It sucks to be in the federal gov’t right now, at least on paper. Furloughs and pay freezes, lousy public attitudes towards people who’ve dedicated themselves to helping others, helplessly watching as political battles rage, etc. As for the public (as a whole, not individual people), they’ll never fully appreciate us or how hard we work for them; they never have in the 20 years I’ve been at EPA. And you know what? They shouldn’t. If we do our jobs right, they’ll just enjoy safety and security (physical, educational, health, financial, etc.) and be able to focus on other stuff. We’re like the captain of the airline flight: the passengers should have a perfectly boring flight and never for a minute wonder whether anything bad will happen.
So why am I here? I could’ve done lots of things that probably would’ve netted me more money.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: I’m helping save the frickin’ world. It’s not so much about external validation, although that’s very nice to have. In my first EPA job, the world-saving was a little more direct, as I worked to save the ozone layer. But even now, in communications, I help people understand why all of this matters and help inspire them to take care of the planet.
Two years ago, I helped people on our Facebook page understand that the radiation from Japan wasn’t going to hurt them, and got directly thanked for it. Two days ago, I found that my daughter’s economics textbook praised programs where I’d worked. Millions of people just celebrated Earth Day because they care very, very much about having clean air, water, and land.
I frequently think of a mental model I came up with in grad school: everyone in gov’t has a pile of idealism and a pile of … well, let’s call it garbage … they have to deal with. If you can keep your idealism higher than the garbage, you stay. Admittedly, the garbage pile has surged lately, but I’m relieved to find that my idealism’s still intact.
So – separate out the garbage and tell me: how’s your idealism? From me to you as a fellow public servant, I hope it’s still strong.
Someone the other day asked me, “Why are you working in government again? Seems like a waste of time to me.” I have to say that, after bristling, I did realize that, to a lot of people out there, this is a valid question. I work in government not only to make a difference via my agency, but to also serve as an example of what a federal employee really is. I am very dedicated to my job — and I try and make that show every day, both in and out of the office. Thanks for this post! It’s a really relevant topic, especially among people my age (early 30’s).
Timely topic – especially since Public Service Recognition Week is next week. I like to think that I still have a spark of idealism/altruism still burning in my soul. I truly chose a public sector career to make a difference (who doesn’t?), but I am often disappointed. That is why I am so active in volunteering – my efforts result in directly making a difference.
Dorothy: I agree 100% about serving as an example of what can be so, so right with federal employees’ dedication. Thanks for all you do, and I’m delighted you’re sticking with it early in your career!
Terry: quite right. There are lots of ways to serve, not just through our jobs. Thanks very much for all of it!
Great post! Wish more would aspire to this way of thinking. Each time I sit down for a meal with my family, hear about healthy schools, or gaze at a beautiful garden, I am reminded of the important work we do at my department that makes a difference in people’s lives. I can think of so many examples at each government agency and why we take the good with the bad, knowing it all comes down to the good we are doing! That same spirit inspired my own personal story “How to Love Your Government Career” – hoping to connect with the idealist in us all!
Bernetta, thanks for the important reminders! I enjoyed reading your piece and voted for you. 🙂
I’m brand new to government, and I have to say that any idealisim I had coming in has been severely depleated in my first months here. I’m hoping from yoru words that it will have the chance to be buoyed in the future….
Thanks for posting, Jeff! When I left the military a few years ago, I was afraid I wouldn’t find a job as fulfilling as serving my country. However, my transition to the FTC was perfect – from protecting our citizens to protecting our consumers. It’s a great feeling to know I’m doing something just as important. Despite all the challenges we face right now, I’ve met so many incredibly inspiring federal workers, it makes me just as proud to serve here.
Stick around guys…there’s plenty of good work to be done, and we can do it!
I once grumbled to a neighbour while digging myself out of my second Montreal snowstorm, asking him “what am I doing here!!” He smiled, and said “gaining experience!”
I thought about this for a long time and have concluded that we learn more in times of adversity than in the easy times. Moreover, the snow does melt, and the summer comes back!
I am blessed to serve the State of Texas in a position that I would gladly do for free. As the Volunteer Director and as a fellow volunteer I get to witness the many programs that change offenders lives and I get to extend a thank you to all of the 20,000 plus volunteers who equally enjoy their work as a volunteer.
I think happiness is ALWAYS tied to the service of others, it does not matter what you do, JUST DO SOMETHING! Money without meaning is just money!
The older retirement system, CSRS, is set up so basically, you are not vested until you are eligible. That is, in effect, you are held in place with golden handcuffs. In addition, so far, this year, I have averaged 81.34 hours a week (163.78 a pay period) with compensation for 40.
Now the many positives… I get to make a difference in the lives of Americans and, tangently, the lives of people across the globe. Even though they pay me, I can save taxpayers and bondholders money. I can develop my people so they are more efficient and so they can help make our organization effective.
In short, I feel as if I can add value here; value that affects us all. And, really, isn’t adding value to the lives and wellbeing of others what life is all about?
