Look in the mirror

Thomas R. Temin

Public servants often suffer from the public's poor perception of them. But you know that already. So here's a question: Would the view that the public and politicians have of career federal managers improve if feds had a better view of themselves?

That might be a leap, but I recently encountered data that makes me think the federal work force needs to improve its own crummy view of itself.

The first information came from Paul C. Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. Speaking at a Federation of Government Information Processing Councils conference in New Orleans this month, Light reported on a random survey of feds.

'It is truly a troubling and dispiriting portrait that I paint here of public service,' he said. Among the findings was that most civilian agency workers don't feel they have the respect or confidence of the leadership or the public they serve.

Also at the FGIPC conference, Peter G.W. Keen, a senior fellow at Group Decision Support Systems Inc. of Washington and an expert in the vicissitudes of IT projects, told the gathered feds: 'Your e-gov challenge is changing the language around the expectation of failure. Every discussion of IT projects starts with discussion of failure.'

The government itself is in flux these days. For example, the Office of Management and Budget's e-government initiatives are moving toward their initial deployment stages. This will test the technical, managerial and political strategies used to nurture them.

More broadly, distressing revelations about FBI and CIA intelligence failures'mostly legal and political but with a dollop of IT'have brought the general competence of the bureaucracy freshly into question.

But Keen, an aptly named observer, also said that where IT is concerned, he believes the government is better than commonly thought and industry worse.

The federal managers I encounter in my work seem to maintain a balance of confidence and skepticism. Some hanker to get out, but most like their work.

E-government comes in fits and starts, and you need to look over a period of years to see progress. Perhaps if feds keep their collective chin up, the rest of the world will, too.

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