New Campaign Seeks to Improve Public Perception of Feds

It’s no secret the federal workforce has been treated like a punching bag for too long.

Public animosity towards government is one factor contributing to low morale among feds. Poor morale may lead to decreased productivity and increased indifference to mission-related work. Other detrimental repercussions associated with low morale include employee disengagement and absenteeism.

Now a leading federal employee union is upping the ante to change the negative image of government in general and feds in particular. It’s doing so by sponsoring a national public service campaign shining a spotlight on the beneficial work feds do for America every day.

It’s about time.

“Drawing a Connection”

The new campaign is sponsored by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) with the slogan: “Federal Employees…They Work for U.S.

According to NTEU, the campaign is “aimed at drawing a connection between what dedicated public servants do at work and the quality of our lives.”

It should be noted that this campaign is not about lobbying Congress for better pay and benefits. To the contrary, it’s about changing the fundamental nature of how the public views feds. This is arguably a more vexing challenge (to which I can attest as a veteran federal communicator).

As the Washington Post reports on the NTEU campaign:

  • “The effort does not encourage the public to press Congress on behalf of federal workers.”
  • “Using radio and television public-service announcements (PSA), a Web site and social media, the campaign does seek to create a positive image of them in the public’s mind.”

Safeguarding and enhancing federal pay and benefits is certainly important. Yet no price can be placed on erasing ugly stereotypes which have plagued Uncle Sam for decades.

Unfair characterizations of feds as “slackers” and “paper pushers” (to put it mildly) have only fueled public discontent and eviscerated trust in government.

Thus it’s worth reiterating that pubic perceptions and deeply held beliefs are not easy to change. That’s why PR firms, pollsters and political consultants are paid the big bucks. That’s also what makes the NTEU campaign so admirable and ambitious.

Life Without Feds

The campaign poses a simple but potent question: what would life be like without the vital public services provided by feds?

The inferred answers should be cause for public concern. As NTEU points out, without feds there would likely be more:

  • Unsafe food and medicine
  • Fraudulent financial institutions
  • Terrorism and illicit drugs
  • Hungry American children
  • Unprotected national parks
  • Unsafe air and drinking water

The list goes on…

Lack of Public Understanding

NTEU asserts that one main cause of distrust in government is a lack of public understanding about the work of civil servants.

“While federal employees touch our lives in innumerable ways, many Americans know little about the important contributions these dedicated civil servants make to keep our nation safe, healthy and moving forward,” the campaign website states.

Unfortunately, this lack of public understanding has been buttressed by incessant fed bashing by some members of Congress, political factions and anti-government groups. The results are troubling as feds have become easy scapegoats. To wit:

“The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government has ticked up to 30%.” This marks a record-breaking level according to a recent major study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Other findings include:

  • “Another 55% say they are frustrated with the government.”
  • “Just 12% say they are basically content with the federal government.”
  • “Just 19% say that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time”

Superficial Silver Lining

But there may be a silver lining, albeit superficial, behind this ominous cloud of public disenchantment. That is, most citizens apparently view federal workers more positively than government as a whole – rather than considering the two as one and the same.

  • “By about two-to-one (62% to 29%), more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of federal government workers,” according to Pew.

However, anything below 65% used to be considered a failing grade, at least when Gen Xers and Baby Boomers were in school.

These figures are neither promising nor reassuring, especially as younger generations mature and consider careers in public service.

Therefore, federal employee unions should be praised for their ongoing efforts to support and defend the plight and public image of feds.

Moreover, NTEU in particular deserves many accolades for launching this new and exciting national public service campaign putting a “face to the case” for feds.

Let’s just hope this time the American people are listening.


* All views and opinions are those of the author only. The writer is not a member of any union.

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Mark Hammer

At least some of the frustration expressed by citizens stems from a lack of awareness of what needs to get done, and GETS done, by public servants. NTEU seems to have that part in hand. But I think another big chunk of the frustration stems from a lack of awareness about what actual decision and operational steps are involved in providing those services, constraining either their timeliness or completeness, and increasing their cost.

