Swamp dweller? Be proud of it!

Please enjoy this column from the archives.

Admit it: as a federal employee, you’re a swamp dweller.

Still, the swamp can be a beautiful thing. Technically, the marsh is a transition zone between water and land. Swamps or wetlands in general have a bad reputation because they are unsuitable for construction or development. But they are important parts of the ecosystem, supporting a huge range of life forms. The creature from the black lagoon – of which, as a child, I glued and painted a foot-tall plastic model – was actually tender and curious until swamp invaders tried to capture and kill it . I placed my creature proudly between my Frankenstein and Dracula models.

As another strange year draws to a close, the federal workforce once again finds itself the object of much misdirected anger. Someone sent me a video clip of a late night TV host. She denigrated the number of lazy or abandoned federal employees working from home. As evidence of incompetence, she aired an excerpt from an interview I aired recently with Jason Miller, the deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget. I was only identified as “host” in the on-screen transcript, potentially missing 30 seconds of fame.

It is easy to think of government as one great undifferentiated mass. Encompassing several million people, it knows both failures and successes. Half of citizens think it’s too big and unwieldy. The other half thinks it needs expansion. To be the brewing point in a melting pot like this means you are the object of strong opinions.

You cannot change the political situation. Nor by itself to increase the public’s affection for the government. The most successful Feds I’ve seen get away with it simply by focusing on the job. Good results, even for a citizen or a small group, can help neutralize static electricity. Some effective strategies:

  • Keep the end customer in mind. This is what Dr. Mohammed Saddiqui does. As chief of urology at the Maryland VA Health System, he pioneered research into a problem almost every male veteran has to worry about: prostate cancer. Most of these cancers grow so slowly that the man will die from another cause or from old age. So how do you design a lifetime surveillance system that’s less intrusive 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. This is one of the most visible and crucial missions of the Department of Commerce. In my interview, Louis Uccellini, director of the soon-to-retire National Weather Service, pointed out how much that has changed. After 40 years at NASA and the NWS, he looks forward to the upcoming move toward commercial—not exclusively federal—generation of weather data.
  • Mentor someone up-and-coming. Dr. Francis Collins talks about returning to his original career-level work at the National Human Genome Research Institute after leaving the NIH leadership. One of the attractions is the possibility of returning to mentoring graduate students. Another NIH researcher, Dr. Barney Graham, and the young scientist he mentored, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, have been named Federal Employees of the Year in the 2021 Service to America Medals program. Their work has been instrumental in the development of COVID vaccines. To what extent is that reflected in the federal workforce?
  • Break a mold. There was a time when the National Security Agency barely acknowledged its own existence to anyone. Not that he doesn’t have good reason to keep it a secret. Its inspector general, Robert Storch, arrived in 2018. Since then, he has issued a series of reports on everything from contractual practices to car parks. NSA secrets are safe with Storch, but the agency is noticeably more transparent and accountable because of its work.

And remember that when dealing with a taxpayer or a citizen, you are the government. The Biden administration is the latest to launch efforts to improve citizen service. Or customer experience, to use the latest vernacular. It’s very beautiful. Agencies certainly offer widely varying 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.

Almost useless factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

Until 2018, throwing snowballs was illegal in a small town in Colorado. The law changed in Severance after a nine-year-old boy asked the town to allow snowball fights.

Source: Colorado Public Radio

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