Nowadays we have to accept the feedback binary: either complaints or no communication whatsoever. So when we are not hearing from residents and citizens we have to assume we are doing our job well.
With today’s anti-government fervor, silence is implicit praise.
Great way of framing the challenge. My idealism after 28+ years is stronger than ever.
For those of us where public service is more a calling than a job, it may help to recall that America was founded by practical idealists who believed that working to achieve “a more perfect Union” was the responsibility of all citizens. On the garbage, hope you work to reduce it and never get use to the smell.
Thanks to all of you for so many fantastic stories and perspectives! You inspire me, and I hope everyone who reads them …
Pin this up on your walls!
“With today’s anti-government fervor, silence is implicit praise.” – J. Michael Munger
i used to be such an idealist. as i moved up in my agency, i began to see how everyone is just trying to make themselves look good, backstabbing others, playing some political game, it’s all ::ahem:: a garbage pile. i’d take another job in a heartbeat. but the steadiness of a paycheck is keeping me here…. oh well.
Erica: yuck! I’m really sorry to hear it. I’ve almost never seen anything even remotely like that in 20 years at EPA, across multiple offices, working with people across the entire agency. The only time I can remember related to one particular political appointee (out of many I’ve known). Instead, I’ve seen countless examples of selfless behavior, sharing of credit, etc. I can’t even imagine working in such a toxic environment.
thx, Jeff. i hope that things turn around and i re-gain some of that idealism i used to have. i have a lot to offer but can’t seem to thrive in my current situation. i’m crossing my fingers and working hard to make things better!
Another quotable quote: “The squeaky wheel writes to the Director’s office”
Erica: Check out OPMs 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results http://www.fedview.opm.gov to see a comparison of working conditions across federal agencies. See also http://BestPlacesToWork.org that also provids a comparison. My last article at http://www.fedsmith.com/author/tim-clark/, Sequestration and the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, offers alternatives for working to improve organizational performance.
I appreciate your post and it’s nice to hear that maybe sticking it out will be fulfilling in the long run. 🙂
I wonder if those of us who entered public service during this time where the “garbage” is piling up have had their idealism piles depleted faster? I know mine has… At the end of the day I think, with increasing certainty, that I may be happier and more productive leading a life/career of service in the private sector.
My pile seems pretty good, actually — I believe in the mission of my agency, and in that of gov, in general (there are exceptions, of course).
Obviously there’s an awful lot not to like right now, but we humans can (and do) screw everything up, so that should come as a surprise, and screwing up is not the exclusive province of gov. (really, it’s not).
If you consider the wealth of knowledge that is trapped inside the walls of government by a bureaucratic maze of outdated technology, processes and polices, we are long overdue to empower ALL govvies by giving them a voice on the internet and on internal social media intranets. I am an exception to the rule with my blog, and it was no easy road to pave.
Hooray for the additional inspiration from today’s comments! 🙂
Here is a link to Visioneering 2013. Many of the attendees have strong ties with NASA Ames Research Center, and the topics were not chosen randomly. 😉 I think they apply equally well across all sectors of government.
Thanks for the re-post on FB. One thing I have learned in 60+ years: The garbage pile never gets smaller. Garbage is easy for people to pile on, without thought or effort. The other pile (goals, idealism, hope) takes a great deal of work, and nurturing to build, and sometimes even more effort to maintain.
But I am not tired, or cowed, or bullied enough to let one shovelful ever hit me hard enough to quit. I have not been in government as long as some here, but I have always taken heart in the deeds and words of those who came before us. The Adams’, Jefferson, Lincolns’, Roosevelts, Churchill, among others. All the greatest and most famous of our heroes were faced with far more adversity, from more powerful enemies. We will prevail.
Jeffrey: this is an awesome post. Perhaps you remember the late, great comedian Rodney Dangerfield. I think he would relate well to how feds are treated these days — that is, with no respect!
Let’s just keep hoping the garbage doesn’t overflow.
Thanks again Jeffrey for your insight. It is understandable, especially in the political climate today, to move towards the direction of reconsidering the usefulness on continuing in the government. My idealism is still very present…though not as large compared to the garbage.
The comment made by Barry Everett sums up my feelings also. WE, as federal employees, hold our individual and collective causes within our hearts. Unfortunately and not intentionally, they are held as one holds a light under a basket – not many can see. One suggestion would be to come together and create a platform for ‘positive’ branding of who we are and what we represent in the government. Folks are just unaware – let’s help them to see. My 5 cents worth.
Thank you for an inspirational post. I came from private sector to public sector (local government) and must say, the pay is not as rewarding but the work IS. And that is the sticking point. You either have the heart to serve or you don’t. I commend you for your years of service and dedication to serving the people. Keep up the good work and the garbage low 🙂
Great post. Thoughtful and full of the measured optimism that I hope many federal employees still share. Here’s a wapo article about how federal managers can try to positively impact morale and engagement post-shutdown: