Face it: As a federal employee, you’re a swamp dweller.
Yet the swamp can be a beautiful thing. Technically, the swamp is a transitional zone between water and land. Swamps or wetlands in general get a bad reputation because they’re unsuitable for building or development. But they’re important pieces of the ecosystem, supporting a vast array of life forms. The Creature From the Black Lagoon — of which, as a kid, I glued together and painted a foot-tall plastic model — was actually tender-hearted and curious until the swamp invaders tried to capture and kill him. I placed my Creature proudly between my models of Frankenstein and Dracula.
As yet another weird year comes to a close, the federal workforce again finds itself the object of a lot of misdirected ire. Someone sent me a video clip of a late-night television host. She disparaged how many lazy or derelict federal employees are working at home. As evidence for ineptitude, she played a snippet of an interview I aired recently with Jason Miller, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. I was only identified as “host” in the on-screen transcript, thereby missing potentially 30 seconds of fame.
It’s easy to view the government as a large, undifferentiated mass. Encompassing several million people, it has both failures and successes. Half of the citizens think it’s too big and unwieldy. The other half think it needs expansion. Being the mash point in a crucible like that means you’re the object of strong opinions.
You can’t change the political situation. Nor single-handedly raise the affection of the public for the government. The most successful feds I’ve seen cope simply by concentrating on the work. Good results, even if for one citizen or a small group, can help neutralize the static. A few effective strategies:
Keep the final customer in mind. That’s what Dr. Mohammed Saddiqui does. As chief of urology at the Maryland VA Health System, he’s launched research into a problem nearly all male veterans have to worry about: prostate cancer. Most of these cancers develop so slowly, the guy will die of some other cause, or of old age. So how, then, do you design a lifelong monitoring system that’s less obtrusive than current regimes? The research includes discussions with people actually living with prostate cancer surveillance.
Stay open to change. Few things have changed more over the decades than the science and technology of weather forecasting. It’s one of the Commerce Department’s most visible and crucial missions. In my interview, soon-to-retire National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini stressed how much it’s changed. After 40 years at NASA and NWS, he welcomes the coming shift towards commercial — not exclusively federal — generation of weather-related data.
Mentor someone up-and-coming. Dr. Francis Collins talks about returning to his original, career-level job at the National Human Genome Research Institute after stepping down from the NIH directorship. One of the attractions is the chance to get back to mentoring graduate students. Another NIH researcher, Dr. Barney Graham, and the young scientist he mentored, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, were designated federal employees of the year in the 2021 Service to America Medals program. Their work was instrumental to developing the COVID vaccines. How well does that reflect on the federal workforce?
Break a mold. At one time, the National Security Agency would barely acknowledge its own existence to anyone. Not that it didn’t have good reasons for secrecy. Its inspector general, Robert Storch, arrived in 2018. Ever since, he’s released a series of reports on everything from contracting practices to parking lots. The NSA’s secrets are safe with Storch but the agency is measurably more transparent and accountable because of his work.
And don’t forget that when you deal with a taxpayer or citizen, you are the government. The Biden administration is the latest to launch efforts to improve service to the citizen. Or customer experience, to use the latest vernacular. That’s all well and good. Agencies certainly offer widely ranging degrees of CX. Even where they struggle, like at the IRS, a single individual interacting with a single taxpayer can have all the impact on how that single taxpayer views the government.
The Khasi mountain tribe in northern India shapes the roots of rubber fig trees to create living bridges called jing kieng jri. The trees put out aerial roots, which the Khasi people weave together in a process that takes decades before the bridge is capable of supporting foot traffic.