The worst bosses I ever had taught me the most important lessons I ever learned about work. For example, they tended to be Myers-Briggs type ISTJ, which is atrocious for me as an off-the-charts "P" ENFP. Like there is zero, zero chance the zigzagging I do is going to make sense to them, and worse yet, it literally triggers their OCD to be in the room with me.
The best bosses I ever had taught me the most important lessons I ever learned about work, too. For example, I learned that other people can see you extraordinarily accurately, no matter what kind of bullshit facade you put on, and so when your boss likes you and gives you feedback, it's best to take that lesson to heart.
It is no secret that the vast majority of Washingtonians dislike our current President. Maybe there's some secret poll going about and the proportion is less than awful, you know, perhaps it's 75-25 instead of 98-2. But here's a quick newsflash, in case this fact isn't clear: By default in every administration, some federal employees will be "yuge"proponents of the winning candidate, and others will truly dislike them. They may even think the President is the worst thing ever to happen to the country, does not deserve to be in office, etc. etc. etc.
But you do not have to like the President to serve well, to make your agency more functional, and to deliver great service to the American public. Granted, when President Obama took office in 2009, it was a very happy moment for me as a citizen, at the time. But even when my feelings changed -- and over time they did change sharply -- I was still able to serve, and serve well. Because whatever program I was working on, it had nothing to do with the President and everything to do with the citizen. The more effectively and efficiently I contributed, and helped others to contribute, the better we were serving the taxpayer, who unfortunately tends to get forgotten in all the fighting that goes down.
And there is a lot of fighting, though this does not mean all of D.C. is "the swamp." Many conflicts here really are about ideological differences, beliefs that are fervently held, not because of the money but because of very strongly held beliefs about right and wrong. Others, quite frankly, are about personality differences. Still others have to do with money, status, and power. Many are a mixture of all of these.
But most people aren't having these power struggles. Quite honestly, they're just getting by, maybe trying to learn something along the way, maybe trying to contribute what they can. Their health is not great, and they can't take the stress; they simply want to take care of themselves and their kids; they want to hang out with their friends and live normally, in an ever-more-insanely unstable world.
All civil servants, at least, can serve a President they don't like. But there are some things we have to get out of the way first.
Most obviously, if someone is truly convinced that doing their job "the President's way" is a violation of their personal beliefs and principles, and they can't find anything redeeming about the new Administration, then I would argue it's incumbent upon them to find another place to work besides the government. To me, there is a seditious quality to the civil servant who decides to remain in the employ of the Federal government overtly, while covertly waving the flag of "resistance" and doing whatever they can to thwart the Administration.
The other thing to consider is whether you can work in a fast-moving, unpredictable environment in which there is chronic understaffing but a much higher bar for performance. When I joined the federal government back in 2003, the civil service was a much quieter place, the pace was slower, and my frantic New York energy and talk of "results" and "the taxpayer" really did not go over. We did what we did the way we did it, and I was last in seniority and should understand that as such my words meant little. When I tried to make improvements, I quickly learned that anything outside the box was suspicious, that we certainly did not confront people "to make them feel bad," and that a hyper-focus on technical communication was preferable to a "big picture" simplified approach.
I was totally a fish out of water, and with each Administration the situation shifted slightly. In the Obama years, the emphasis was on centralized branding, and the sophistication level of the communication was much, much higher than anything I'd seen in the past. What that meant, for me, as a civil service communicator, was frustration as I felt left out of key decisions that were made. I could support the mission, but only to some extent, because the most important conversations about what we were doing were not being held in my orbit.
So I focused on improving the process of communication. I focused on working across federal agencies to import social media to a bureaucracy that knew nothing about it. Even as I was extremely troubled by the things the Administration was doing, by the discrepancy between word and deed, I focused on highlighting the most positive aspects of the mission that I could. And for me, that was truly satisfying.
But the pace remained fairly slow and steady, and even if I did not know what was happening behind the scenes, there was a sense of order to the world that has fundamentally shifted as of today. The civil service now is rapidly moving toward a private-sector mindset, the emphasis is on accountability and oversight and making much more with less, and the expectation is that results will be delivered without delay or apology. Even if you do not like President Trump, and you do not agree with his policies or understand his approach to things, you can function well in this brave new world if you continue to focus on the taxpayer.
What can you do to explain what's going on, respond to their questions, make it easier to access the information and services they are entitled to, and decipher the byzantine ways of Washington, D.C.?
What can you do to make it easier to work with your agency?
What can you do to increase your agency's accountability, its adherence to process, its reputation for genuinely adhering to the promises its mission stands for?
Who can you partner with in other agencies in order to do a better job? Where are the free resources for leadership training? Who are the experts in subjects you need to know about? How can you access technology support without having to use a vendor? What kind of social media campaigns can you build without any charge to your agency, to educate the public about the benefits your agency brings nationwide and to local communities?
What can you do to make your agency's data available in such a way that private citizens can access, reuse and remix it, helping the media to provide accurate information; researchers to generate scholarships; and private businesses to develop products they in turn sell to customers for revenue?
How can you work to rebrand programs that were a "signature" program of a prior Administration, and which are therefore overlooked or minimized today? Can you perhaps reach out and educate the powers that be about the importance of what you are doing, and the opportunity for them to leverage your work as a pillar of their own success?
Seriously, let's be a little entrepreneurial here! Times change!
Even if you do not like the current Administration, times do change. Who knows, you may serve a President you like better at some point down the road -- or you may find the next one is someone you "love to hate" even more. The point is, the civil service isn't about your like of a person. It's not about your politics, whether you prefer to paint things red or blue or any shade in between.
The purpose of the civil service is the effective, disinterested oversight and management of the bureaucracies that deliver service to the taxpayer. No matter how Feds are portrayed online -- as heroes or zeroes, selfless or stupid, fat cats or lazy Garfields who sit around and "do nothing" all day -- if you are working here, you have an opportunity to make things better.
And if you get good at serving a President you don't like today, just imagine the great things you can do when you're laboring for a President you personally respect as a private citizen.
Just as an FYI -- as always, I write on my own time and in my own personal capacity, NOT as a representative of the government -- you may want to know that the U.S. Digital Service recruits technologists on an ongoing basis. For more information, click here.
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Photo credit: klimkin/Pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons)