What do the midterm results mean for public servants?

**UPDATE: Corrected Nextgov link**

I was struck by a nextgov story this morning, which argued: “When you have to organize a rally called “Government Doesn’t Suck,” it’s probably time to acknowledge you’ve lost the public debate.”

Given the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment felt in this election, what does this mean for public servants, particularly at the Federal level?
From my perspective, there’s a separation to be made between government-as-politicians and government-as-civil service. The results clearly showed a rebuke of the politicians that have been in charge. But, as the article states, people are not too happy with the bureaucracy either. In this country we generally have a culture of resenting “big government” in the abstract, but I would tend to agree that this sentiment was heightened this cycle because of the stagnating economy.
So I’ll throw out an open-ended question: How should civil servants interpret these results, if they apply at all?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Dannielle Blumenthal

We need to wake up and smell the Starbucks…do what you can to contribute to your agency, grow productivity, listen to the conversations online and in the media, and sharpen your skills. It may seem like things are one way right now, but I expect government agencies to look like and be run like small, entrepreneurial “taxpayer accountability centers” in the future.

Tim Evans

I expect furloughs (symbolically important), and think the President would not be able to veto something passed by Congress to implement them.

John Able

Right after the Titanic struck the iceberg, people on board were asking the same kind of question and were quite doubtful a little ice could cause enough damage to worry about.


I would love to hear from those that have been through many of these changes. My sense is that governments are bureaucracies for good reasons and that while there are clear changes, the percentage up or down politics can move governance is not that much.

Yes, there may be more in-sourcing vs outsourcing. And items like that. But there is less change than is often hyped

Jenyfer Johnson

I foresee no raise in January for civil service…possible furloughs (but I’m hoping I’m wrong). I think AJ has it right, GRIDLOCK in a big way!

bill barker

I was reminded that feds were furloughed back in 1994. The same thing could happen again, as one person stated, symbolically. In many outsiders’ eyes, we as feds should feel the same pain during this struggling economy. That’s not a good thing and I hope I am wrong.

Kathy Sciannella

I think with the influx of new members of House and senate, some whom are representative of the tea party movement, there will be more lines drawn in the sand. I also forsee furloughs or some grand gesture from Congress to show they are on the job in reining in big government.

Katy Bryant

I would have to agree that furlows are on the table now at the Federal level. State and Local gov. has already been affected by this and sadly I think that the politicos are anxious to make an example out of civil servants to show the voting public how seriously they take the national deficit, sluggish private sector economy, etc… regardless of whether or not the impact of the cutbacks make an appreciable differience in the bottom line for those issues. I also think we may see problems with initiatives already underway, being picked apart for political purposes rather than to measure the real outcomes.

Thomas Chiles

Even Bayh, prominent departing democrat of Indiana, wrote a compelling piece in the New York Times suggesting, among other things, that democrats should embrace the idea of a freeze on hiring and pay increases for government employees as a way of tamping down the federal deficit. I’d like to know what portion of government spending is on salaries, anybody know?

Dan Crawford

Many times I have seen the cycle. Gov. employees are invisible until the economy turns south or some gov. policy sours. To protect and run for cover the leaders duck and turn the spotlight on the implementers of government instead of the deciders of government. When the subject of pay comes up leaders will do a Nixon or something and withhold pay or benefits penalizing a middle income Fed. that has toiled away at presenting the best image of government to the public on a one on one basis. Throw a Fed under the bus enough times and they will indeed get a less than perfect attitude. Eventually they will no longer offer improvement suggestions, best effort or simply leave either mentally or physically. Why do the leaders talk of improving government and then penalize the boots on the ground folks. This is a self defeating strategy at best and/or a self fullfilling prophecy to make a groundless point. I have often said that the only way some people get noticed is to stand on someone else’s head when trying to push the latter down.