Perhaps equally important, I think many who loudly proclaim their distaste for “big government” can have little sense of just how many hands are required to make some things come to fruition. I won’t claim ALL hands involved are either needed, show good judgment, or are appropriately compensated. But the fact remains that when you don’t fully understand how complicated something is to pull off, you’re more likely to complain about any flaws you may spot in its implementation.

Finally, I think it is alienating for citizens to be presented with “government” or “the public service” as simply a big opaque black box. By deconstructing just how all the complexities and necessary steps of providing a service take place, it not only renders the public more sympathetic and understanding, but it also facilitates public engagement by allowing them to identify ways in which it might be done more effectively, more economically, or in more timely fashion.

If you want to partner with people, you have to give them an opening.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great initiative by NTEU! It would be nice if NTEU also joined the Partnership for Public Service as they celebrate Public Service Recognition Week in May. Unfortunately, most citizens don’t randomly visit websites, so it would be great to use social networks and get their PSAs out on YouTube to promote this movement. They need a spokesperson, like Kid President, to really make this campaign go viral!

Ryan Arba

I like how NTEU is framing the value of public servants. We have the same challenge for the State of CA employees. I met one lawyer who said that she would rather say that she was unemployed than working for the state because the stigma was so bad. The more that we can emphasize our value to the public, the more that we should be able to bounce back in the “trust” polls.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the insightful feedback, Ryan, your comments are appreciated.

It’s pretty shocking that any gov employees would “rather say that she was unemployed than working for the state because the stigma was so bad.” That’s one bad stigma and one sad story.

Perhaps the individual should use your Blue Ocean strategy and examine joining a private sector law firm or the corporate world. Then she may find out what a bad stigma really feels like — compared to admirably and loyally serving the public.

I think more folks would consider gov employees as public benefactors if the the critics weren’t so quick to “throw out the baby with the bath water” — as they say.

Thus I agree with your excellent point about showing “value to the public” or value added. Many citizens may not fully understand or appreciate the work of civil servants until they fully comprehend how such work improves their daily lives and that of those around them.

The continuing climate of gov bashing by Congress, the media and others is certainly no help.

Thanks again for chiming in, Ryan!

David B. Grinberg

Terry, I like your idea of the NTEU or AFGE partnering with pro-gov advocacy groups and/or think tanks, especially during Public Service Recognition Week.

Perhaps a celebrity spokesperson or professional athlete who is well liked and trusted by the public might help such a PSA campaign to go viral on social media. It likely wouldn’t hurt.

Another communication strategy which may have proven effective would have been partnering with the US Olympic Committee to draw a nexus between how the athletes and public servants are both on the same team representing America at its best (just a thought for next time).

Thanks again, Terry, for the great points!

David B. Grinberg

Mark, thanks — as always — for sharing your astute analysis.

More transparency may be needed at the micro level of gov decision making to help the public fully understand how the process works — even though it isn’t always pretty (we all know the sausage making analogy).

Nonetheless, as LBJ once said of his detractors (paraphrasing): better to have them inside the tent yelling out than outside yelling in. This view compliments your wise point:

  • “…when you don’t fully understand how complicated something is to pull off, you’re more likely to complain about any flaws you may spot in its implementation.”

In essence, as you suggest, Uncle Sam need to demystify the “sausage making” process in gov. This means citizens and stakeholders need to play a greater role in partnering with gov to provide more effective feedback that may improve and streamline perceived bureaucratic processes and procedures.

As you note, public engagement and transparency are key factors to help bridge the gaping divide between public trust in gov and truly understanding the hows and whys related to the beneficial work of civil servants.

There needs to be more of a two-way street — rather than a one-way megaphone — so citizens participate more and have a greater stake in public policy outcomes.

Also, regarding the lingering perception of Big Gov, I think most folks here in America don’t realize just how much the public sector has already shrunk over the years compared to historical standards. Moreover, gov layoffs, buyouts and attrition don’t necessarily boost economic prosperity if they lessen consumer spending — a key driver of GDP.

In short, less gov does not always mean better or more effective gov. There’s an important distinction here that is often eludes public discourse on the topic.

