'Fog' lifting over federal employees, officials say

Wednesday - 5/4/2011, 7:37am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (far left), HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson and OPM Director John Berry discuss how to improve employee morale during a Public Service Recognition Week event held in Washington Tuesday. (Photo by Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Federal employees may be getting a bit of a reprieve from the perception problem that is not of their making.

Workers who responded to tornadoes in the south and the multiple feds who played key roles in tracking down Osama bin Laden are lifting the fog that has settled around the federal government after months of bad news and disparaging comments.

"The facts haven't changed, the story, the truth hasn't changed, maybe the receptivity of the public has changed," said John Berry, the Office of Personnel Management's director, at an event during Public Service Recognition Week in Washington sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. "That is a window of opportunity. Hopefully we can take advantage of that while the public is listening."

Berry pointed out that almost 3,000 federal employees died in the line of duty since 1992 and the number of federal workers is fewer today than when Lyndon Johnson was President yet there are 110 million more Americans.

"If we can have them understand that then maybe the rhetoric, when we get back to the day-to-day political infighting, will be a little softer because they will know some of those facts actually got through the fog," Berry said.

Berry and other senior officials recognize the ongoing morale problem their agencies face. The months of attacks on federal pay, the White House's decision to freeze employee pay for two years and the potential government shutdowns all have taken a toll on agencies.

"There are so many things that are going on today that undermine the morale of the workforce," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership. "We are trying to turn the conversation to focus on the positive to make sure that people, leaders in government and outside, will not get the government they want and they need if they don't actually identify and honor the great things that are happening in government."

Stier said that is why the Public Service Recognition Week is so important to highlight the federal workforce and the work it does. He added that it's important to make sure federal employees feel appreciated.

"We are not doing enough to get the broader word out," he said. "But it's important for federal employees to get the word out. If each of the 2 million federal workers told the stories about what they know about the good things that are happening in the government to their families and their networks, that would create the most successful viral campaign possible."

Stier added the White House, however, plays a huge role in changing the tone across the country.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said President Obama brings up the importance of the federal workforce at nearly every cabinet meeting and met with federal employees at more than 20 agencies.

LaHood is among several secretaries are trying to address the morale issue in their agency.

"This idea that politicians want to take pot-shots at government workers, I despise that," he said. "What we've tried to do during our career, 35 years in public service, is highlight the good work that hard working public servants do every day to help people, and also to promote the idea that a lot of good comes from government. Government should not be the whipping organizations of politicians."

Transportation is using the crowd-sourcing technique to bring in ideas from frontline workers to improve the agency.

Over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Shaun Donovan is trying to move his agency out of the one of the lowest rankings on the annual OPM Employee Viewpoint survey.

Donovan has instituted several initiatives from inviting employees to his office for coffee to doubling their training budget and requiring mentoring to quarterly townhall meetings across the country.

"A lot of this is communication and not just one-way communication," Donovan said. "We started quarterly townhalls with every employee around the country. It's a chance not only for me to say 'here's what we are focused on, here's what we've heard and we are responding to what you've asked us to do.' But also to hear new feedback in that format or setting up a website. A lot of this is about making sure an employee anywhere in the agency can say 'we are not serving our customers the way we should' or 'I'm not getting the training that I need,' and having those channels open and responding to them."

And at the Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said employees are encouraged to be creative and innovative in finding solutions to agency problems.

"People are hearing way too much in terms of the cheap shots," Sebelius said. "We have to work twice as hard to make sure people understand not only they are valued, but empower them to do a better job and empower continuous improvement."

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