg) in Austin Texas last month strikes me as a canary in the coal mine type of behavior. Of course everyone loves to hate the IRS (no I don’t work for them) but the reality is they are just feds doing their job. In the press everyone condems this as the isolated actions of a crazed individual, and often that is followed up with, statements such as “yeah but I understand his frustrations”. Thus implicitly condoning the action or at least tolerating it. Let’s not forget about last weeks Pentagon shooting also linked to anti-government thinking http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iCKwXk17aAr3T_8Z9nN4iUwQPnngD9E8KP283. Finally AOL reports on a rapid rise of anti-government groups http://www.aolnews.com/nation/article/anti-government-groups-show-astonishing-rise-watchdog-warns/19379350.
So my question is simple, how do we change this perception of federal employees as the enemy?
Check out this commentary from the Partnership for Public Service, “Federal Workers, a Resource Not a Target”
Great post Sandy!
I think that the first step begins internally. The public may certainly have the perception that as a Public Servant, I do nothing all day but sit around on piles of gold while plotting how to undermine anything positive people are doing in their lives, but that perception isn’t true. In fact, the most passionate, service-oriented people I’ve met in my life are public servants.
Part of the problem is that our organizations have sought to make us interchangeable – cogs in a machine. When you dehumanize a group, vilifying that same group becomes remarkably easy. We’re not cogs – we’re people. We’re individuals with goals, dreams, passions and fears. For some reason, because we work for Government, we eschew advertising our humanity both to the public we serve and each other. I think this has to stop. When we believe that we are but cogs in a machine, we are less likely to celebrate the things that make us individuals, which cannot but be tied to the reasons we sought to join the Public Service in the first place. We’re awesome, and we have a long and hard campaign of first convincing each other that we do something each and every day to be celebrated. We serve.
The next step is to bring that same passion to the public – let’s start partnering. Let’s partner first with each other, and then, with the public. Let’s invest ourselves emotionally into what the citizens we serve are doing. Let’s become allies, partners, and most importantly, let’s become friends again.
I think we need to tell them what we’re doing right!
Several efforts toward this end:
1. Partnership for Public Service/Washington Post “Federal Player of the Week”
2. Forum Question on GovLoop: “What Is Your Proudest Moment in Government?”
3. “IAmPublicService.org” Project
What if OPM partnered with the Ad Council to do a series of commercials designed to improve the public’s perception of career government employees?
As a former government employee and current consultant to government agencies, all you can do is be responsive and accessible with the public. And, be honest and tough when you need to be as well. Treat each individual as someone you need to win over, and build one relationship at a time. You can’t stop the generalizations unless you are dealing directly with the person making them.
It is sad when this idea is passed around. Especially when the people I work with (and other Government Employees) work very hard, long hours (no over time or comp time), and we deal with more rules than regular civilians. Sometimes we work in buildings which are very old, with very old equipment, and we continue to do our jobs as hard as we can. Trying to be good stewards of the taxpayers dollars in every decision we make. Yep, sad that we get a bad rap.
They aren’t mad at public servants. They are made at elected officials. Sadly we are a lot easier to get to. Oh well we can only do our best.
I believe the public has these feelings towards government workers because they do not understand government, how it works, what it does, or the function of the people who work for government. This is why I think it is so important we start pushing for a solid civic education in our school system. How else can we really expect their perception of it all to change?
It would also help if certain elected officials also not target “bureaucrats” and spread conspiracy theories about normal government functions (such as taking the census). In a government of laws, government workers have to enforce both the popular and unpopular laws. It would help to point out that the police officer who pulls someone over for speeding is also the same person who is protecting that person’s neighborhood.
Having been a public servant and an employee, now a business owner, here’s some of my take.
People on the street do not believe politicians. People on the street do not believe public servants. They are linked as night follows day.
Time was when public servants might have been impartial. Those days are gone.
Democracy is looking a very poor way to run a country. Public servants are bearing the back-lash.
In a recession, people lash out and criticise more than usual because they are angry.
Civil servants have to go back to their core reason for being – civil, courteous, polite ; serving, helping
What they are not good at is innovating, saving or building better ways of doing things. So they are in a Catch 22. Politicians turn to the private sector and it’s oil and water.
It not surprising about this attitude towards government employees. Just read the news about entitlement programs failing to support those in need (e.g. Social Security, VA, Medicare, etc..). The best way to turn this around is to get the chain of command to support the employees. The employees don’t make up the rules – they just enforce them. Management needs to be focused on the work place environment so the “worker bees” can get their jobs done. If management can be more receptive to employees training needs and sit in the offices collecting a pay check – then shame on them. Supervisor need to be out interacting with their employees to find out what is going on out on the floor. Supervisor need to set the example and be willing to pitch in when event on the ground become overwhelming and set the proper priorities. Creating a “non-hostile” work environment will go a long way toward employee motivation. A government employees – we are all in this together. There is no “me” or “them” it is “US” as in USA.
There’s a very similar dialogue going on in the UK.
Recently the leader of the opposition spoke of ‘naming and shaming’ highly paid local government officials. Public sector in the UK is also considered to be safe from job cuts – a view that persists despite some hard times behind us and harder times to come.
There’s also mention of ‘hard working taxpayers’ paying our salaries – which rather lazily ignores the fact that everyone employed in the public sector also pays tax. The latest is to draw a distinction between front line services and back office – protect the front line services from cuts and reduce the back office, laudable to a point but a lot of the front line doesn’t happen without the support of the back office.