Thanks again for your always awesome feedback, Mark!

Scott Kearby

While I applaud the effort, I am not sure that PR will have much of an impact. One of the major issues is that the face of government that gets the most media is the political face. There is a constant barrage of negative coming from all the 24/7 news and internet coverage. Most of the public does not deal with a government employee on a regular basis, so all they know/percieve is the stereotype that is portrayed in the media & by the political class. I am not sure that some commericials can overcome that stereotype.

The other major issue is that all too often when a citizen has a dealing with a government employee there is a negative result … you are told what you can’t do or what can’t be done for you. This may be the nature of things when you are in the business of enforcement and regulation that is part and parcel of the government, but it sure doesn’t help improve the image of government employees.

So … what can be done to improve the image & reputation of government employees? I think we need to focus on being “public servants”. In every encounter with a citizen, we should try to find a way to be of assistance … a help and not a hinderance. Of course, this is easier said than done, but if we all had this attitude and a pre-disposition to find a way to serve the individual public citizen one at a time … even if it takes a little extra effort … then we could begin to change the public perception one at a time. It’s kind of like the “starfish” approach if you are familar with that story. if not … http://andrew-ong.com/2008/02/06/the-starfish-story-you-can-make-a-difference/

David B. Grinberg

Thank you for the astute comments, Scott. You make an excellent point: public servants need to go the extra mile at every available opportunity in which they interact with the public.

Too often there may be a sense of indifference on the part of the civil servant, such as that’s not handled in my office, that’s not my area of expertise, etc.

When I receive an unsolicited phone call from any member of the public I do my best to help them and hear them out — even if it’s not part of my official job function or subject matter area. Citizens don’t want to be given the run around by having to call or email numerous offices within one agency — often only to get voice mail or no response to email.

Some civil servants may have a sense of unjustified entitlement to their job. However, we must always remember that we work the the public — which means being respectful and helpful even if it’s personally inconvenient.

Actions always speak louder than words (or commercials). Yet with gov’s approval rating so dismally low, any positive PR effort may at least make some difference in shaping public opinion for the better.

Every little bit counts, although no one method should be viewed in a vacuum.

Thanks again for the valuable feedback, Scott.

Earl Rice

To the normal person on the street, when you say Federal Government, what pops to mind is the President, Congressmen and Senators (and something along the lines of “let’s throw them all out and start all over again”). You will find that the political approval ratings drop will very closely to match the drop in satisfaction with government. Next, you have all the scandals that have broke over the last year or so, with the IRS scandal being one of the highest contributors to decline (as one commentator stated, if there was ever an organization that people love to hate, every 2 weeks, when they look at their pay stubs). Then, throw in what seems like the attempt at suspension of the constitution by the administration, whether real or not doesn’t matter, it’s the perception of the people. And, lets not forget, the greater DC area is a very liberal area, and those that live there tend to become aligned by continual exposure, where the greater part of the rest of the country is leaning to conservatism. This leads to an out of touch administration. Oh, and let us not forget that at least 30% of the American people believe that some sort of a armed insurrection (they call it a constitutional course correction) will be required to re-establish constitutional rights….30% is more than what supported the rebellion that won us our independence to start with. And, 90% of us do the best we can with what we got. I can’t even start to say how many times, when I am resolving an inquiry, I have had to apologize for the slow networks and how long it takes to bring up the information to resolve their question (in my Agency, the IT systems are about to implode upon themselves due to gross underestimation of the band-width required to run everything, not to mention obsolete desktops (slow processors and 2 megs ram), network speeds of maybe 1.5 to 2 megs….if that, etc.). Though I will admit, as a Citizen, or even a Government employee, I countlessly run into the bureaucracy myself (people in DC saying to contact the local people, when it was the local people saying you need to contact DC). And, that is my biggest frustration, when you get the lazy, who view an action passed is an action completed, and there is a high propensity to find that inside the Beltway.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your comments, Earl.

You offer an interesting perspective and unique insights on this issue. It’s always helpful to have a diverse range of views expressed to foster a truly open dialogue. Thus your feedback is very much appreciated.