Uh oh. Thanksgiving arrives next week. You know what that means. Your liberal/conservative Biden-loving/Trump-loving whatever-in-law will spoil the dinner with politics talk. Or maybe it’ll be a college sophomore come home, filled with ideas they just heard from a pointy-headed prof.
Not me. I’ll be all by my lonesome this Thanksgiving. I’ll hit a local pub. No occasion to be sad — just a confluence of family occurrances means the joy and the tryptophan are delayed a week. I had an editor who once talked about having had a hamburger Thanksgiving dinner by himself at a White Tower in Albany, New York. Working for the old UPI at the time, he seemed none the worse for it.
Without preaching about what people have to be thankful for, I’d say it’s not a bad time to be a federal employee. True, fiscal 2022 appropriations are late and may never come. But Congress, like cable television, is a good thing to tune out from time-to-time. Ultimately your office won’t disappear.
I’m not talking about pay and benefits, which, when all is said and done, are pretty good. Just look at the range of health care plans arrayed during open season. The administration, at least in statement, has your back. The not-sneak-preview of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) leads with “ensuring that the Federal workforce is strong, empowered, and well equipped to efectively deliver for the public.” It goes on and on about how federal jobs should be good jobs.
Maybe at the dinner table you can argue over the PMA. The expertly designed document does raise some questions.
Does a good job have to be a union job? The PMA states: “The Administration’s philosophy is
that Federal employee organizing is a good and productive workplace practice that it should facilitate.” How do managers and senior managers feel about that?
Does the PMA emphasis on the kumbaya of federal work come at the expense of the accountability side — which perhaps the prior administration over emphasized?
Everyone likes flexibility. How far should telework and work schedule flexibility go? And does telework as the norm actually promote work-life balance?
The PMA, and the administration, is fundamentally correct in that for government to be effective and high performing, it needs an effective and high-performing workforce. To have that, you need engaged people who like what they’re doing and who they work for.
Having covered the government in one medium or another for 30 years, I’ve learned it’s never dull. Or at least it doesn’t sound dull from the outside. Just the opposite. Whatever work you do, even if seemingly arcane, is both interesting and matters to at least some of the citizens of the nation. And the work is downright interesting. I never need to go far back for examples. They float through my studio daily, like sushi boats on a little restaurant river.
Take the case of Monsi Roman of NASA. She’s running a challenge competition to come up with ways to feed space travelers to the moon. That would take seven months one way, mabye longer — not exactly hopping a PanAm Constellation down to Rio. Feeding astronauts with freeze-dried ice cream for a few days’ trip is one thing. But keeping people sustained for months and months in the inky void? They’re looking at growing stuff in space, making meals from ingredients, all sorts of options. How fun is that!
Another example at the senior executive level: Today on my Federal Drive with Tom Temin you can hear Louis Uccellini, the legenday director of the National Weather Service. He’ll retire at year-end after 43 years of federal service at NASA and Commerce. The NWS is primarily a scientific organization that’s undergone continuous revision as researchers develop new computation capabilities and new weather prediction algorithms. At the core, it provides a consumer product for which people have inexhaustible demand. Namely, what’s the weather going to be.
Whatever the workplace conditions, many feds do succeed and enjoy long careers with the government. To the extent that management agenda enable this, so much the good.
I recently heard another approach. It was described by IRS executive Harrison Smith, whose technology project I outlined in an earlier column. At the ACTIAC executive leadership conference a couple of weeks ago, Smith named the five basic cultural principles by which he tried to operate his office:
Be transparent and acknowledge the challenges.
Be pro digitalization, not anti-status quo. This item is mission-specific, so fill in whatever mission or activity you oversee.
Create and leverage partnerships. That is, don’t be what’s commonly called a silo.
Find balance of work and life. If you need to have a tooth filled, take the time it takes.