I’ve had this discussion many times with many different people and one of the things that we can all agree on (well, except for the people holding the pursestrings) is that government is sorely in need of more proactive and effective public affairs and public relations. (Full disclosure: I’m a government contractor specializing in public affairs/public relations). What did Toyota do when their image was destroyed by the recent recalls? They really amped up their PR/advertising campaign to focus on what they were doing right and proactively tried to address the concerns that their customers had. Historically speaking, the a government agency’s public affairs function has been at best, understaffed, and at worst, non-existent. They’re too often led by people without a public affairs/public relations background and they’re among the first functions to get cut when there’s a budget crunch. Should we really be surprised then that the public image of government has decreased over time? This isn’t a question of open government or Gov 2.0 – it’s a question of basic PR and marketing.
The question then, becomes whether it’s worth the additional funds and resources to change this perception, or if those limited funds are better spent elsewhere. That’s a decision that gets made every fiscal year, and each time money is taken from public affairs, it’s going to get more and more difficult to change this perception among the general public, or, as the private sector would call them, our customers.
I think a good first step would be to get rid of those government employees that match the public’s perception. The majority of government workers I know and work with are very hard working and dedicated but I’ve also met some that are lazy, incompetent, etc. (more than I’d like) that just keep collecting their paycheck until they can retire. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “it’s almost impossible to get rid of a government employee.” It usually only takes one encounter with this type of person to ruin someone’s perception of an organization.
I am commenting from the other side of the pond so my experiences are with UK Government not yours but I would think some features are common as our Government is daily becoming more modelled on yours than it ever has been.
There is most defiantly a “them and us” situation in the UK and this can only be changed by the leadership. By leadership I mean the Politicians.
Over hear the country is run by some very good and loyal Civil Servants working to the instructions of elected Politicians. Unfortunately the Politicians know very little of what actually happens at grass routes level either in the Departments or with the Electorate.
As a result this lack of interaction and understanding with the general public friction is created and bad laws put in place.
What is the answer?
I believe that you need more interaction with your electorate using the media to expose the problems and your Politicians need to be fully involved.
If the Public truly understood the problems that your colleagues encountered they may be more supportive but only if the position is promoted to them in a format that they can understand.
Having led PR for a state agency, it’s more than willingness from the PR/communications staff that matters. Almost all govt employees and especially at the local and state levels have new leaders every election cycle. While these employees may be protected, they are not immune and cannot distance themselves from the elected leadership when they are being quoted in newspapers. And, the politics of issues can get in the way of telling good stories, or partnering with entities to build collaboration. So inititatives that get full backing one year, come to a stop the next. It’s hard to build momentum in that regard, and it’s hard for many to continue to fight the good fight, although the majority do. It’s hard standing out in this arena, and the basics of PR and Marketing make sense as Steve Radick mentions, but in many ways it’s a completely different world.
Agree with the comments. ADD that our culture is being changed by the internet. I was part of the original “service to the taxpayer in the living room” movement that brought our government online and it has had great benefit. However, the state of the art is a moving target and some parts of the government are not set up to provide effective customer service as expected.
Second issue – Security. Our idea of secure is changing. Government has a lot of information. There is a fear and practice of getting caught between security and effectiveness and it is cheap and easy for citizens and media to be “appalled” without a clue in a time of changing expectations..
I beleive the general public doesn’t even know who we are or what we do, they formulate their opinions based on what they get from the media. Most us us are not in the media, who is? the White House, the Senate, Congress, etc., a good start to public relations would be to vote everyone out of office and get some clean, tax paying, honest, working for the people not the party individuals in place. Not the total solution but a good start……..
As a non-government employee who makes his living supporting the government (DoD) my view is change would have to be 3 fold, but unless government workers are going to hire a PR firm it likely won’t matter at this point. Stop the talk about growing governement or hiring workers, or transfering work from contractors to governement. This has a conditioned response after years of the outsourcing argument of being wasteful and inefficient. That’s not to say you don’t expand the government work force, hire a new generation, but it has to be framed in a more supportive to the people less empire building message. Second, until Joe & Jane America believe you compensation is in line with theirs, you don’t have a fixed pension when they don’t, you aren’t protected by seniority when they aren’t, you don’t contribute enough out of pocket (more each year) for health care like they do, you can’t win. Since no one in thier right mind is going to volunteer to give up income and benifits you may be in a no win, especially during a down and troubled economy. Lastly is showing real value to the tax payer. easier said than done since they are aren’t a homogenius whole any more than any large group. This is the classice I love my IT guy but the department sucks syndrome. You can only make a difference at the point of contact but there is no halo for the organization which is precieved real or imagined as inept. Remember the public is fed a diet of bad news about the government, the good often goes unnoticed. Our leaders in both the legislative branch and executive branch always talk about waste fraud and abuse. Holding one side of every golden fleece is a government employee. If you can get the elected leadership to stop this waste in government rethoric you might gain some ground. You can’t have a enterprise that is lean, and can respond to any need in 30 minutes or less. For those of us that work with the goverment and have to deliver a product two changes would be welcome. A sense of urgency, and acceptance of capitalistic motivations. In my 30 years in aerospace and defense I can’t tell you how many civilian government employees inside and out side of DoD have stated a disbelife that profit is important. There are other suggestions but as a min governement employee unions need to have a coordinated image campaign. Stress the service to your fellow citizen theme and not the I couldn’t cut it in industry so I hired into a life time job on the tax payers nickel.
The reason why the public view the government as lazy and overcompensated is because many government workers are lazy and overcompensated. Now, before you flame me, hear me out.
I came to the federal government a year ago after 5 years working in private consulting. I was, and still am, amazed at some of the smart, passionate, and hardworking people who work in government. But for every one of those, there is someone who is just showing up at the office to collect a paycheck. Everybody knows who they are. If they are near retirement age, they’re referred to as “retired in place”. These are often the surly, unhelpful people who, when they interact with the public, give all of government a bad name.
