America’s Trusted Agencies: What Can We Learn From Them?
In January, the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey on how favorably Americans view some different federal agencies. The agencies they surveyed included Health and Human Services, DOJ, and the Federal Reserve, all of which are viewed favorably by the majority of those surveyed.
For several years, there have been a lot of changes and news stories which either hurt the federal workforce or give them cause to worry. We can expect more in the coming years, especially given the negative tone of the discussion about the federal government in politics and the news. Some of these agencies have been in the news a lot in recent years, but the majority of the public still trusts them, which is worth celebrating. It’s worth asking what all of us can learn from those agencies that can help us serve the public better and build their trust in us:
1. Never forget customer service.
Over and over again, these people talked about how their culture and their mission constantly reinforces the need to think about the customer first. This is true whether that customer is a random member of the general public, an institution, or a more sophisticated audience like economists and doctors who intimately understand your agency and its work.
One HHS employee noted that this means remembering how someone from the outside will see your agency without the knowledge you have, “I think families trying to get information just don’t know where to call. The federal government can be really opaque from the outside. They don’t know what to expect, so their expectations can be really low.” Another HHS employee said that an audience that knows your agency may have specific ideas about your work based on past experience. It’s not be a judgement about you particularly, even though it can feel that way.
2. No one else will tell your story.
Sometimes you get lucky and your mission is just innately interesting and valuable to the general public without much work on your end. Lee Oliver at HHS works for the National Cancer Institutes and he said, “Everyone I’ve met has a good impression of us, because you can’t really be mad about people trying to cure cancer.” Jessica Weinberg at the FDA believes that the U.S. is seen as a world leader in food safety, although it still has work to do. “When traveling to other countries, I worry about the food I’m eating a lot more than I do here.”
For the rest of us, many interviewees said they advised doing everything you can to tell your story and help people understand the connection between your work, your agency, and the benefits they get from it. And then, do more. One HHS employee noted that the hardest thing about building a relationship is communication. A DOJ employee echoed that, saying that the need to communicate and demonstrate respect is just taking skills we use in other parts of our life and applying it at work. Another said that there was always a temptation to focus on process instead of people, but the people would be what mattered in the end. That includes the people inside the agency, because their engagement helps the agency make that sale. As one HHS employee said about her own sub-agency, “We have a small but mighty staff who can get a lot accomplished. We don’t have many of the ‘typical’ government employees who don’t want to be there.”
3. The public debate matters.
There’s no way around the fact that how your work and your agency are seen will affect you. “A lot of times, federal employees are beat up in the news, and it doesn’t provide confidence for people working on something they see as important. It can be a sore point across agencies. It can be difficult to go in day after day and feel like what you’re doing isn’t appreciated,” said Hector Velez at HHS. One DOJ employee said the real question is whether you feel like the public is “on your side” or not. Denise, an employee at HHS, said that “folks here come from the private sector and this is their first time in the government. They don’t know what to expect. People who’ve been in government longer, like me, they’re less concerned. You’ve seen this all before and you’re like, ‘Don’t worry.’” One Fed employee saw these moments as an opportunity, saying, “I see it as an opportunity to share my experiences with others and help them understand.”
4. It’s easy to lose sight of reality.
Knowing that the sacrifices you make for a career in public service are being recognized and that the American people have your back clearly makes a big difference. It’s unfortunate that it can be so easy to lose sight of the fact that you and your work matter. Many of the people I talked to were surprised to find out that their agency was viewed so favorably by the American public. As one Fed employee said, “I was a little surprised, given that there’s been talk on both sides of the aisle about the Fed and what it does, but I think the optimism is well-founded.” An HHS employee commented that given how much you hear about waste and fraud from politicians, assumed the American people would agree.
Take heart that many of your colleagues are managing to stay focused on the big picture in these times. A HHS employee pointed out that “behavioral health and mental health, that really makes a difference. My job isn’t to lock up people. My job is that, if you’re here with a substance abuse problem, to help you so you can live your life. Republican families and Democratic families are affected by mental health issues.”
So, with Public Service Recognition Week being this month, give yourself a moment to pat yourself on the back. You won’t always get this validation, so it’s important to celebrate it when it comes, even if it’s just from an individual customer. As one HHS employee added, “I think there’s a popular thing in the air right now about unelected bureaucrats this and faceless bureaucrats that. But we’re people who joined the government because we care about this field and we want to help the people we serve. And I think people get that, even if it’s not what I hear on TV news. We’re trying to put our best foot forward. We may not always succeed, but we’ll always try.”
By Joseph Maltby, YGL Director of Research & Advocacy
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