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Why Government Employees Are More Important Than Ever

For the past few decades, respect for those choosing a career in public service has definitely waned. Following President Obama’s announcement of freezing pay for federal workers, the debate about the value and future role of federal employees will certainly become a lightening rod issue for Congress and the media. Having begun my career working in Michigan State Government, I deeply respect the work our public servants do. While I understand why those outside the bureaucracy often take aim at it, instead of attacking those who chose to work for our government, a better approach would be to engage the federal employees in transforming the system to effectively meet the needs of the public and the workforce that serves us.

One of the public’s great misnomers is that the majority of civil servants chose public service because it is “safe, easy work.” While I am certain there are some who would fit this charge, so too would employees in any organization. My experience is that most professionals chose to work for the government because of a deep commitment to helping others and working toward the greater good in their chosen field. The Environmental Protection Agency is a natural fit for someone who cares about the environment; the Department of Public Health provides an opportunity for someone who wants to improve the quality of health in this country; and if one cares about the policies that govern these and many other facets of our society, government service is the place to be. The motivation of the majority of the public workforce is to provide valuable and necessary services.

The challenges for a leader within public service start within the systems of government itself. These systems are generally poorly maintained and often drain the passion out of the employees so that simply maintaining the status quo becomes the path of least resistance. I have witnessed time and again, impassioned, talented individuals begin their pubic service career with a sincere desire to do their best and over time they are repeatedly told that they can’t use their talents in the best possible way because of established procedures or protocols. After prolonged exposure to this kind of repeated criticism, even the boldest and most optimistic can become discouraged. If we are going to transform our system of government, the change must emanate from and through those that are there—which requires leaders who will take them through a process that will allow their natural talents and energy to fuel the transformation that so many of us would like to see.

Making the Leadership Choice doesn’t just apply to individuals; our public institutions can follow the same process to develop innovation, leadership and excellence; however, it will requires the leadership of these organizations to commit themselves to ensuring their agencies walk through the entire process. Here is what this process would look like:

1. Identify and clarify the mission of each department, agency, etc. to concisely know what it is and isn’t able to do, and do well

2. Clearly communicate the desired impact the department’s work will have on the public good and what purpose the department is serving the in country, community, etc.

3. Identify the workforce that can most efficiently deliver these services.

4. Hire, reassign, lay-off (yes, I did say lay-off) workers to ensure that the right people are in the right positions within the organization.

5. Invest in team and leadership development so that government employees can innovate and transform as needed, so that atrophy doesn’t set in again and require another complete overhaul.

6. Regularly communicate progress to the public and constantly make improvements with open and vigorous public involvement.

If we want different results from our government, than we must be willing to walk through this process. To realize changes in government, we must be willing to take these steps while understanding it will require the public to change its relationship to government as well, i.e., closing the gap between what the public says it wants from government and what it is willing to pay to get it. To change the way business is done we must allow the current employees to participate in innovating the way services are delivered and not leave them on the sidelines while policy makers, several-steps removed from the front lines, make decisions affecting delivery of day-to-day services. We can’t reform the workplace without changing the workers and the work–and excluding them from the process will only make it more difficult for everyone, most especially the public.

Government workers are more valuable now than ever because they have the knowledge and passion to ensure a process like this will work—because they sincerely want it to. Band-aid approaches like freezing pay may score public points for a moment, but they create a whole host of unforeseen long-term consequences (like losing the best and the brightest to the private sector). If our elected government leaders want a more effective government—they need to first look in the mirror and then authentically engage those on the front lines to create the change everyone would like to see in our government.

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Jenyfer Johnson

Well said Kathleen and spoken from the heart, I can tell. I hope people listen to what you said and take heed. Government workers DO want to work and want to improve the process, like you said…just give us the chance.