This behavior would have never been tolerated at my former employers. These people would have had to shape up or be fired. I’m not saying the federal government should go around firing people willy-nilly (not that it happens that way in private sector either -even with no union protections, it’s still rare for someone to get fired for cause). But there are a few bad apples at every agency who need some pressure put on them to improve their performance or leave. Because it’s so difficult, under union rules, to fire them, they stay in their job. Managers, who are overworked anyways, would rather not bother. And the bad apples continue to drag the rest of the agency down.
Working for Federal is among the noblest cause, but protecting it needs constant vigil. And more important “will”.
When the Federal contracts, especially the IT Portfolio that is around $ 75 Billion, it becomes a portfolio to be held heist, then one needs to certainly worry. Working for any government is one among the noblest cause. More importantly protecting it from all evils with a constant vigil is a ceaseless work. All most all the complimentary work in the Federal, is supported by contractors.
It is said that it virtually impossible to estimate the number of contractors engaged in complementing the Federal employees. However, estimates project about 7.6 plus millions complement about 2 million Federal employees. If this is true, then as suggested in the article in the link below indicates that a system that depends on the large number of contractors owing to becoming dysfunctional is inherently prone to fraud, abuse and waste.
In my own experience, I have found some government staff don’t even write their own memo’s and emails. How disgusting is this.
Furthermore, many of the contracting vehicles are manipulated. Especially in the reserved small business contracts. Refer to small business challenges in the Federal sector in the article below.
It is worth noting the fact that most innovation is happening in the small business sector and also is the most employment-generating sector, besides contributing to tax exchequer. When the system gets manipulated, then it becomes virtually impossible to govern the harmonious benefit that the small business would otherwise contribute especially in the Federal sector.
It is a know fact that a large percentage of the small business is taken away by the large IT outfits, otherwise called the DC Bandits. Also, it is true that there are many firms certified as 8 (a), claiming to be economically and socially to be in denial. But in reality these firms are owned and operated by multi- millionaires who have worked in multi-billion corporations. These of course happens with the collusion of government officials. The issue is the system is inherently weak to make the Office Of Inspector General function strong and bear down on the wrong doers.
There can be such countless list. But when the “will” in people arise, then no matter what the system that they want to uphold will prevails. What is wanting is “will”.
Harlan, I wasn’t suggesting spending tax payer money on a media campaign. I was suggesting the union spend it’s money to build the image of the membership. If the union represents the worker that can include an image campaign, getting government workers portrayed as helpful in tv show depictions, editorials refuting waste allegations, etc.
You can’t. Part of it is envy over not having employment at present. Part of it is the lumping of all levels of government together, and part of it is that, yes, there are placeholder employees in all types of government who are not pulling their weight and are rightly eligible for criticism.
There is waste in the private sector as well, but government is in the potshot receiving business, so we all need to just suck it up. It’s always a good idea to try to educate the public about what you are doing and how you are adding value in any government agency, but I can’t imagine any actual widespread success in pushing back against the inaccurate criticism.
I have worked for the Federal Government for almost 36 years. During this entire time, I have always seen these types of attacks on the Federal Workforce. I remember Reagan’s OPM Director, Donald Devine, touring the country lying about the Federal Workforce, Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government” (work smarter, not harder, but we won’t give you the tools to do so), Bush’s anti-employee actions such as NSPS, and Obama’s comment about not leaving healthcare to “government bureaucrats” (not a good way to make working for the government cool again (was it ever cool?)). In fact, fed-bashing may be the only true bipartisan issue.
The types of distortions perpetuated by the Cato Institute report have been promulgated before, and will be promulgated again. Add this to the attacks from Congress and the administrations and I fear there is not much we can do as rank-and-file employees to change the public’s opinion. After all, as was said before, many of work hard and do excellent work in service to the country, yet very few people ever see the work we do or the results. I work at a Navy Laboratory, few people know what we do (my own wife, after a tour was surprised and amazed by the quality of the work), yet our work is vital to our national defense.
I believe that the best we can all do is come to work every day, do the best job we can, and try to get whatever satisfaction we can from having done a good job and doing our bit to help the country. Waiting for thank yous or attaboys/attagirls from the public and the politicians is a fools game and will only lead to frustration.
I’m not an government employee(But I hope to be in the near future!), but anyhow from my perspective the answer is simple, transparency. I don’t think that individuals “Really” dislike federal employees per se, but in essence what I think is really happening is that the general public dislikes the institution that you represent. In other words, guilt by association.
When government institutions say one thing and do another, for the most part, that’s infuriating to tax payers. Thus, in order to truly be understood by the general public, government has to be where the public resides (ex:socia media, and in other places), creating connections with the general public. (Ex: how cool would it be if the president, and other government institutions vlogged on Youtube about what’s happening, and actually talked to the public, thus creating a two-way conversation. In essence, the government works for the public not for themselves; you can’t vote yourself into office the community does that)
So, from my perspective the only way individuals will appreciate government employees is if their depts/institutions change the way they communicate not only with eachother, but with everyone else as well.
One obvious solution is to embrace radical transparency and launch a serious initiative to involve citizens in the workings of their government. Government cannot reform itself–sustained, unforgiving public pressure is the only engine that has ever driven government reform in this country.
I first became involved in the business of government 18 months ago, after many years as a journalist and writer. My task at KDOT is the management of the agency’s social media operation, which–unlike 99 percent of so-called “Government 2.0” initiatives– is aimed at opening up the agency’s operations to public comment and criticism.