Agree that there is a strong desire to show that governement employees share the economic pain. Since social security will be held for the 2nd year, it will be difficult to give civil servants a pay raise, so I think ‘no pay raise’ is a given. Not so sure about the furloughs – 1995 was a budget crisis. The government had to shut down becuase no $ was appropriated to pay for it. Since the metro DC essentially shut down during ‘snowmageddon’, many may think that a week or two wouldn’t hurt, but almost everything was shut down then. The collateral damage from a government furlough (if there is a mechanism to do it after funding has been appropriated) may be more than anyone is willing to bear.

Ginny Ivanoff

Of course Congress will want to make an “example” of us ‘lazy, good-for-nothing parasites’ that feed off the taxpayers dollars: that is until the furlogh affects the public in a way they don’t care for – Social Security offices closed, further lags in any sort of check/application/permit, even wanting to visit a National Park – and heaven forbid if a natural disaster strikes. What the public doesn’t realize is that we employees wish to be more efficient but due to a quagmire of often conflicting laws, regulations and requirements, implemented at the behest of industry and/or the public, we have to wade through processes that handcuff common sense, business-wise. I always find it hilarious that the public tells us they pay our salary…when in fact, with each service/product everyone purchases, we pay everybody’s salary. Congress should focus on allowing the government to be more flexible in implementing cost-effective business and human capital strategies. But, no, they will want something that makes the populace feel better (ergo, increase their popularity in the voters’ eyes)…at least in the short term. It’s a shame, for I think many of us, especially those of us who have responded in times of crisis, are proud to be able to serve our country and its citizens.

Rob Ahern

The Boston Tea Party was an action committed by and for the benefit of the merchant upper class. Prior to establishment of the Tea Act, all tea imported to the colonies was controlled by these merchants and, as so many unregulated middle men, they took their profits at the expense of the final buyer- pretty easy money. The Act enabled the East India Company to sell directly to consumers, thereby effectively killing this cash cow and endangering a very comfortable lifestyle for a (relatively) few influential people.

I doubt many of the people who voted for “smaller government” understand how much they truly have in common with the Boston masses who were duped into supporting the original Tea Party. Given the rampant waste perpetuated by Congressional decisions, I find the focus on Federal employee pay to be a sad joke.

Dannielle Blumenthal

All of this misses the point and distracts from what we should be focusing on. In fact it only adds fuel to the negative stereotypes that exists. Go out there and prove your worth, then advertise your efforts and successes. Partner with peers to do so. Talk about the complexity of the job and mission. And stay focused and positive. You can’t control the outcome but you will respect yourself and lift the tide that all govies swim in.

Ginny Ivanoff

Danielle, you do have an excellent point….and I do all all that you mention. We need to convince at least a few of the media to come along and report on all the good we do.

jill herndon

Danielle’s point is brilliant. Since individuals are not recognized publicly for solving problems or averting them — that would be ultimately negative press for the government sector — what is the Fed equivalent to the private sector license and need to “toot your own horn” — e.g. market yourself? or your workgroup, or agency?

(related thought) How many “for profit” government groups are there? I recall one in Ag — a geo-spatial mapping group. Rumor was that their salaries came from other Ag agencies who sought them out.

jill herndon

Internally — I think this can be a great time to look at improvements that have been back burner because they appeal to a different audience, or just underfunded or swamped by other political initiatives. Kind of the bread and butter of our business types of work — like great funny designs for vegetable-alphabet coloring book pages that can be downloaded PDF files — for the School Lunch and kitchen managers to promote in coordination with the servings of the day. Little 4 by 5 inch (4 to a page) — handouts. If McDonald can hand out free toys why not free coloring book alphabet letters for the younger kids. (Disclosure: former Ag Food & Nutrition service employee — and now a substitute teacher who sees paid for vegetables and fruits passed by at lunch.)

Michele Costanza

My personal opinion, to use a cliche, is that a good product sells itself and government shouldn’t really have to rely on slick media or ad campaigns to show value to the American people. If as an individual you know that you are going in to work each day and being as productive as possible given the context of a large bureaucracy, then don’t spend that much time worrying about it.

It takes a special kind of person to thrive and maintain a positive attitude in such an environment, one who doesn’t decide to become bitter and retire in place out of spite but continues to provide service to the public over the long haul.

