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Uncool to work for gov? – End of Year Review

The end of the year means two things: setting unrealistic New Year’s resolutions and endless retrospectives. While we can’t force you to put down the cake and pick up a carrot, we can help you do your job better by highlighting some of the biggest and best innovations to come out of government in the last 365 days. Throughout December the DorobekINSIDER will sit down with government experts to talk about the hurdles, wins and challenges in 2013. (You can find all the interviews here.)

End Of Year Innovator: John Palguta, VP for Policy at the Partnership for Public Service

“I have spent quite a few years focusing on the federal government, particularly the federal workforce, and I have to say in the last several decades I haven’t seen it quite this challenging on a number of levels,” said Palguta.

Chasm between public servants and the public?

“There was not a great cry outside of the federal workforce about the furloughs. I think part of that is there is this chasm, in that the American public does not really think about the internal operations of government. To them, government is there, it is a given, it does it’s thing. The workers show up and stuff gets done. Instead what we have focused on in our national debate is the role and the size of government. How much should government be doing? Particularly in this last year, so much of the dialogue has been around what government is doing that people don’t like. Which is suspect in terms of motivation. The whole Affordable Care Act debate has been fascinating, if it weren’t so sad, in terms of the mis-information on both sides and at some level people almost wishing that it would fail. In part, so it could be a ‘I told you,’ sort of thing. But when you get that kind of dialogue going, it doesn’t restrict it to one controversial program, but rather it permeates. The debate spills over into, ‘the government isn’t capable of doing a good job on anything,’ which obviously isn’t true. But it creates a very obvious negative tenor,” said Palguta.

It is uncool to work for the government?

“I am not going to be totally pessimistic here because there are some little bright spots out there. But let me do the pessimistic stuff first, after the 2008 election, if you follow the public opinion polls, there was a period when government was actually being seen as cool. Government was looked to as the entity that was going to respond to the economic meltdown. People didn’t trust Wall Street to get us out of things, so there was a ground swell of, we’ve got problems and we need an effective government to get us out of this, there was actually good stuff being written, application rates for government jobs were up and government was actually hiring. We had the Recovery Act stuff going on so we had a lot of temporary folks coming in to help turn things around, and if you think about it, the economy is so much better. It still isn’t strong. However, it is so much better than it was in 2008. We are adding jobs in the country as opposed to seeing jobs drop off. So we had a moment there where government was cool. And we lost it,” said Palguta.

What happened?

“All of the sudden, things didn’t happen as quickly in terms of turnaround that people expected. In my opinion the Congressional gridlock has been worse than I have seen in a very long time. It is very difficult for Congress to agree on anything. Very little actually got passed. We still don’t have appropriations for agencies. That drumbeat of focusing on all the negatives, made government sound like a very uncool place. It is equivalent to the corporate chief who comes in and says, ‘hey buy our goods and services, and by the way we have a bunch of duds on our workforce.’ Nobody would do that, but we tend to do that in government. We lost the cool momentum,” said Palguta.

Still amazing stuff going on out there?

“That is the silver lining in this doom and gloom. Government continues to work. I think what has been demonstrated here is that government employees are by and large the kinds of workers that we want. These are people that are going to try very hard to get mission’s accomplished. Part of the issue here is that people don’t think about all the different things that government does. We focus on the disaster of the day. What happened in that IRS office in the Mid-West. The website for healthcare.gov. You focus on those glaring examples of things not working as intended. And we forget about all the things that are going on. A third of government employees work in the Department of Defense and we have a world class defense infrastructure. We have NIH. We have the Department of Veterans Affairs which continues to take care of an amazing array of needs of our wounded warriors. You go agency by agency and every agency is doing just amazing things in terms of improving the quality of life for the American people. The good news in part is not just that we have great people doing great things, that is not to be minimized, but because of the budgetary constraints, we have seen agencies go from we are going to try to do more with less, which never ultimately works, but rather we have seen agencies try to re-think business as usual. They are really looking for innovation,” said Palguta.

Time to make change in gov?

“The budget constraints are a forcing mechanism. I just hope that people don’t overplay it and say great, ‘if we just keep squeezing it is going to get better and better.’ Because we know that if you keep squeezing too much it is going to break. But we have seen agencies that are being innovative. They are sharing resources and collaborating more with other agencies. That is something we haven’t seen more of in more affluent times, where you could afford to maintain your legacy IT system. Now people are saying, ‘I can’t afford that anymore and if someone has a better IT system maybe we can simply join forces.’ So we are seeing some collaboration across agencies that we had not seen before,” said Palguta.

Other areas of improvement? Palguta said:

  • We have seen better use of what we call mission analytics. Better use of data and analytical thinking about how better to get the mission done. They realize that we don’t have more resources to devote to something. So maybe we can figure out a better way to get the job done, a better way to keep homeless Veterans from being homeless, by joining forces between HUD and the VA. They are having some great success there through a collaborative effort and the use of data analytics that focuses on what it takes to keep a Veteran housed.
  • We are seeing a greater focus on engaging the employees that are already there. Agencies understand they can not give employees bonuses. They haven’t even been able to give them pay raises. But they are looking for other ways to motivate and recognize employees. Part of that is getting employees engaged. So rather than telling them what to do, asking employees for insights and help on ways of doing things better. I think there are some real bright spots here. In moderation this is some real good news. I just hope that no one gets the impression that we can just keep squeezing 10% a year and we will do great. This has to be weighed against what the real requirements are.

Part two of our interview with Palguta looks at what’s ahead in 2014.

Year In Review Interview:

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