Scan the social media posts here at GovLoop, surf any of the (dozens and dozens) of sites devoted to “Government 2.0,” attend one of the “Government 2.0” conferences, and what you will hear about are new-tech tools designed to improve intra-agency efficiency and communication. You will hear virtually nothing about applying these tools to the task of tearing down the barriers between government and the governed. You will quickly learn that “Government 2.0” is nothing more than a marketing term-of-art designed to sell technology of questionable utility.
The public doesn’t care if Agency ABC is tweeting its activities to Agency XYZ. The public doesn’t care if “social media” tools enable TSA to better interface w/ Justice. What the public wants is some indication that all this whippy technology is going to make government more responsive to them. At the moment they have no reason whatsoever for optimism.
Easy, telework from a remote location and get a gun. Barring that actions speak louder than perceptions…
By the way on a positive note: Know that you are appreciated!!! Really you are:>) I’m a non-government employee, and I appreciate all that you do!! My mother was a government employee for 25 years (HUD), and I truly respected what she stood for. You guys are not the enemy. In fact, your actually the unseen heros…sounds corny yes I know, but I personally believe that to be true.
Sandy, thank you for posting this blog entry:>), Have a great day everyone!!
This is great! I’ve opened it up for debate on my blog too: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/federal-eye/2010/03/are_federal_workers_the_enemy.html … I’ll share some good comments in this space later on.
I worked for the Federal Government for 30 years, retired and now operate a small business not connected to any government agency. My time in government was working in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth Virginia. As some have previously stated many people do not know who we are. At the shipyard because of high security the work force cannot bring their family to work while private industry used this aspect to gain champions in the community. Family pride radiates with knowledge of who and what Dad and/or Mom does for a living.
At the shipyard as in many agencies Government employees form informal work groups and take part in community functions with their own money and time. Private industry pays big buck to community activity (which is good but also gives maximum positive exposure). Count the federal employees in last year’s “Walk for the Cure”.
Government employees cannot win the salary fight. It only takes one bad apple to give food to the media. We must stimulate the positive. We must engage in local community and individual media information agenda. Once outside of the beltway we find federal employees are the backbone to many communities. We are the PTA leaders, the school board officials, the soccer coaches. While this seems insignificant in a pay dispute a show of whom in the community the federal employee is, how valuable an asset to the area that person will be and without the federal dollar many cities would be devastated. Stay positive and win them over.
Pat, I agree and disagree on some points. These Web 2.0 tools let constant public pressure be present ALL the time, so these tools are changing the game.
As of now, the governments that are leading the way for Gov 2.0 (and yes, it is more than a buzz word — buzz has no rea-world impact, but these tools have real-world impact) are local governments and regional agencies. Here are some examples:
– Manor, TX: Small city, big impact. Amazing tools. What other city has a “labs” for its tools.
– San Francisco: No surprise here. SF has its own open data sets that can be combined with APIs to make mashup tools. Microsoft’s new Pivot tool will also be able to dig into this data and provide better information to people.
– WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority): The metro…yes, public transportation…has access for developers and even a mobile site. I use the mobile site on a regular basis and it’s a life saver.
In the way of responsiveness, I have first hand experience getting feedback from IdeaScale initiatives by the fed gov (i.e. response from a Presidential Fellow on creating a widget for the Federal Acquisition Regulations). I imagine local gov is even better with 2-way convos with the public.
Good topic to discuss Sandy!
As a former Federal employee and now a State employee, there are a few things I can point out that would help.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the way that Federal employees (in general), drive on the roads. I have seen numerous US government vehicles tailgating, speeding, and displaying rude behavior. As a state employee, we would and should get nailed for that kind of driving. That is one very high-profile way to change perception of Federal employees. Posting an 800 number to call in case of abuses would be very useful!
The second is: accessibility. Most people feel like they are unable to access basic services at the Federal level. They often feel that way about the State government and we work on being available to them as much as possible. Some people go way above and beyond the call of duty in State government to assist those in need.
The third and perhaps most important is: Community involvement. I have known numerous Federal employees who kind of act like their time is their own and don’t want to be bothered being involved. This is not the norm, but I have seen it on a regular basis. That is an easy perception to change. One suggestion is volunteering once or twice a month.
All of things could be easily implemented and would greatly help the public’s perception of us as Public servants.
Thanks again for asking!
– Matt Goolsby
I don’t dispute that there are occasional examples of government applying new tech to public outreach, and (once in a vy great while) even acting on the data thereby acquired–I’m involved w/ one such effort–but it cannot be seriously argued that all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds “Government 2.0” has in any substantive way increased government accountability in this country. (Or for that matter, anywhere else.) In almost every case, new technology is acquired and deployed to improve intra-agency comms or agency-to-agency comms.
Heck, our opinion doesn’t matter. The only opinions that matter are those of the public. Search for a national commentator hailing “Government 2.0” for opening up the black box and letting the public see inside–you won’t find one. The agencies most-often cited in stories about “Government 2.0” are Homeland Security and TSA–it’s unrealistic to expect that such stories inculcate warm fuzzies in the general public.
I believe the end of this story is already written: Government will be radically transparent. It will be held accountable in public forums. It will spend more time serving the people, and less time trading awards and going to conferences. All of these things will happen–the only question is whether they are done voluntarily from within, or forcibly mposed from without.
I must live in an alternative universe; there are federal workers who doubt their reputations and allegiance?
The federal system is one of the best places to work bar none. All we have to do is watch the pensions of corporate workers disappear and witness the steadily declining salaries of family and friends in the private sector. Work for state government and see the discrepancies in funding. Within the federal system, we have a fighting chance to accomplish objectives.
And I believe that the average citizen greatly respects the work we do. My daughters are never sure as to what I do for a living, but they and their friends do know that I’m a “fed,” and they use the term with respect.
