This column was originally published on Dec. 23, 2021.
The Biden administration has admonished agencies to improve the service they provide to their constituencies. You can name many good reasons for this latest customer experience gambit. Citizens paid for it. Good “CX” improves faith and confidence in government. Federal employees generally care a lot about those they’re serving, so your job satisfaction increases.
But can you and the programs you deliver improve people’s general attitudes? Make them more motivated? Turn around hopelessness or a sense of foreboding doom?
Possibly. In fact, you might be surprised what good customer experience, good results can produce. My sliver of evidence comes from an academic study of the pandemic. My thanks to Nick Ianelli of WTOP for alerting me to it. The study — actually a 1,000-person survey repeated a couple of times in 2020 — found that people’s perception of time has affected how they cope with the pandemic. It’s complicated, but basically if your condition and how you coped was positive, the time has flown by. For the miserable, time has crept. Ever been up in the night with a cranky baby? The clock seems to stop altogether.
Professor Phil Gable of the University of Delaware outlines two basic motivations: approach and avoidance. In general, he writes, time passes faster and more enjoyably for those who “approached” the pandemic by rushing to get vaccinated, wearing masks so they could mingle with people. Time for them goes fast. Avoiders are those who feel fearful or anxious, and who hunkered away from others. Time for them goes slowly.
So where does the government come in?
Gable writes of what he calls an interesting pattern in the survey results: “Specifically, participants who felt the government could effectively control the pandemic and that there were effective treatments for COVID-19 felt time was passing more quickly. Participants who felt there was an insufficient amount of medical equipment to treat COVID-19 and felt the virus was highly lethal reported time passing more slowly.”
He adds, “(If) you see a light at the end of the tunnel — through treatments and faith in the government’s responses — you’re more likely to have an upbeat attitude and be more motivated to engage in behaviors that help others. If you feel utterly hopeless or sense foreboding doom, time creeps by. This seems to motivate the impulse to hunker down and protect yourself.”
I know, I know: generalities. We all can name fearful ones who are vaccinated and wear designer masks, and joyous or simply skeptical ones who flit about neither vaccinated nor masked.
As a federal employee, you were likely motivated at some point by the mission your agency performs and by the idea of public service. Less likely is that that you had some messianic sense of the importance of government in the lives of a free people. Yet the government needs to be there with competence and trustworthiness when the nation faces wars and other common threats like a potent virus.
The government’s response over the past nearly two years has produced fodder for soul-searching and analysis for years to come. President Biden told one media talking head the other night that nothing the government has done has been good enough. Parsing that would take 10,000 words of what “good enough” might actually look like. Yet, at the individual and program level, you worked hard and helped many people. In spite of the politics raging overhead. And in spite of your own precarious situation brought on by continuing telework and uncertainty over whether and when remote employees would get back to the office. To say nothing of a controversial vaccine mandate. Oh, and you had a jolting change in administrations.
In the hundreds of interviews with federal employees I’ve done since March 2020, I’ve encountered highly engaged people. You worked on behalf of programs. They don’t pay you to to deliver psychology or attitude counseling. But as Prof. Gable’s survey shows, sometimes you can produce unintended consequences for the good.
One of the meanings of the verb “troll” — as in “troll the ancient yuletide carol” — means “to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.” This meaning originated in the 16th century, and refers to singing in rounds, where the melody is passed from person to person.