Daniel Honker

You’ve got a point, Michele, although Don Draper might disagree 🙂

I think you hit on what public service is all about — service.

Michele Costanza

For some “products” intensive marketing campaigns backfire. The public is probably more media savvy than people realize, and they know and accept when they are being marketed or sold something. The public would probably think that money spent on marketing what the government does would be better spent or saved.

Dannielle Blumenthal

if good products sold themselves, resumes would be unnecessary and we would all go to work in sweatpants. It is not wrong to promote the good work that you do. Rather it is actually a public service. If we don’t do something besides complain about how unfair things are, recount how similar things have happened in the past, and slap each other on the back for how long suffering and wooooonderful we are, we are not going to be a credible voice at the table when serious changes come our way. The government leader of the future is an entrepreneurial MBA who understands the ethical, responsible, and appropriate use of marketing and yes – gasp! – branding!

Like it or not, we are living in a material world, and we are all material girls. (So to speak 🙂

Michelle I guess we can agree to respectfully disagree on this one.

Michele Costanza

@Danielle: The concerns of the original post came from an article in NextGov about the “Government Doesn’t Suck” rally. The author of the NextGov article raised the point of how the debate has already been lost if govies have to spend that much time and energy convincing the public of their worth.

I’m reminded of the bumper stickers that started appearing on SUVs in the suburbs, where nearly every parent had a bumper sticker advertising that their child was an honor roll student at Prairie Star Middle School. Soon bumper stickers appeared with the taunt, “My child can beat up your honor roll student.” Some outcomes just really aren’t meant to be marketed as products.

How will this entrepreneurial MBA government leader of the future show the profit of government when using tax payer money? The obvious ROI to most tax payers is how much of “their” money did the government save? lives saved? services delivered? It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out the answers to those questions.

Tim Pratt

Our job is to make other people’s lives better. Yes, we need to do a good job, but that’s not enough. We also need to communicate to people about the services we provide and how they can make use of those services. As part of that we should also share success stories. People can see how government programs operate, how they positively impact people’s lives and that government employees are valuable.

Brandon Jubar

When you have a massively large and complex system, it becomes more and more difficult to see and understand the criticality of any individual component (person or role) in that system. Joe Public certainly doesn’t have a thorough understanding of the complex system that is a large Federal agency, and therefore can’t see for himself how valuable each person is.

For example, if I don’t submit the contract mod in a timely manner, then the contractor has to stop work on the project, which delays the data center upgrade, which causes us to divert resources to protect the PII stored in our SAN, which could delay other projects, etc. At some point the chain will reach the public-facing services, but most people will lose interest before I complete the explanation. Am I valuable? Absolutely. Is my value clear to someone who doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of not only our processes but the specific projects we’re working on? Absolutely not. Is there a simple solution to this complex problem? Yes… and it’s inevitably wrong.

If it were that easy, someone would have fixed it a long time ago. Some of the positive things that have been suggested here are probably steps in the right direction; but any true solution will most likely be far more complex.

Tom Melancon

I’m not reading a lot into the mid-term results. The mood was an angry one, but the information being given to people in soundbites was overly simplistic. Government bad, taxes bad, government health care bad. I actually heard one ad that was lambasting the idea of a government run health care program, then scaring seniors by telling them that the new law was going to take Medicare away from them?? (Is Medicare not a government run health care plan?) Biggest problem with the ad though was that it was a lie. The new Health Care plan cuts COSTS in Medicare while keeping benefits intact. The party that made gains in this cycle will now have to put up or shut up, and the elecorate can be very fickle. I’m still waiting to hear how they plan to cut costs in government without touching the Homeland Security Budget and without crippling the country by denying people basic sevices, all while renewing the Bush tax cuts which will only add to the federal deficit.

To the point of how we market what we do better, I think it happens one conversation at a time. Whenever I have a chance, I talk about how I am proud to work for the Federal Government and how much I respect and admire the people I work with every day.