We can and should do more to promote our fellow employees and that’s just what we do at CSOSA through “DC Public Safety” radio, television, blog and transcripts at http://media.csosa.gov. We are the internet’s most popular social media site on crime and justice issues and most of our programs feature rank-and-file employees.
If the federal system did more to promote its employees, maybe misperceptions would diminish.
I hear you man, were not the enemy that a lot of people think that we are, were also not lazy and overpaid. Like you say, we’re just regular everyday hard-working American men and women who work for the public sector, in this case the Federal Government, who work hard, do their jobs and get fair pay for it. I’ve been working for the Federal Government for a combined four years and am very proud of it. I couldn’t ask for anything better, especially with all of the benifits you can get, including healthcare and retirement. You don’t get all these benefits working with the private sector. With the private sector, its usually an either/or type of routine. With the public sector, you have it all. And what really annoys me more than anything is that comment about the guy who crashed his plane into the IRS building, like you mentioned, the people who say “Yeah, but I understand his frustrations” and his daughter calling him a “HERO?” In my opinion, this guy is in fact, nothing but a low-down coward and also a murderer because when he crashed his plane into that building, he claimed the life of an IRS employee as well. And with people understanding his frustrations, that’s just a classic example of what Steve Wilkos (The Steve Wilkos Show) calls “Comforting the Monster.” In this case comforting the monster who, first of all, sets his own house ablaze and then crashes his plane into a building, thus killing an IRS employee in the process. In my opinion, cowards such as Mr. Stack deserve to “Rot in Hell” for their grusome and horrifying actions. I know that must have been a horrifying act for those who actually witnessed it, especially those motorists who were driving along the adjacent interstate highway there in Austin, Texas. While we hear about waistful practices in Congress and in the Government, I’m quite happy to say that there are also lots of areas within the Federal Government, such as us here at the FDA’s Division of Dockets Management, who are trying to set a good example for the waistful ones and show them instead, how to “Go Green!”
To improve the current perception of government employees, we must first identify how it came to be so bad. I was in DOJ from 1970 to 1991 and observed first hand the sea change wrought by Ronald Reagan (“government is the problem, not the solution”) and his “starve the beast” mentality. Government service is an honorable and important calling, but until another president makes that a central theme, often communicated to the public, the ghost of Reagan will continue to walk among us.
Thanks so much for the great discussion around this important topic! I thought you would be interested in listening to Partnership for Public Service’s President and CEO Max Stier’s Stop Blaming Federal Workers commentary that aired yesterday on WAMU. To listen, please click here.
The fundamental issue is nationally elected politicians who claim to stand outside “government” even though the Constitution enshrines their existance just as much as ours. When I hear a Senator saying “Government in the problem” he is, usually, trying to indict us. The probelm is, he is also indicting himself. I think we need to repeatedly point this out in the public square.
Get the media to focus on what’s good and instead of the old “F*ck up and move up” way of doing things, hold people responsible, penalize, prosecute and publicize what we do to make things better. Too many “TMZ” moments. The IRS is an easy target since Cabinet appointees and Agency heads can go years without paying taxes then suddenly get a ‘do-over and wipe the slate clean’. Jest Plain Folks get salary garnishments and liens on property-
There are several things at play here:
1. Government managers have to work with two hands tied behind their back. It is all but impossible to fire incompetent workers and to reward those that go above and beyond. This inevitably leads to low morale and government workers that fulfill these stereotypes.
2. Government workers have to learn to support one another. I’ve read too many comments from staff that have worked for the Feds for several decades complaining that a young person with less “experience” (typically meaning time) has a higher position than they do. On the flip side, I’ve seen younger workers get frustrated with older co-workers because they don’t think alike (I’m to blame for some of this myself). This approach doesn’t do anything to help our plight as a workforce on the whole. We have to learn to support our co-workers, young and old alike; we are all government workers together and without internal support how are we to fight public misconceptions.
3. As other commenters have pointed out, the public sees “government” as Capitol Hill, the Presidency, and elected officials. How are we to fight that perception? Additionally, the only time government workers are mentioned in the media is when one us is caught for some sort of unethical behavior. We need to work with the media to show that not all of us are corrupt and out to screw the taxpayer; in fact 99.9% of us are here to help support the taxpayer.
So what can we do to help:
1. OPM reforms that allow for easier hiring and firing and enable managers to actually manage their staff.
2. Begin working toward a more cohesive workforce where young and old, experienced and not, work together to fight the common battles.
3. Continue to put a good face on bureaucracy by engaging in social media and streamlining our actions to fit the 21st century. We need to prove to the people that we are capable of change and that we, as government workers, want change as much (if not more than) as the public.
This is not unique to your public service – this is a more general attitude that streaches around the world. It is complex and there are many factors at play – many beyond the control of public servnats themselves but not all. One thing we can all do is try to do better than our clients expectations each and every time we serve them. I like you have been a public servant a long time – I try to remember that every dollar I spend at work as been take out of someone’s back pocket and so it is incumbent on me to use it very wisely.
I think if we provided excpetional service all the time and we can do that regardless of the role – we could retain the trust and confidence of the public that pay our salaires
I am an attorney representing federal government contractors so I regularly work with government employees, contracting officers, attorneys, and technical experts. I used to work at a firm whose attitude was that all federal employees were either stupid, incompetent, or lazy. If they were not they would be working in the private sector. I found this a false and imprudent approach. I prefer to think that all federal employees I deal with are competent and results oriented. When they are it forms the basis for a good relationship. When they aren’t I change my approach. My point is that there is only so much a federal employee can do to change public perception. The public perception can overcome all the good a federal employee does. Perhaps federal employees need to work on a person-by-person basis and assume that those they deal with in the public will have a good perception or can be educated on the good work federal employees perform. We all need to see each others as individuals and not just cogs in a giant machine. I wish I had a better comment on how to help these misperceptions.
