Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Amid government scandals with GSA and Secret Service, advice for federal leaders

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

The scandalous acts of a few government employees who wasted taxpayer dollars and abused the public trust are making headlines, but these cases are not representative of the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers. In fact, they are far from the norm.

The excessive spending by General Service Administration (GSA) employees on a lavish Las Vegas conference and the prostitution scandal involving Secret Service agents are rocking the government right now. Not only do these misguided actions reinforce the negative perceptions of government workers, but federal executives tell me that are taking a toll on employee morale.
The vast majority of federal employees are committed, hard-working and conscientious individuals who work for the government because they believe in the value and spirit of public service.

But, brace yourself and your team members because federal workers are the perfect punching bag in an election year. The scandals offer an opportunity for some in Congress to suggest that wrongdoing exposed in the past few weeks is standard government practice. 

As a federal leader, you need to paint a different picture of government workers, the vast majority of whom deserve praise, not condemnation.
As a start, share the good work being done by the public servants in your agency. Look for opportunities to publicly praise the noteworthy accomplishments of the organization and its employees. Even if it’s difficult to be heard outside your agency right now, your employees will hear you.
Here’s some additional advice to keep your team engaged and committed amid the scandal frenzy:
Don’t let bad news be the elephant in the room. You can be sure that the scandals are on the minds of your employees and that they have already been discussed. Raise the topic at your next staff meeting or in another appropriate forum, and share your perspective and any information about the response by other government leaders. Encourage your employees to raise questions, and answer them factually and candidly.
Look for a silver lining. While there is a fine line between being optimistic and delusional, focus on the facts and look for realistic opportunities that may be presented. For example, if some within your organization have been advocating for a constructive change in policies and procedures, this might be a time to be more open to change. Clearly something about the status quo did not work well in parts of the government. So, while the bad news is still the bad news, an opportunity to inject some needed change into your organization could be the good news.
Make sure your leadership team is up to the task. Some subordinate supervisors and managers may be struggling, especially at GSA and the Secret Service, and they are your first line of defense against a let-down in employee engagement. Make sure they are supported and given the tools they need to respond constructively. If some members of the leadership team leave their jobs voluntarily (or otherwise), make sure there are quality replacements available as soon as practicable.
Remind your employees that the public is still relying upon them to get the mission accomplished. Focus on the work that the needs to be done and on the services or benefits provided by your agency. Most of your employees are there because they want to do something meaningful. Helping them focus on the importance of their jobs to the agency mission will leave less time for them to be distracted by the buzz surrounding the “scandals.”
Public Service Recognition Week begins May 6. What are you doing at your agency to thank employees for their hard work? Please send your thoughts, stories and questions to the fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.



Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 30, 2012 at 4:02 PM

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