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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Perceptions of Public Service

Tom Shoop writes at Government Executive:

Tuesday afternoon, I spoke on the air with Francis Rose of Federal News Radio about the coincidence of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound coming at the beginning of Public Service Recognition Week. He asked about whether it would serve to boost the overall public perception of the civil service. I was a bit noncommittal in my response, and I've been thinking about it ever since. And I have to say that, unfortunately, in my view the short answer is: No.

There are a couple of reasons:

  • Events like this are transitory. The public tends to move on to other news quickly, and if that news is negative, it sticks in people's minds much more than positive events do. So, for the same reason President Obama isn't likely to see long-term movement in his poll numbers because of the operation to take out bin Laden, it's unlikely that people will have a sunnier view of public servants for very long as a result of this event, either. OPM's John Berry may be right that there's a "window of opportunity" to change public perceptions of government based on this week's events, but that window will close very quickly.
  • People tend to view the military and the intelligence apparatus as separate entities from the federal bureaucracy they know and loathe. Respect for the military remains high, and the ultra-cool world of intelligence isn't far behind. So a stunning intelligence success and impressive military operation are unlikely to elevate perceptions of managers of low-income housing programs at HUD.
That second point is particularly unfortunate, because impressive achievements are happening all around us in the world of civilian government. People just tend not to notice initiatives on the domestic side of things, except when they're mishandled.