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As public sours on government, OPM aims to ‘re-polish' federal image

Apr. 19, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY and Comments
U.S. Park Service ranger Eric Martin, left, and park guide Jesse Wilinski stand next to a wreath after they laid it at the front steps of Ford's Theatre to mark the 201st birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry says while the public generally has a favorable opinion of park rangers and medical researchers, it has an unfavorable opinion of government workers as a whole.
U.S. Park Service ranger Eric Martin, left, and park guide Jesse Wilinski stand next to a wreath after they laid it at the front steps of Ford's Theatre to mark the 201st birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry says while the public generally has a favorable opinion of park rangers and medical researchers, it has an unfavorable opinion of government workers as a whole. (Getty Images)

The Office of Personnel Management is working on a new marketing campaign intended to boost the public's opinion of federal employees.

OPM Director John Berry said his agency is surveying liberal and conservative citizens about their impressions of federal workers and issues most important to them. Once that survey is done, OPM will contract with a marketing firm to "come up with the right vocabulary, the right messaging and the right energy that we believe will re-polish the public servant's image," Berry said at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington this morning.

Berry said that the government's outreach efforts should focus on employees' specific jobs to counter the perception of civil servants as bureaucrats.

"If you ask people, ‘What do you think about federal workers,' they think, ‘Oh, my gosh, they all stink,'" Berry said. " ‘They're all faceless, gray, pasty people who push paper.' [But if you ask] what do you think about park rangers, it's, ‘Oh, I love park rangers.' When you ask, what do you think about researchers at [the National Institutes of Health] who are curing childhood cancer, [people say] ‘My kid had leukemia. I really value that. Don't cut that portion of the budget.'"

Berry's comments came a day after the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that the public's trust in the federal government has reached historic lows.

Just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government almost always or most of the time, the survey found. That's down from 31 percent in January 2007, and down from 40 percent in February 2000.

Surveys conducted by other organizations in late 2009 and early 2010 yielded similar numbers. The last time national polls consistently showed this level of mistrust was in the mid-1990s.

Public discontent could hurt government agencies' ability to recruit and retain employees, said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.

McManus said his organization's research has found that older, more experienced job seekers are particularly turned off by negative attitudes that persist over a long time.

"The continued decline is not a good thing if you're looking to bring those folks in," he said.

He said government employees may also be discouraged by the low public opinion.

"No one wants to walk into their house after a long day of work and be disparaged about how everything they're doing is wrong," McManus said.

Respondents to the Pew survey were more dissatisfied with Congress than with government agencies. Favorable ratings for Congress dropped off a cliff in the last year, from 50 percent in 2009 to 25 percent in the new survey.

Ten of 13 agencies included in the survey had favorable ratings of higher than 50 percent, but only two the IRS and the CIA had improved in the public eye since 1998. The biggest decliners were the Education Department (40 percent favorable in 2010, down from 61 percent in 1998) and the Food and Drug Administration (58 percent favorable, down from 75 percent).

According to the Pew survey, common criticisms of government are that it runs its programs inefficiently, has the wrong priorities, is too big and powerful, and doesn't do enough to help the average American. The Pew report speculated that the recent economic downturn, a partisan backlash against the current administration and discontent with the performance of elected officials have all contributed to the decline in public trust.

McManus said agencies should work harder to highlight their accomplishments because people tend to like the federal government more as they learn more about it. He pointed out that the U.S. Postal Service, which interacts frequently with the public, had the highest favorable rating (83 percent) of any agency included in the survey.

Berry said many talented people are still interested in civil service, despite the uptick in public anger at government. Presidential Management Fellows applications have more than doubled over the last year, he said, from about 4,000 last year to nearly 9,000 in 2010.

Berry said recruiters especially those reaching out to college students should focus on the wide variety of opportunities federal service provides.

"I tell kids, you want to be James Bond? I hire James Bond," Berry said. The federal government "is an amazing place that allows you to do good for people and [has plenty of] options. You want to work outside? We manage 3 million acres outside. America's backyard is the federal government's. It's a very attractive pitch to kids."

Berry also said OPM and the General Services Administration are planning to build an "innovation lab" to test new technologies such as Apple's iPad as soon as they come out and find ways to integrate them into the federal workplace.

"We're going to figure out how to ... get it into the workplace faster, so we can be cooler, and offer the latest gadgets," Berry said. "Because kids want them."

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