The whole “If they were worth anything they’d be in the private sector” canard really biols me. I’m a fisheries oceanographer – I love my job – and there aren’t a lot of private sector job opportunities in my field. My colleagues and me work in the government and academia because this is important work to us, and becaue Booz Allen doesn’t hire our like.
And I agree whole heartedly that excelletn customer service can help – for those owrking in such jobs or agencies.
I agree with Mr. R. Clarke comment a few minutes earlier, “This is not unique to your public service – this is a more general attitude that stretches around the world.”
He really hit the nail-on-the-head with this… I’m on Guam and I feel-for-you too! I think i commented that there is a merit system in place on Guam, but because it is an island, everyone is connected to someone somehow and quite close too! I have to keep my lip closed and restrain from throwing a fit whenever I see an employee get promoted just by being clever enough to “mold” their application to qualify for a position (based on the Position Description)! It’s quite appalling to know that the bad apples of a barrel are those public servants who act like they’re “above the law” and “better than the public” of whom they are employed to serve.
So, to change the perception of a government employee as the enemy – first we must ensure that the employee is REALLY qualified for the position. The merit system MUST be revised to ensure background checks on an individual’s qualifications. Thus, ensuring that the public confidence is cushioned from the bad perceptions of the few “bad apples”.
Does stating, “the reality is they are just feds doing their job” relieve you of responsibility if you are encouraged to be dishonest or unproductive in your work? What if you’re asked to break the law, or at least significantly bend it?
To change public perception, you need to do something that’s almost impossible; put your jobs at risk by standing up to waste and injustice. The perception that you’re just sheep “doing their jobs” will change when there is evidence that you don’t unjustly benefit from an artificial environment where there are no consequences for poor performance.
If the reports are accurate that you live not as public servants but in a higher paid, protected political class, then you should be aware that, when they eat more than their hosts, some parasites do kill their hosts. Witness Greece and California. Are we far behind?
Script excerpt from Cool Hand Luke where a prison guard follows unjust orders to put Luke into a sweat box.
Boss Kean opens the box.
Ah’m jus’ doin’ mah job, Luke. You
gotta appreciate that.
ANGLE ON LUKE IN BOX
Boss, when you do somethin’ to me
you better do it because you got to
or want to… but not because it’s
your damn job.
“What if you’re asked to break the law, or at least significantly bend it?”
Then I’d resign and go downtown to the Washington Post and blow the whistle as loudly as I could.
“Does stating, “the reality is they are just feds doing their job” relieve you of responsibility if you are encouraged to be dishonest or unproductive in your work?”
No, it doesn’t, and most o f the “waste, fraud and abuse” scandals that have hit the MSM the last few years have been started by Feds being told exactly that, and refusing to go along.
Sorry to burst the collective bubble, but the only waste and injustice I see from inside is the inescapable need of people of a certain political persuasion to not want money spent on certain things by the federal government. That’s certainly a fair subject for debate, but lets call it what it is – a policy disagreement – and not cast it as some grand witch hunt where federal employees would be loved if they’d only stand up and do the “right” thing. That’s a red herring at best, and a disgraceful comment from a fellow citizen – unless of course you don’t really think its just to spend money on defense, or clean water, or basic healthcare, or basic public education. Then sure, we’re all wasting money and acting unethically, immorally, and unjustly.
The problem for me (as a federal worker) is that I see a fair number (granted not all) of employees who view their job as an entitlement. Promotions and raises–entitlements. You can see evidence of this mindset in the estimated number of federal workers who are delinquent in their taxes (nearly 278,000) as of December 2009. Problem is, it doesn’t take a very large number to gain negative press that makes us all look bad.
I seriously doubt we’ll ever have a special place in the hearts of our countrymen as long as Congress behaves the way it does. Don’t forget, the “board of directors” of our company has an approval rating that’s barely floating above 20%.
Given that level of frustration, all the PR in the world isn’t going to do much good. Besides, do you think the federal government, spending tax payer dollars to let people know how good government is would be well received?
I get agitated whenever I see the looney Census commercials, which aren’t necessary either. “Feel good” Ad Council campaigns for the gov’t aren’t appropriate uses of tax funds.
What can we do? I’m pretty pessimistic on this front–as I said–with Congressional approval rates so low, and with increasing polarization in the populace, I don’t think federal employees aren’t going to find much love anytime soon.
But those on the tax man’s list could pay up, and we can all keep doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, and ensure we’re giving the taxpayers the best value we can for their dollars.
2% pay raise – that some Feds whined “wasn’t enough” – was the tipping point.
Compare to private sector — NO pay raise, unemployment, furloughs, layoffs, stress, etc.
A Fed for 25 years in D.C. gets: 26 days Annual Leave, 13 Days Sick Leave, 10 Holidays, Snow Days, Compressed Schedule, Free Metro, etc. I don’t see anything there to whine about.
Here’s a start for fellow Feds – THANK the taxpayers instead of waiting for them to thank you.
@Ken Mac Garrigle – the pay raise is required by law, which doesn’t make it right, but it also doesn’t give the public the right to persecute us.
In terms of the benefits – it takes a federal employee 25 YEARS to get those that you stated. Additionally, as a fed working in Chicago I have yet to see a snow day. Telework is not in all offices, nor are alternative work schedules (which are also private sector practices).
I think the public’s disdain for federal employees is misdirected. It should be geared towards lawmakers and elected officials – not the boots on the ground employee.
