The average citizen will always view the government through a magnifying glass. Managing a free society is truly a calling. Embrace it as such and help people appreciate the talented professionals who serve the public.
"Those who live the life know that government leaders live in a fishbowl, as if whatever they do could be broadcast around the world. National service requires a level of openness unheard of by leaders in for-profit organizations and even nonprofit enterprises," wrote Ellen Van Velsor and Clemson Turregano of the Center for Creative Leadership in the summer 2011 issue of The Public Manager. Few in public service would disagree with this assessment of the work they do or the environment in which they do it.
However, the fishbowl has transformed into a magnifying glass as federal employees become the target of politicians seeking re-election and of a citizenry frustrated by tough economic times. What drove this evolution? How can federal leaders deal with this increasingly challenging environment?
Feeling the Heat
Public sector employees have long been on the receiving end of public and private vitriol: The oft-mentioned lengthy line at the DMV; the faceless Washington bureaucrat; and the callous and uncaring case worker. But the problem appears to have worsened in recent months.
Election-Year Rhetoric Is in Full Swing
Attacks on the federal workforce and on "Washington" are a favorite pastime of presidential and congressional candidates seeking election or re-election. If they're not attacking the federal bureaucracy they're claiming to be an "outsider." While this occurs in both major parties, contenders in the Republican presidential primary race found fertile ground for criticizing the federal government.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney proposed slashing government programs by $500 billion and transferring federal oversight of both Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) to the states. He also proposed elimination of federal subsidies to Amtrak and a 10 percent reduction in federal government employment. Not to be outdone, Republican candidate Rick Santorum espoused the need for a smaller, simpler, and smarter government workforce. He often proclaims the need to "get government out of the way," especially when educating our nation's children.
Economic Woes Dampen the Nation's Mood
Public employees at all levels are tempting marks during economic downturns. The traditional job security and guaranteed pensions enjoyed by the public sector gain national attention when private firms are laying off staff at record levels.
Federal employees are accused of being overpaid. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the national average cost of an employee in the private sector is about $28.10 an hour, including salaries and benefits. This contrasts with the national average cost of an employee in the public sector, about $40.54 per hour. Other recent studies suggest federal workers earn between 16 percent and 45 percent more than those in the private sector.
While much of this research fails to account for variables such as education levels, the loud message to the public is that federal employees have it easy. Even with federal pay growing at its slowest pace in 10 years, and even with an impending continuing pay freeze, the federal sector continues to outperform the private sector in pay raises. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports federal pay rose an average of 1.3 percent for the budget year ending September 30, 2011, compared to a private-sector increase of 1.2 percent during the same period.
We Love to Hate the Government
Government-bashing isn't limited to politicians. In fact, it has a long and storied history. American humorist Will Rogers noted, "I don't make jokes. â€¦ I just watch the government and report the facts."
The celebrated line "Good enough for government work" serves as the bane of the dedicated federal employee. The disparaging phrase suggests a work ethic that finds its foundation in a bare minimum of effort; yet, oddly, the original meaning of this phrase from World War II reflected a commitment that produced products of the very highest standards.
Citizens Don't Know What They Don't Know
Americans have had anything but a symbiotic relationship with their government for 235 years. The relationship is fraught with inconsistencies. Citizens want government there during national emergencies but don't want to support the training and infrastructure necessary to ensure readiness. They want to know that they are safe in their airports but don't want the hassle of waiting in line. They want care for the most vulnerable but don't want halfway houses or a mental health facility in their neighborhood.
Government Is Too Big
The federal bureaucracy that began with three cabinet departments established by George Washington has expanded. Under President Obama, the federal government has grown almost 10 percent, to more than 2.1 million employees.
Many of the increases in recent years are attributed to the war on terrorism. For example, the Departments of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Veterans Affairs have all realized growth since 9/11 with more likely to come.
Impact on the Federal Worker
Recent surveys reflect the pressures affecting the federal worker. The "2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey" reported declines in two noteworthy areas. This survey, performed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), reflects the attitudes and opinions of 266,000 federal employees. As OPM notes, "federal employees continue to be dedicated to their jobs and to accomplishing their missions. Employees are willing to give extra effort, are looking for ways to do their jobs better, and believe their work is important. They are results-oriented, accountable for achieving results, and know how their work relates to their agency's goals."
However for the first time since 2006, there was a drop in the percentage of employees who felt satisfied with the recognition they receive for doing a good job, from 52.2 percent in 2010 to 50.7 percent in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of federal employees who express overall satisfaction with their jobs dropped from 71.5 percent in 2010 to 70.7 percent in 2011, the first decline in five years.
The Partnership for Public Service's 2011 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" survey noted that federal employees continue to give low scores on leadership, with particular concerns about employee engagement, satisfaction with the amount of information provided by senior leaders, perceptions about senior leaders' integrity, and concerns with their ability to motivate employees.