Michele Costanza

What happens when government employees such as teachers who are paid with tax dollars start to view the tax payers as customers, the public as consumers, and their students as products? From my perspective, the teacher’s role includes the important task of assessing and evaluating student academic achievement. Is the teacher able to provide that assessment if there is pressure to also deliver customer service to the tax payers? to satisfy the public consumers with a satisfactory final product? to produce a final product, as in a student who graduates high school or one who goes on to college?

Are there other government employees who face the same type of paradox, one of providing service to the public, while at the same time maintaining oversight to the very same public? How do you come to terms with those two goals?

Ed Albetski

(Sigh) The last time this happened Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton engaged in a manhood measuring exercise over the budget which shut down the government for weeks. What can govies expect from the midterm elections? Easy, a “Continuing Resolution” if we are lucky. If the inmates take over the asylum, the Fed will be shut down again and no matter how well they perform, govies won’t be able to do their jobs at all. We are leaves in a political wind.

Gary Berg-Cross

There is much that needs to be done in this country. The work on infrastructure is an example. Under Clinton-Gore we had an effort to bring the internet to libraries, something that most people could recognize as a good thing that wasn’t being done well by local government or the private sector.

Given the country’s needs its the wrong time to lay off government workers who may contribute to filling the gaps. One of the problems is as Brandon pointed out the complexity by which most governemnt things work (like EPA).

“When you have a massively large and complex system, it becomes more and more difficult to see and understand the criticality of any individual component (person or role) in that system.”

This is a major reason that just doing a good job and providing service oten goes unacknowledged – it has less a direct effect than one as part of a larger system which eventually produces good with many people deserving credit. Often it takes an effort to construct and explanation of how a good effect has come about and this communication can be impeded by simple explanations that are driven by ideology rather than facts.

So doing a good job isn’t enough. It has to be articulated and it should serve a vision filling a need that people believe in at the start.

Paul M Raetsch

Public servants at the Federal level have much about which to be worried. As a retired fed (my new office is shown on the left) I predict a worse shutdown than we endured during the Clilnton/Gingrich standoff in 94/95. That was awful, but in the end we were paid after the furlough.

This time the idealogues from the “T” will not blink. My prediction is that they will not permit the continuing resolution remedy and instead will insist on severe measures in the 2011 appropriations.

I agree wholeheartedly with comments in this discussion that public servants can help themselves and their programs through efficiency, better results, etc. However, you (we) have a ‘pluralism’ problem! Other than Defense, our consituencies are not broad enough to survive the ‘cut spending’ (gut government) zealots. That is, you at EPA may be doing excellent work, but your ‘factions’ supporting you are not as dedicated at the “T” faction. The same with virtually all federal programs. You all have improved continuously since Clinton/Gore “Reinventing” and can prove your effectiveness through measuring outcomes. But the efficiencies are in programs that the now powerful Libertarians believe are outside the scope of the federal powers. Do Michelle B, and Rand Paul and the many other new Freshmen care about EPA, Energy, Education and Commerce??? Scary!

Hopefully cooler heads will eventually result in a return to work, but I predict a longer furlough than 94/95 with a strong possibility of actually losing that pay.
Results will not matter when the demand is to reduce and eliminate!

So, I hope I am wrong, and in the meantime will spend less so that I will not be hurt to badly when my CSRS annuity is delayed/

Marco Morales

Public servants are viewed as unnecessary “dead weight’ until a contingency, e.g., who do people call when there is a burglary being committed or when there is an out-of-control fire on the fifth floor of a highly occupied building? Our nation’s police force and firefighting ranks are part of this mix, too. So, we, as federal employees all bring a public service to the table regardless of public perception or the latest gallup polls. It is up to us as public servants and taxpayers to also be closely linked to our congressional reps so that they know the importance of having public servants supporting our Nation from across all of the federal entities.

Daniel Honker

Federal Times has a good article out today suggesting some 6 ways that the new Congress could “get tough” on Feds. Briefly, here’s what’s possible:

-Budget cuts
-Hiring freezes
-Pay freezes
-Potential furloughs (a bill has been put forth in the House for a 2-week furlough for most feds in 2011)
-Heightened scrutiny on costs
-Potential govt shutdown