Federally, there’s this Virginia/Maryland/DC, Mid-Atlantic “Old-Guard” regional poltical culture of laziness, poor work ethics, and elitism permeating to other US public sector levels away from the eastern seaboard. This may be a reason why states tied to Capitol Hill’s east-coast, “Washington is the Center of the Universe” budgetary allocations and inactions, can’t get things done for their citizenry. This appears especially true for places far from DC, wishing to be national, progressive, “get it done now leaders” (i.e. California, Texas, etc.)—those who want to break free from the scandalous “left behind,” geographically- shortsighted eastern US purse strings handlers.
Certain Western states and Central states want certain processes and justices done NOW, not in 50-100 years. Those with the puppet strings east of the Mississpppi might would rather see such changes, if indded permited, happen to those areas closest to them first. That’s why both hard-working Repubs and Demos away from Washington often hate and resent Capitol Hill’s puppetry moves that seems year-after-year, to unethically favor lazier, “get nothing done, more culturally backwards” eastern states closest to DC/Maryland/Virginia.
Sandy — many good points made in your post and in the comments.
Three things we could do within government to improve the image of government and government workers:
First, the public’s memory of $500 hammers is strong. Government doesn’t talk about all the ways it saves the taxpayer’s money. A lot of government workers are out there finding ways to save us all money every day. We need to celebrate those who save the government money in public forums outside of government.
Second, when a citizen looks for information from the government, he has to have some idea of how the government is organized to find that information. Put another way, we organize information according to how we, inside the government, see our organizations rather than how the CITIZEN sees government. We need to put the focus on the citizen and make how government is organized irrelevant to the citizen. After all, if it weren’t for the citizens of our nation, the government wouldn’t exist.
Third, involve your friendly government public affairs/communications professional when you talk to the media or want to engage the public somehow. They have a wealth of information and experience and want to use it to engage citizens in a meaningful way. And don’t think for a moment that just because you can write an email, take a photo or post on a blog that you don’t need their knowledge and experience. They need their help too. Share the success stories you’d want to see in the press. They can’t be everywhere and they don’t know everyone.
Thanks for your response, and candor. “Sorry to burst the collective bubble, but the only waste and injustice I see from inside is the inescapable need of people of a certain political persuasion to not want money spent on certain things by the federal government. That’s certainly a fair subject for debate, but lets call it what it is – a policy disagreement – and not cast it as some grand witch hunt where federal employees would be loved if they’d only stand up and do the “right” thing. That’s a red herring at best, and a disgraceful comment from a fellow citizen – unless of course you don’t really think its just to spend money on defense, or clean water, or basic healthcare, or basic public education. Then sure, we’re all wasting money and acting unethically, immorally, and unjustly.”
I did not mean to offend but do not consider effectiveness a red herring for policy. After working for local government for two years it was made clear to me that requesting extra assignments was not appreciated. I first thought this was great–a cushy, well paying job. Soon I got bored and played games trying to see how early in each month I could complete my work (twice I did it in two weeks but almost always in three). I did not have the courage to complain but this practice was dishonest and, in effect, stealing. What does this have to do with politics? I’ve said nothing about what public policy should or should not be.
If you’re effective at your job than you can better defend us or keep more of our water clean. If your department/division is operating well than I’m all for you. However, many of the comments in this thread say otherwise. For example, being frustrated when incompetence is promoted.
You’re in the best position to provide feedback to top management and congress when your work is not achieving the stated legislative goals.
Anyway, my first comment was in response to Sandy’s use of “just doing my job” as a defense.
Have you really never come across
My external perception of federal employees (I am a contractor) is that the vast majority are extremely dedicated, work long hours and put in much overtime (I can contact them at home and on weekends). I work mostly with DOI employees and most specifically, FWS. They are committed to their responsibilities to preserve our natural resources, and their attitude is that they serve the American people, preserving natural resources on their behalf. Yet when I talk to others about my experiences with federal employees, they are usually very skeptical. I do believe that the trend towards open government and having employees use social networking tools will put a personal face on govt offices and will help tremendously with the public’s erroneous perceptions.
[private sector employee]
It is very unfortunate that front line federal employees suffer as a result of political conflicts for which they have no control. My condolences to the IRS staff that were injured and killed when Mr. Stacks primary complaint was with congress.
Thanks Sandy and GovLoop for this great topic which I think about all the time. I agree with many of these comments and will add some fuel to the fire. These things are systemic and individual low-level workers can’t fix them but OMB can move them forward:
(1) Identify things that federal workers complain about and address them. Then the federal worker becomes part of the public-relations solution automatically. Because when federal workers complain about their work, it can feed into a public impression that the government is painfully inefficient. To fix that, OMB should keep asking civil servants in various ways “do you have the tools you need to work efficiently?” and suchlike, then ACT. Innovate. It’s pretty easy — just stop suppressing and delaying so much of the innovation that’s trying to happen. Specifically:
(1a) Imitate cheap but smart things done by other agencies and state and foreign governments, like cross-agency computer services. Don’t spend a lot, but act! Experiment, then learn and fix, the Silicon Valley way.
(1b) Bring the inspector general offices more to life; expand their authority maybe and reduce the legalism. Tell them that too-expensive or demoralizing mis-management IS relevant; they can investigate things that aren’t crimes, and make recommendations. They can make the world a better place in a routine and sometimes friendly way. Maybe bring some MBAs into the IG offices in lieu of attorneys, and rotate computer and other specialists in from elsewhere in the same department.
