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Government Closure Could Help Its Brand

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I’m not a big fan of bloated government. Lord knows I pay too much in taxes (as a self-employed person–nearly twice what you company folks pay for social security and medicare taxes!).  But I also know plenty of hard-working federal employees whose jobs make our lives and communities better and stronger every day.  If they’re gone for a few weeks we might learn to like them a little more.  And maybe the US Government brand will get a nudge in the positive direction.

For example:

3 million visitors are expected to descend on the nation’s many free Smithsonian Museums during Spring Break next week. Hundreds of these museum employees preserve our national heritage. They maintain specimens and artworks, provide educational opportunities for our school children, and welcome visitors from around the world.

The US Department of Agriculture, USDA, is our largest federal agency outside the Pentagon, and works on everything from school nutrition to soil conservation. At the Agricultural Research Service, part of the USDA, librarians maintain the National National Agricultural Library (NAL) that serves as our nation’s resource on everything from food safety to rural development projects.

At the Department of Commerce,  staff are busy promoting U.S. business interests around the world, but also here at home. They recently launched an initiative to promote businesses in the southwest, along the US-Mexico border. They also have their eye on future leaders, and with a host of volunteers who help them run the Presidential Classroom program for top students to study issues like the current financial crisis, hunger and poverty, and human rights.

Meanwhile, at the Centers for Disease Control, I have friends who are scientists at its National Institutes of Health where they are unlocking cures for cancer, lupus and Parkinson’s, among many many others.  The CDC is also tasked with protecting our public health through immunization programs, emergency response preparedness, and initiatives on fighting obesity in children–which is costing us plenty with rising rates of heart disease and diabetes in kids.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is in almost every state working on projects related to emergency management, flood risk management, the environment, hydropower, and water supply.

And these are just a few. I know, everyone loves to trash talk The Government (as if it were a monolithic entity that lolls about on the couch watching TV all day).  But if it shuts down, I’m hoping some of my fellow citizens and I will learn more about what many of my neighbors here in Washington (and across the country) do for the nation on a daily basis.

Government Brand Rant

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The Tea Party has been slinging arrows at “the government,” a seemingly monolithic entity they accuse of being ineffective at best and downright evil at worst. For those of us who live in the Washington, D.C. region, and know real live people who labor each day in all three branches, it’s hard to muster this outrage and vision of incompetence and ill intent. We know people toiling to preserve our civil rights at the Justice Department.  And those working to preserve the quality of our farming soil at the Department of Agriculture. We know people researching case law at the Supreme Court and getting food and battle supplies to our soldiers overseas at the Defense Logistics Agency. And don’t forget those working round the clock to save the Gulf Coast from annihilation at The White House and a range of federal and local environmental agencies.

So why the poor brand for “the government”?

Partly responsible is a lack of civic education in our schools.  Do our children have much of a handle on how our three branches of government work? (Do their parents?!) Do they know what citizen activism really means or looks like, other than complaining? Or have we focused them so much on math and science scores that civics gets left behind?

Recent crises have offered a “teachable moment” for us all with a first-hand look at how government, while never perfect, serves to promote the common good. The Coast Guard rushed in to help when private industry–BP and its subcontractors–were not able to manage the oil spill situation.  Federal and local law enforcement worked together over a 52-hour period to catch a would-be terrorist bomber in New York. Our government even comes to the rescue when other governments fail. Case in point Haiti.

So why is our government brand such a failure?

Likely because it is so wide-ranging in focus and daily actions.  And ironically, because government funds tend to go more towards the doing and less towards the talking points.   Add to that the problem that when it is under-funded in key activities (FDA oversight of over-the-counter medication industry) because more funding goes to other government activities (war, Social Security), when failures occur–i.e. recent Tylenol recall–government is often blamed.  Kind of a no-win situation.

The good news is that government–at federal and local levels–is beginning to harness 21st century tools of communication both to conduct its work and to communicate better about it. The Obama administration has required more transparency in federal agencies, including posting of reports and information on public websites and communicating about initiatives through social media.  Multiple federal agencies are harnessing digital media for training capabilities, decreasing costs and improving reach.

It’s a start. But if government really wants to improve its brand, then it probably needs to dedicate more funding to civic education initiatives  along with a corollary of more pro-active communications efforts from every agency. Which would of course take funding away from real government action.

The end of this brand story is, well, up to us. The “we” in We the People. Here ends the rant!