Why Aren't Civil Servants More Vocal? The Case For Clarifying "Personal Use"

Kindergarten - Dental Care

As we all know by now, when it comes to the government not doing its job, the public has just about had enough. According to data released by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press on October 18, 2013:

"The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government, which equaled an all-time high in late September (26%), has ticked up to 30%. Another 55% say they are frustrated with the government. Just 12% say they are basically content with the federal government."

At the same time, the public distinguishes between the federal government as an institution and the federal workers who populate it. In fact, views of federal workers are more than twice as likely to be positive as negative. According to Pew:

"Federal workers, hundreds of thousands of whom were furloughed during the shutdown, also are viewed positively: By about two-to-one (62% to 29%), more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of federal government workers."

No doubt the shutdown had an impact on these numbers, and one can take into account that sympathy boosted the favorability rating of feds.

But there is other data suggesting a difference in perception between federal employees and the structure that surrounds them.

* In 2011 the media watchdog Poynter.org published a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services decrying its "Soviet-Style Power Grab," in effect censorship, following the implementation of a new policy requiring employees to go through Public Affairs before speaking to the media.

* In 2013, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms received negative media coverage for its attempt to block whistleblower agent John Dodson from publishing his account of the Fast & Furious scandal on the grounds that it would hurt "morale." A complaint was successfully filed and Dodson was allowed to publish the book providing the agency had an opportunity to make redactions and also with the specification that he not make financial profit from it.

From where I sit as a federal employee, both of the examples above have some logic to them. Obviously "morale" is not a reason to censor a book, but:

* Ethically, federal employees are not allowed to double-dip, earning money from the work they did specifically for the government.

* As a law enforcement agency the ATF has to redact information that might be law enforcement sensitive.

* More broadly, any organization - public or private - is obligated to ensure that what its employees say is backed by its "full faith and credit." It is critically important, especially where data is concerned, that the audience understand whether someone's words represent the government's official position or simply their opinion. (In today's 24/7/365 news cycle, stopping to check is especially important to prevent the release of inaccurate information.)

All that said, there remains the problem of distrust in government. And in my opinion, the reason why people don't trust us, is more often than not because we don't say anything for fear of creating problems.

The answer is not to force agencies to pry open their lids to the point where employees can run rampant, and say whatever they want as "authorized speakers" for the agency, without any review or consultation. That would be irresponsible as well as logistically impossible.

What is doable is the clarification of guidance on what employees can say and do on their personal time, and in their personal capacity. At this point I think it is safe to say that most people just don't know what is and isn't OK. Even if the concern only belongs to 15% of the workforce, that small segment could provide a huge amount of information and insight that is perfectly fine to share.

Inside the government, a common question regarding Freedom of Information Act requests is, "Are you sure we can release that? It's embarrassing."

And the answer is always, "Yes, of course we have to release it - embarrassment is not a grounds for withholding information."

Among the government workforce, the corresponding question is, "Are you sure we can tell other people what we do, especially on a blog? I might be breaking some rule somewhere...or my supervisor might find out and get me in trouble."

The resulting radio silence is harmful, both to the public and to the federal government itself. A more open dialogue between employees and the public would provide a desperately needed window into the workings of its various agencies. Promote public trust in government. And likely even help us to work more effectively and efficiently.

Remember when they said "social media will ruin everything?" Look how much good it has done for the world - in effect crowdsourcing logic.

Clarifying the guidance for federal employees with respect to free speech on personal time and personal equipment would do much the same thing.

* All opinions my own.