The Washington Post

Fallout from recent controversies hurts federal workers


Uncle Sam’s reputation has taken a beating lately, and it’s his staff that will feel the pain.

The recent spate of controversies — revelations about the massive collection of electronic data by the National Security Agency, the Internal Revenue Service’s political targeting and conference scandals, and the seizure of Associated Press telephone records — undermines confidence in government.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

That can’t be good for those who make the government work.

The sad thing is these scandals represent only a small part of what government does. But they are high-profile items that can adversely shape public opinion. With budget cuts and furloughs, the job of federal employees is tough enough without the added burden these issues bring.

A Pew Research poll found trust in government near historic lows in January, well before these scandals broke. Almost three-fourths of those surveyed said that they can “trust the government only some of the time or never. Majorities across all partisan and demographic groups express little or no trust in government.”

Gallup released a poll in late May, before the NSA revelations, indicating 54 percent of those surveyed said the federal government has too much power. Meanwhile, confidence in the IRS has taken a big hit.

There’s no way the view of government is going to improve with these developments getting all the ink and airtime.

Here’s one bit of cold comfort: In a poll released Thursday, only 10 percent of those surveyed told Gallup they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress. The federal workforce can’t rate much lower than that.

We asked a variety of federal employees and others how these controversies affect the public’s perception of the workforce and the workers’ morale. Here is some of what they said:

●William A. Brown, president of the African American Federal Executives Association: “The public is left to judge our federal operations based on a limited number of controversial activities. This negatively impacts the thousands of dedicated federal workers who perform to the highest professional standards in the world. . . . If we do not wake up and celebrate and reward our successes, we run the risk of creating a dysfunctional government.”

●William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees: “There’s no doubt that stories like these sow mistrust in government in general, and some of that can spill over to rank-and-file federal workers.

“That said, no one is likely to turn away their postman anytime soon,” Dougan said.

●Speaking of mail carriers, Sally Davidow, spokesperson for the American Postal Workers Union, said: “The recent stories don’t seem to be having a negative effect on postal employees. In fact, our members take pride in protecting the privacy of America’s mail. Postal workers are demoralized by Congress’s continuing failure to take action to protect this vital American institution.”

●Carol A. Bonsaro, president of the Senior Executives Association: “I have little doubt that the public’s perception has already been affected negatively. The public holds a low opinion of Congress and government generally, but now career employees have a big target on their backs.”

●Dan G. Blair, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration: “In order to regain the public’s trust and encourage our best and brightest to engage in public service, [everyone from] agency heads to line employees must be held accountable.

“That includes more leadership attention to managing operations and ensuring prompt and fair action against those whose actions poison the well of public trust.”

●Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association: “At the end of the day, Americans’ perceptions of our federal workforce should be shaped by the services federal workers provide for us all — keeping our food safe, maintaining our communications networks, protecting our national parks and so much more.

“The millions of daily federal employee accomplishments should not — and ultimately will not — be tarnished by the news cycle.”

●Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service: “I am very worried about the health of our workforce. This is a moment which requires courageous leadership from President Obama and Congress. The public is being given real reason for disappointment with our government, but we will get worse, not better, outcomes if the leadership response is to continue to penalize the entire workforce for the mistakes of a few.

“We need forthright and targeted handling of the mistakes and improved leadership attention to the needs of the workforce,” he said.

(The Washington Post has a content-sharing relationship with the Partnership for Public Service.)

Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement of Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group, contributed to this report. Previous Federal Diary columns are available at



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