The first affliction of the federal workforce: Low expectations

The surest way to nurture mediocrity is to expect mediocrity. That, in a nutshell, is one of the major afflictions of the federal workforce in many offices across the government, according to readers commenting on stories at

The surest way to nurture mediocrity is to expect mediocrity.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the major afflictions of the federal workforce in many offices across the government, according to readers commenting on stories at

The fact is, readers often take to our Web site to voice their frustrations about their working conditions, either in direct response to a story as a side note to a broader comment. Once the first such comment appears, others are sure to follow.

In the last six months alone, we have received hundreds of workforce-related comments, with some articles getting 50 or more. Over time we can’t help but notice a pattern. Sure, there are as many complaints as there are employees. But certain themes appear again and again, not just in one department but across the board.

That is a story worth telling. So in the coming days, we will highlight what appear to be the five most common afflictions of the federal workforce -- beginning today with the problem of low expectations.

But our goal is not simply to give people another opportunity to vent. Instead, we want to move the story forward.

In the case of each “affliction,” we will summarize the comments we have received, with a few telling examples. The real issue, however, is what can be done about it. That’s what we want to hear from you.

In practical terms, what can be done by a given office, agency or the federal government as a whole to address the particular problem? Or what information might help the powers-that-be arrive at a workable solution?

We also will include any suggestions already offered by readers.

So let’s get started by returning to the topic of mediocrity.

The Diagnosis

The problem is not that most federal workers are mediocre. We know that’s not the case. But according to FCW readers, many managers tolerate mediocrity, which clearly hurts the morale of the employees who are interested in doing their best.

A reader named Dave put it most succinctly: “When I was active duty Air Force, my first boss (a civilian) actually told me, ‘You should lower your standards, then you'll be happier here.’ ” Ouch.

It appears that some employees have fallen into a state of learned helplessness. They have been around long enough to know how difficult it is to get things done in a government bureaucracy, so they have simply lowered their expectations -- and their commitment -- accordingly.

This theory is reflected in a response we received to a recent contest in which we asked readers, “How many feds does it take to change a light bulb?” Here is what one reader said:

“One. The sad part is that the employee is supposed to [be] managing, supervising and generally working to the level hired for but is so encumbered by bureaucracy and unable to accomplish these complex tasks, they choose to change the light bulb to get any small satisfaction out of their day.”

And often new policies or processes intended to make things better just add to the burden.

“The biggest problem is the fact that no one effectively manages the processes,” writes Brandon. “Unfortunately, when a change occurs so that we no longer need a particular step in the process, no one removes it. The process simply grows and grows, but no one oversees the whole thing so no one seems to notice (or care). No one sees the forest, just the trees in front of them.”

To make matters worse, the top leadership in every agency changes on a regular basis, usually with every change in administration and often once or twice in between. The upheaval is often exacerbated by mistrust and misunderstanding between political appointees and career civil servants.

The combination of bureaucratic quagmire and shifting political landscape often creates an environment in which hard work and innovation hardly seem worth it -- and indeed might be frowned upon.

The fix?

Okay, we already have one suggestion: lower expectations. But what option is there for people who are serious about the notion of public service -- people who want to solve perplexing problems and make their agencies shine?

As noted earlier, we are not looking simply to reiterate the problem. Instead, we are looking for concrete ideas or perspectives that might help agencies solve the problem. Here are a few issues to consider:

* Is innovation feasible in the federal workplace? For that matter, is it desirable?
* To what extent can individual employees engineer change within the given constraints?
* How can career feds work effectively with political appointees to provide a semblance of stability and to maintain momentum on key programs?

What do you think? Leave a comment here or join the discussion forum at our social media partner, Disgover. Disgover is a site designed specifically for federal agencies. Anyone can view the discussion threads, but to comment you will need to register.

As a final point of consideration, I offer this recent comment from RayW:

“Anytime you have an organization whose bosses are appointed, elected by the masses, and otherwise not accountable, you will have major issues. Now in my group, we took the time and created a process team that consists of all of our workers, excluding the 'management'. We make changes to the way we do things to give the customer, the slob flying the fighter, the best product he can get to help him survive his mission. Yes, some of the things we do are not quite the official congressionally/chief of staff mandated way, but it does a better job of getting the work done, correctly and faster. The trade off we mainstream federal workers have is that for the right to not be laid off randomly, we put up with idiots who have no clue what to do passing rules to make themselves look like they are doing something or to benefit a bribe payer. But we can change that by tailoring our process to work around some of the idiotic decrees from the D.C. cesspool, resulting in a better work place with a better product.”