(2) Simplify the tax code! Some people suffer so much when they pay for the federal government that they naturally resent it at that point. If your electric company required a form for each of the appliances in your house, you’d resent their bill too, and dismiss how amazing their service is. (Example improvement: add a little tax per security-transaction (stock, bond etc) and get rid of the detailed distinctions between 30-day holdings, short-term, and long term. The new structure could have the same behavioral and revenue effects approximately but be much easier to manage for the taxpayer. The coercive power of the state isn’t well used by scaring many individuals into spending many hours on careful number crunching.) This would help address the problem of people paying late. Speaking for myself, it’s crushingly hard to figure out what I owe; that’s why I pay late.
(3) Investigate Medicare fraud. Hard. And smartly, please. Make a database of known legitimate medical providers, and routinely investigate the institutions who send bills that aren’t on that list. Quickly. Don’t let them fester and collect millions. Then this particular inefficiency story in the press will go away.
I think that the great work that many Federal employees perform should be highlighted more than it is. If it were not for the Federal employes,, vets would not get benefits, senior citizens would not get Social Security, and who would protect our homeland, our airports. Many Federal workers perform imprtant jobs every day which are vital both to our way of life and our national security.
Federal government employment is different than private sector. I have worked in both and there are pluses and minuses. Another important aspect of Federal employment is that the Federal government routinely employs disabled Americans, and I can’t say that about private sector companies. Also, in our current economy, the Federal government is more age averse and hires employees from a larger age pool than some private setor companies.
Is the Federal government workforce perfect? No, but the same issues I witnessed in private sector I see in Federal sector too. To all those people who whine about the useless of Federal government employees. if some of the services these employees provide disappeared, you would be significantly impacted. I am proud to be working for my country, contributing in my own way. Perhaps we need to educate our fellow Americans at the grass roots level?
A majority of the negative perceptions surrounding federal and government employees in general (including state and local) can be atttributed to negative media imagery. How often do you see the media highlighting positive cases of government agencies/employees?
Great comment Kathy! I totally agree with you. I have only been federal worker for 2 years – but a worker in the private sector for over 20. I saw more waste, theft and discrimination in the private sector than here in the government. I am proud of being a federal worker and the little piece of the “cog” that powers our Country.
“Perception of federal employees as lazy, overpaid, incompetent, among other adjectives are widespread…”
I also work for the people and have almost 30 years between the uniform and now the CIV uniform…and the perceptions are extremely accurate…however I base that on real desk side computer skills/technical abilities regarding the overpay…sure many can type 40 words a minute but that’s where it ends abruptly for all too many of our DoD/Gov employees…
No, I do not condone the hostile actions, rather to either train our employee workforce on the technologies they are required to use (Daily) or stop hiring under/non skill people regardless of age and oh by the way..The generation has nothing to do with knowing how to leverage the computer as a business tool or collectively the tools on the computers, those things are still not even taught in college let alone high school. So when do we get taught…?or start teaching…
The laziness thing is called the “Bureaucracy”….it’s self induced…how many times can we do it wrong to get it right approach….it is the common.
Solutions…start actually having real hiring standards of/against our real tools being used…here is my point, the one skill/educational/duty position/rank equalizer of most employees is the computer…you can watch someone with a PHD…look like they have a 3rd grade education based on their inability to simply use the simple software tools in front of them….and those folks are generally ranking GS employees…overpaid is an understatement.
Just my daily observed perceptions…
Cha-Ching dead on….we the Feds/fed employees need change the perception to a better reality…
Comment by Jude Schiavone 1 day ago Get the media to focus on what’s good and instead of the old “F*ck up and move up” way of doing things, hold people responsible, penalize, prosecute and publicize what we do to make things better. Too many “TMZ” moments. The IRS is an easy target since Cabinet appointees and Agency heads can go years without paying taxes then suddenly get a ‘do-over and wipe the slate clean’. Jest Plain Folks get salary garnishments and liens on property-
Right on Sandy. I’ve in the government a bit over 30 years and I’d say I’m proud of it. The public, especially the Tea Party (please don’t call them a “movement”) people love to hate Congress, and they tend to lump us with Congress, not understanding we part of the Executive Branch.
Reading through the comments, notice a number of people commenting on the negative public views of federal employees and what drives them. Think I can add some insight based on a study/survey we did with Gallup in 2009, just before Obama came into office.
We’d read all the literature, saw the trend lines in declining views of fed gov’t over the past 40 years and wanted to understand the dynamics better. A key question was whether we could separate views of federal workers from the politics and politicians. I can’t pretend there’s any foolproof way to do this, but using a question framed to separate these things out, we found differences of 10 to 15 percentage points in terms of favorable ratings when asking about the performance of “men and women in the fed gov’t (37% favorable), compared with views on “Dept’s and agencies of the fed. gov’t (27% favorable) and Congress (22% favorable). Of course, all of these numbers are anemic compared to views about “men and women in the US military” (90%) the “the US military (79%) and even “local gov’t elected officials” (46%). Top line results of the In The Public We Trust study can be downloaded here.
The data were also pretty clear that government does better when you start asking people about specific recent interactions they have had. biggest drivers of positive views of the federal govt were positive interactions with government. Overall, about half of the interactions people reported with government agencies were positive. And of those that had interacted with government, people who had good experiences were three times more likely to believe government was performing well (41%) than those that had bad experiences (14 percent).
You won’t be surprised to know the the biggest driver of satisfaction with an interaction was whether government had “solved the problem” that people had. But almost as important was the way people felt treated by gov’t (combining things like “fairness”, “respect’ and ‘listening”). These things could literally influence the way an outcome was perceived. In other words, it wasn’t just a matter of whether you got the passport or benefit you applied for (outcome)…the same outcome could be viewed as positive or negative depending on the interaction. Not rocket science but it suggests that in a number of public facing agencies at least, we do have opportunities to shape public opinion every day through these individual interactions.