Shutdowns add to mistrust in Congress, agencies, it seems

Another shutdown countdown is upon us. If you're thinking, "didn't we just go through one?" You're right. All this uncertainty is taking a toll on agency operat...

Another shutdown countdown is upon us. If you’re thinking, “didn’t we just go through one?” You’re right. All this uncertainty is taking a toll on agency operations and the folks that run the places. To get an idea of how these constant battles could effect things going forward, Federal Drive with Tom Temin Executive Producer Eric White spoke with Max Stier, President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

Interview Transcript:   

Eric White Good to see you as well. So I guess just give me the status update of what you’re hearing and how things are going to look going forward.

Max Stier Look, you said it exactly right, which is we’re back in the soup again. And it’s a you know, it’s an ugly place to be. It’s a remarkably foolish way to run our government. It’s bad in all fronts. Even if we wind up avoiding a shutdown again, the reality is that managers and leaders across the entire government are having to spend their time preparing for the possibility of a shutdown rather than focusing 100% of their energies on the mission in front of them. So it’s enormously wasteful. And, you know, the idea that this is a fight over federal resources, this is the poorest of all ways to actually manage them. It also has long term consequences to the morale of the existing workforce and the potential for bringing in the new generation of talent that we desperately need.

Eric White Well, let’s focus on those managers first. I mean, what can you really do when you have no control over the situation? And it’s a helpless feeling, but you’re trying to kind of gauge your workers towards, you know, what they want to do. Is it just to try to keep them to stay on task or what’s the best solution there?

Max Stier Well, it’s a great point that you’re making. And, you know, obviously, individual federal leaders are not going to be able to ultimately influence the current crisis. I would say over the longer term, it’d be very helpful for leaders across government to help quantify and storytell around the costs of these kinds of logjams. And I think part of the problem is that most people see this as a political battle rather than the reality of it being that it’s actually hurting Americans across the board. So those stories are not being told. So I think that it’s really important for federal employees and anyone listening to share your story with us. You know, if we wind up with a shutdown and you get furloughed, tell us what’s not happening. Tell us what’s not happening in terms of focusing on preparing for a shutdown. That kind of storytelling is very powerful. I think for any manager inside government, it’s really important that they put themselves in the shoes of the employees that they’re supervising. And it is very disheartening to not have any idea about what’s going to happen. Uncertainty is the bane of good management, and part of it is to call it what it is and to be communicating. I think unfortunately from the very top of government, there’s a tendency to hold back on communicating because the leadership, White House and beyond doesn’t want to give any credence to the possibility of a shutdown. I actually think that’s not the choice that is the best one for our government. But I think individual managers should be connecting with their employees, talking to them, figuring out where their heads are at. And even if you can’t offer a solution for a Congress, you can be a colleague that helps them, you know, see their way beyond this. And I come back to mission. Most federal employees are there because they care about serving the public. And this is an interruption in the ability to do that. But they will be able to return full energy to their work eventually, and hopefully that is sustaining.

Eric White Speaking with Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, you make a great point about some of those stories not being told. Personally, I know of several people who this is right around the Thanksgiving holiday, and they have to say no to taking those trips just because they don’t know if they’re going to have a paycheck when they come back. You know, as employees, what are you hearing from the government workers themselves and some of the hardships that this affects them? .

Max Stier Yeah. No, look, I think you’re so right. This affects people and in all kinds of ways. And, you know, again, a continuing resolution is only good in the context of something worse. But it’s not a great way of managing our resources either. So I welcome, honestly, the stories that you’re hearing and all your listeners, because we’ll do our best to circulate them. And we are also trying to provide resources to federal employees on our website that you can go to our public service dot org because, you know, federal employees need support right now. But I think it’s really important for federal employees to understand how poorly the American public really understands what they do. And frankly, a lot of that is on our government is not communicating effectively. When you say federal government. Most Americans think about bickering politicians in Washington. We need to change that narrative so that they begin to think more about the career civil servants who are serving them across the entire country. And if we did that, our research shows you would see a very different perspective on our government and trust in our government.

Eric White I’m curious, every time we go through one of these, you know, usually the public face of the federal employee who’s affected is first and foremost are members of Armed Services, which obviously, you know, that’s true in itself. But for some reason, the regular federal employee run of the mill federal employee just never seems to become the face of dealing with these things.

Max Stier Yeah, you’re right. And I think that part of it is, first of all, we need Americans understand that uniformed folk are also federal employees. And interestingly, I think it’s close to 40% of the civilian workforce are veterans. So it really is in many ways, one in the same workforce. And the reason why Americans don’t picture or know about career civil servants is that, you know, one day they’re an incredibly modest group. They don’t tell their own stories. And by and large, the infrastructure inside our government, in public affairs and elsewhere is designed to either protect or sometimes tell the story of the secretary and not of the broader workforce. So we actually need to equip and encourage the public affairs offices and beyond to tell the good stories about what’s happening inside government. The reality, I think, is that you have this huge infrastructure to find problems in our government, from IGs to often the media to congressional oversight. And I think that, you know, problem finding is easy. Problem solving is where the game is, and you need to identify solutions and people who are doing promising things if you’re ever going to convert those problems into actually better service for the American public. So the broader metric for me is, is there a recognition culture in government? Do we have leaders who are actually promoting the good work as much, if not more than identifying the problems? And, you know, we have a programs like the Service to America Medals where we try to do that, but that’s one of what should be a whole arsenal of activities. And at the federal government’s doing and those on the outside, too.

Eric White Yeah, let’s focus on those problems and let’s solve all the world’s problems right here. Are there any measures that the partnership itself supports in trying to prevent situations like this one?

Max Stier Absolutely. I mean, there’s actually some very good legislation that Senators Lankford and Hassan have introduced. And there are other examples, but there’s the one that has been longstanding and most interesting to me, But it frankly, would hold accountable the people who should be held accountable. And that’s the members of Congress. It’s their job. It’s actually their job to get the appropriations not and they haven’t done it in regular order since the late 1990s. So this legislation would essentially say, you don’t do your job, you don’t get paid. And guess what? The public is not going to pay for you to get home or anything else like that until you do your job. And it really, you know, holds them accountable in a way that I think would be really meaningful. I think you need broader, you know, appropriations, budget reform. Plainly doing this every year results in a constant string of CRs at in the best case scenario. So why not make it biannually so that you actually can get this process having more meaning in a longer term focus for the feds that they can plan on? You mean part of the challenge here is, you know, you give a month of funding that where you can’t shut down programs or start new ones. You know, it’s the equivalent of saying, I’m going to eat the whole loaf of bread, but I’m going to buy it slice by slice. You’re going to pay a lot more money. It’s going to be a whole lot harder to plan if you can’t actually get the, you know, the long runway of the whole loaf. So there are all kinds of ways that we could improve the system. Part of the challenge here’s we lurch from crisis to crisis. And honestly, we need the public to be demanding better. And part of that, again, is by the public understanding what they’re losing. The crazy thing is it costs more to shut the government down than to run it. So, you know, if the idea here is to try to save money, this is the stupidest possible approach possible.

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