Early Mistakes We Made in Gov

One of my favorite professional development books is “Mistakes I Made at Work” by Jessica Bacal. It’s a compilation of 25 essays from influential women who admittedly made a few early detours on their road to success. I love the book because it not only offers some real advice for your early career, but it also lets me know that I’m not alone in the occasional professional mishap.

However, most of the female authors of the book didn’t have much public service experience, which got me wondering if there are unique words of wisdom that we’re missing from government employees. So I asked them.

I asked colleagues, friends, and GovLoop members with government experience what mistakes they made early in their public sector careers. Below are a few common themes I heard:

1. Learn the rules first

It’s not a myth. Government has a lot more structure and regulations than most other industries.

A former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau employee said the first thing she wished she’d tackled at her government job was to better understand procedures. She worked in a relatively new agency that was constantly gathering information from other federal entities. But just because the agency was new didn’t mean there weren’t already procedures in place to execute that information sharing. “I learned pretty quickly that you should always check to see if you have a procedure for getting things from other agencies, before you just call and ask for it.”

Additionally, one contractor, Eugene, who works with many successful govies said he notices that every successful public servant starts by attaining a “business-like view of how their organizations work” including understanding how stakeholders and clients interact with your agency.

To get that understanding, “ask all the questions you can, all the time,” said Jessica Stapf, Digital Storyteller for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “My current job is my first out of college and there is nothing I’ve learned more from than just being brave enough to ask questions of my colleagues and of my manager and leadership.”

2. Use clear messaging

As our govies explored their new jobs, they found the best way to really understand the rules of government was by being clear in what they wanted to learn.

“Earlier in my career, I would write letters to agencies asking for materials or information but I’d get back incoherent documents, if I heard back at all,” said one former Senate employee. After a few failed attempts, she realized that government communication is its own beast. “It is critical to clearly identify the request early on. This is government. No one has time to dig around for what you’re asking.”

Start any request with a clear call to action, she said. “And if you aren’t getting what you want, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call. I wish I’d done that a lot more when I started in government.”

3. Be thoughtful about change

And even though the public sector is laden with rules, our govies agreed that you shouldn’t be put off from trying to change things. You just have to be thoughtful about how you do it.

“When you start out in government and have a fresh perspective there is a lot of opportunity to make positive change. …It is important to understand the circumstances and not get too big headed,” said Tim Howell who has worked in multiple city leadership positions across Texas. “To continue to be successful takes a different mindset than early success and has to be cultivated. Once you become adapted to the environment, groupthink becomes more prominent and it is more difficult to look at challenges, tasks, and opportunities critically.”

Former GSA employee Ori Hoffer said not to let that static feeling get you down, though. “Don’t get frustrated by established processes that are different from what you’re used to,” he said. “Be patient and show why certain things will be more efficient and effective. Ask if you can ‘try it this way on just this project’ and see how things work.”

Jennifer Dreibelbis who has worked for federal, state, county and city governments agreed: “Try not to get bogged down by the negativity. Some long term employees get fed up with all the bureaucracy and no’s they’ve heard, so they complain about what they can’t do or how things won’t change. I sympathize but don’t agree. I am going into my 8th year in the same department and I’ve seen change for the better. It takes acceptance!” 

4. Find your own path in government 

Finally, as you start to hit your stride in public service, it might be tempting to climb the predefined career ladder. While it’s great that agencies – particularly at the federal level – offer clear career paths, our govies agreed that you shouldn’t assume that preset path is the right one for you.

“When I was coming up in government, all my fellow analysts were getting this IT auditor certification,” recalled former govie and current GovLoop President, Steve Ressler. “But come on, I didn’t want to be an auditor!” From that experience, Steve learned the need to find and focus on his own career path, rather than a predefined one laid out by his agency.

Similarly, govie Matt Nowak recommended seeking new agencies if you’re having trouble finding your place within your own. While the transition can be difficult, the rewards of finding your niche in public service often outweigh the risks. “There is always a way in government, you just have to look for it,” he concluded.


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