Perhaps most disturbingly, a February 2011 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers of more than 35,000 college students indicated that only 2.3 percent plan on pursuing careers in federal government after graduation. In fact, only 6 percent of respondents planned to pursue public service at any level of government. This represents the lowest percentage since NACE began its survey in 2008. With a significant number of federal sector retirements looming, this may be the most distressing message to the federal workforce yet.
Finding the Cool
Each contention above can be challenged on a number of fronts. Presidential candidates will always attack "Washington" even though 80 percent of the federal workforce exists outside of the Nation's Capital. It's ironic that once elected, they depend on the very same administrative infrastructure for implementation and regulation of the programs they promised as candidates.
A government providing more services to a more diverse population in a dangerous world requires more people with higher levels of education. Government is likely to grow as it struggles to meet greater needs. And as we've seen, the growth of government is not limited to government alone. Indeed, it is likely now more than ever to include partnerships and
hybrid arrangements with the nonprofit and private sectors.
The average citizen is more informed on the details of Dancing With the Stars than on the complex nuances of a busy and challenged federal government. While they may complain about the $160,000 salary of a Senior Executive Service member responsible for the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, they'll overlook the millions of dollars in salary and stock options racked up by corporate executives who use overseas child labor to further their profit margins. Professional public servants deserve to be paid fairly for the often thankless, and sometimes dangerous, services they provide.
So what can one do to deal with the heat?
Embrace the Calling. When people enter the workforce, they can look at their choice of employment in one of two ways: as a commodity or a calling. Public service is the latter. There's no more important job than that of an individual choosing to give his or her talents to others. Only in the hands of public managers do such vexing national problems rest: public health; education; the safety of our water, air, and food; our nation's defense; the regulation of our banks and businesses; mine and manufacturing safety; and the protection of the young and old. Managing the infrastructure of a free society is truly a calling. Embrace it as such.
Tell a Friend. Too many public managers go to work in a vacuum. One of the most effective ways to dispel misperception is to take the time to get to know one another. Tell people about the important work done in the public sector. Volunteer to attend career days at elementary and high schools and the local community college. Most citizens have no idea that the reason they wake up at exactly 6 a.m. is because the National Institute of Standards and Technology ensures that it really is 6 a.m. Help people appreciate the framework within which talented professionals serve the public.
Understand the Dilemma of Public Leadership. The Public Leadership Dilemma, a product of the Public Sector Consortium, suggests multiple challenges with which the public manager must be familiar. Beginning with constitutional assurances and proceeding through the campaign and election of public officials, the dilemma effectively outlines the pressures under which the public servant resides in attempting to implement public policy. Recognizing the competing stakeholders and their interests is paramount for public managers and helps them understand the unique pressure of the public environment.
Excel With the Unique Talents You Have. While comparisons are often made between private sector and public sector managers, public sector employees have exclusive talents suited directly to their service to the citizenry. Public leaders are not only mission driven; they are effective team builders and networking experts. They also have exceptional skill at developing young talent, strategically planning long term, and recognizing the broader sociocultural environment in which they work. Finally, public managers embrace and value diversity in ways that benefit their agencies greatly.
Don't Hide Behind the Regulations. Public managers have all the tools of evasion at hand: Endless arrays of government regulatory language, manuals, budget lines, executive orders, legislative text, agency policies and procedures, and bureaucratic acronyms are within easy access. Combine these with a little evasion here and there along with a well-placed passive voice, and the public manager has all the cover needed to hide from a demanding public. Step away from the artificial shelter. Speak and write truthfully and clearly.
Lead Up. During times of increasing pressure on an agency, senior leaders are looking for help. This is especially true with political appointees. With an average tenure of less than 24 months, political appointees can be a major force for positive change in an agency or they can become a major political liability. Take the time to educate political appointees on the difference between campaigning, leading, and advocating. The campaign is over, and divisive political rhetoric will not serve the goals of the agency. Help these senior officials understand the value of reasoned advocacy, collegiality, and checking their partisanship at the door. Nothing gets public support or wins votes more than effective, meaningful programs implemented by a well-run agency.
Keep the Mission First, But Feed the People. Agencies are living, breathing organisms that have no more valuable asset than their people. Agencies and the people who commit their time and energy to them must be fed and cared for much like any living thing. Chances are if the public manager is feeling the heat of the magnifying glass, the staff is as well. It's not necessary to become a roving Dr. Phil; simply tend to the social and psychological needs of the staff. Every minute spent building meaningful relationships will pay dividends down the road.
Be Authentic. Nothing happens without legitimate authenticity. It is a journey upon which all public managers should embark. In good times the public manager can find solace in knowing who they are and what they're about. Communicating that with staff allows for the development of trusting relationships that will result in collaboration and organizational synergy. In tougher climates, this social capital and common values will hold teams together.
So have we gone from a fishbowl to a magnifying glass? Without a doubt. The perspective of the average citizen will always be through glass. It's one of the requirements of a free democratic society. Hopefully with a little time, patience, and education our federal employees will be able to move back to the fishbowl where they're used to swimming.