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Part 4: Morale Of Federal Workers Fluctuates As Cuts Loom

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A view of the U.S. Capitol dome from inside the building as the sun sets.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
A view of the U.S. Capitol dome from inside the building as the sun sets.

Those looking for signs that the talk about shrinking government is getting federal employees down won't find it at the Next Generation of Government training summit — an event aimed at bringing together Generation X and Y government professionals.

Diverse 20- and 30-somethings mix and mingle, laugh and share stories in between conference sessions, and you’d never know they stand to be directly affected by pending budget cuts.

With Congress under pressure to reduce spending, compensation for government workers is often on the chopping block, as are the resources dedicated to each agency. But not every federal employee sees the debate about spending as a bad thing.

In fact, the possibility of a smaller federal government isn't changing how these young federal workers feel about their jobs, says Dave Uejio, a 30-something president of Young Government Leaders, one of the groups sponsoring the “NextGen” conference.

It's partly because the new generation of federal workers doesn't necessarily see government work as a lifetime commitment in the same way as previous generations did, adds Uejio, who works at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"I think for our members, it may slow their lateral movement, but they're really not worried about it because they’re not looking at this as a 20-year career," he says.

LISTEN: Ruth Schulte, a federal research scientist

Take NextGen attendee Melissa Fiffer, who's a prestigious Presidential Management Fellow working at the Environmental Protection Agency. All the talk about downsizing the federal government isn't good or bad, she says, rather, it's simply a challenge she has to be ready to tackle.

"To me, it basically comes down to, you know at EPA you have a lot of really motivated people really passionate about the mission, and what it really comes down to is doing more with less," she says.

Frustration builds among the ranks of fed employees

But for others, the current political atmosphere can be disconcerting. Ruth Schulte is a research scientist for a federal agency — she asked us not to reveal which one because she wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of her department — who’s frustrated by calls to shrink the government when very few people will say which government services they can live without.

"It’s complicated and people want their silver bullet: 'Oh, smaller government, I’m not going to have to pay as much,' or they just want the simple version," Schulte says. "And it's not simple; it’s multifaceted."

Federal employees such as Schulte can often get frustrated when budgets are reduced but expectations for services are not, says John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes effective government. He points to a survey his organization conducted last year. Employees at the National Park Service expressed relatively low levels of job satisfaction after budget cuts and funding reductions.

LISTEN: Michael Crow, a federal contractor

"And we actually took a look at that, because how could you not love working in a National Park?" he says. "And the fact of the matter is they love their jobs — what bothers them is that they cannot maintain those national parks at the level that they want for the public."

Michael Crow finds himself smack in the middle of debate about what government can or should do. He comes from a family of public servants; his father spent 24 years in the Army and retired as a non-commissioned officer.

"I think a lot of the rhetoric makes it seem as if government is bad or is doing a poor job," he says. "I take a fair bit of that personally."

Change, and efficiency, begins on the inside

But Crow is conflicted. He runs a consulting business that specializes in helping government agencies become more effective by streamlining operations and controlling costs.

"And for many years we hit brick walls with that message, for a variety of reasons," he says. "But I think now that there's so much pressure on the budget, there are a lot of people who simply didn’t listen as much before to the message who seem to be paying more attention."

There are also those who have long been working on cost-cutting from within the bureaucracy. Joel Ridenour, a travel policy analyst for the Department of Defense, has gotten used to hearing his bosses remain silent in response to some of his politically unpopular suggestions, he says.

LISTEN: Joel Ridenour, Dept. of Defense Travel Policy Analyst

For example, he believes DOD could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by simply tweaking the way it reimburses employees for overseas travel. Because his ideas could take money from the pockets of those serving in the military, the idea is politically unpalatable, Ridenour says.

But he has started to see some of his suggestions break through lately.

Implications for the workforce down the road

"There was a recent memo from OMB [the Office of Management and Budget], dictating ways of cutting waste, and some of my ideas were in there," Ridenour says. "I got all excited."

As those in government circles wrestle with the hard questions about where to cut, Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop — a social networking site for government employees — worries about what all of this means for the federal workforce over the long haul. When it comes to employee recruitment and retention, he wants to make sure the best and the brightest in the federal workforce stay on the job.

"You know, folks that are really passionate about trying to make big change in government and sometimes they get burned out," he says. "They're working so hard to make change and they’re getting beat up inside and out, and finally they kind of give up their passion."

Right, now, a sluggish economy means government jobs are still held at a premium, Ressler says, so plenty of people are lining up for them.

"In pure numbers, I think sometimes you're still fine,  you’ll still get a number of folks applying for a job," he says. "But are you really getting the best, the brightest, the most talented the most innovative, or are those the folks that are leaving?"

The answer to that question, he says, may depend on whether the public perception of the federal workforce takes a more positive turn.

[Music: "Heat" by Brian Eno from Heat Soundtrack]


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