By Dan Gephart, March 4, 2023

Never read the comments.

This is my rule. I strongly believe in it. And yet, I broke the rule once again a few weeks ago. I can’t recall what story I was reading, although it’s a good bet it was about one of Philadelphia’s dysfunctional professional sports teams. What I do know is halfway down the comments section, discussions turned to a completely unrelated topic — a Federal agency’s efforts to hire a large group of new employees.

The comments didn’t focus on the pros or cons of the hiring effort. The comments were, at the very least, disrespectful, disillusioned, and highly uneducated. They showed a complete misunderstanding of the agency mission and a mistrust of government, in general.

I reached out to Lindsay Laferriere (picture above), who is the Director and part of the Partnership for Public Service’s initiative to rebuild trust and trustworthiness in the Federal government. As the agency already mentioned isn’t the only one hiring these days, I asked Laferriere about the impact of this lack of trust on recruitment and hiring, especially since only 30 percent of young people between ages 18-24 trust the government, according to the Partnership’s most recent study.

“It’s concerning,” she said. “Think about the talent we need to make government successful. There are careers people are considering from a vague politicized view of government.”

The Partnership has visited colleges to spread the word. “We’re trying to help them understand the careers they can have in government and the positive impact they can have. There is a role for them beyond politics – an opportunity to have a positive impact.”

[Editor’s note: Join us on April 24 from 11 am – 1 pm for Equity in Hiring, a virtual training program that will give you the keys and tools for creating a well-qualified workforce, while ensuring fair treatment and nondiscrimination in every phase of your hiring process. This session is a part of FELTG’s Emerging Issues in the Federal Workplace program.]

DG: What is the biggest reason for the lack of trust in government?

LL: Look across the major institutions in our country and trust has declined in a number of places. Adding layers of complexity, you had a global health crisis, misinformation, disinformation, a national reckoning of racial equity … they all play a part, but there are a couple of key things we know from the Partnership for Public Service’s research we can do something about:

1. The challenge with trust is you ask people about the government and people think about politicians. When you mention Washington, it reinforces that belief.

2. When we ask about career civil servants, they do have a lot more positive perceptions. One of the things we try to do is continue to define what government is. Federal employees in government help keep us safe, healthy, prosperous – it’s the work of government that civil servants will do regardless of who is in power.

We all access services from the government, whether applying for a passport, filing taxes, or for Social Security benefits. There are opportunities to increase trust. The good news in our surveys is that people are generally satisfied with the services they are receiving. As the world changes, (government) still delivers excellent public services.

DG: What can we learn from the agencies that engender the most trust?

LL: The agency ranked highest (in a Partnership for Public Service survey from October 2021) was the National Park Service. After that, it was the Social Security Administration. Look at what those two agencies have in common. They provide service to millions of people every year.

We encourage agencies to own their own narrative. Tell your own impact stories of the excellent work people do on behalf of the American public.

A few years ago, the VA recognized it had a shortcoming. It was not meeting the needs of veterans and their families. They recentered the agency to focus on veterans’ needs. Through that work, they’ve made strides in improving trust. Centering the needs of the people you’re serving is an important model.

DG: Earlier this year, the Attorney General reported a “sharp” and “deeply disturbing spike” in threats against Federal workers. How does lack of trust play into this new danger?

LL: It’s deeply disturbing to see threats against the Federal workplace. We can have a real conversation about the size of government, but there’s no place for violence in the discussion. Some drivers of distrust could be at play here. Go back to focusing on humanizing the government. Make the goal of civil servants clear to people.

NASA scientists are exploring space. NIH researchers are trying to cure diseases. Firefighters are protecting national forests. Take the focus off the bureaucracy and show these people doing important work and how it’s a benefit to you.

DG: We see guidance for what agency leadership and/or communication departments can do to improve trust, but what can Federal supervisors, employees, EEO, or HR professionals do to help this cause?

LL: It will take all of us. One of the things I would encourage people to think about: In our research, we asked people who they trust for information. And what we found is for a lot of folks, it is people close them – community members, friends. All Feds have people in their lives they can influence. Tell them what you do for work and why it’s important. Telling those stories shifts perceptions about what government is. Every interaction with the government is an opportunity to reinforce or shape a perception, whether it’s an HR person or someone else in agency.

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