The Federal Government’s Image Problem

I think we can all agree that the federal government and federal employees have an image problem. But that wasn't always the case. Once believed by many to be the most secure jobs to have, positions within the federal government were highly sought after. Superior retirement and health benefits, reasonable hours, and a family friendly work environment combined with the belief that you were doing something of value to the American public was what people thought of when they considered public service. So what changed?

We actually don't have to look far to see why the federal government's image has suffered. Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency's global surveillance program aside, the treatment of our nation's veterans by the Veterans Administration (VA) is the government scandal currently on everyone's mind. CNN first reported massive delays in medical appointments for veterans across the country, with some dying while waiting for care. The worst problems have been reported in Phoenix, Ariz. where at least 40 veterans reportedly died waiting for treatment. To make matters worse, a 2010 internal VA memo disclosed at a recent congressional hearing revealed attempts to cover up excessive waits for veterans going back years. This new scandal actually came after years of controversy over VA's backlog of unprocessed benefits claims. Despite initial signs of lukewarm support from the president, VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki resigned on May 30, with firings vowed to follow at the highest levels within the VA across the country.

The nation's tax collector, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), has also had its share of scandals. Last year it was disclosed that for more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, IRS agents in a Cincinnati office singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status, delaying their applications for an average of nearly two years and making it difficult for many of the groups to raise money. Before that was the IRS conference spending scandal in which the IRS held a $4.1 million training conference featuring luxury rooms and free drinks at its 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif. In fact, the IRS held numerous employee conferences from 2010 through 2012 at a total taxpayer cost of $49 million. And, not to be left out, the General Services Administration (GSA) joined in with its own conference scandal by spending more than $800,000 at a 2010 Las Vegas conference featuring clowns, a mind reader, and a red-carpet party.

So, it's understandable why the federal government is taking a beating image-wise. But, most people know that many of these ill-conceived decisions were made at the highest levels of government with the hands of the everyday public servant who doesn't dare to be a whistleblower staying far away from the fray. Why then has the everyday government worker's image become so tarnished? That's the question I have pondered over and over again. Putting aside the obvious misbehavior and poor judgment of Secret Service agents accused in the Columbia prostitution scandal, I now think I have the real answer and the true underlying culprit.

Imagine the government worker who regularly brags to her favorite cafeteria worker or the mailroom worker who brags to the UPS man making deliveries to the building that they have cushy jobs with nothing to do but listen to music or watch the Soaps all day. Imagine bragging to people who work hard and who are on their feet all day about how much you make to do nothing. Now, imagine those government workers repeating the same to their family and friends and imagine the cafeteria workers and UPS man repeating the same to their family and friends. Multiply that a few more times and now you have a large-scale image problem.

I believe there are employees in every industry that are lazy and that are paid far more than their effort is worth. And, yes, I absolutely believe there are some in the federal government. To say most government employees fall into that category is a gross overstatement and mischaracterization of the vast majority of public servants who take pride in what they do. Until the hard working government workers become the loudest, drowning out the bad apples who probably also bragged in high school about getting Cs and Ds without studying, only then will the reputations of hard working government employees be restored as the valuable assets they truly are. Combine that with the overall housecleaning the Obama Administration needs to do, far beyond the resignation of General Shinseki, and maybe then the federal government will return to its days of glory as a model employer with model employees.

Shirley A. Jones, Esq. is president of the Region XI Council of Blacks In Government (BIG).

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