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Acclimating to Federal Service

Federal service is a unique career track in many ways. The nature of the work, the demographics, the career opportunities, and much more, are all markedly different from other sectors. You’ve very likely considered these when pondering if federal service is the right for you. One more thing you should consider is an often-overlooked element: the culture.

Because federal service is so different from other career fields, it has its own challenges and opportunities. That, in turn, forms a unique culture in which some generational leaders have thrived, and others have been frustrated. That doesn’t presume you’ll face a similar fate, but it is worth thinking about whether you’ll be able to fit with the culture of federal service, and more importantly, whether the culture fits you.

Perceptions Over Time

Each generation of federal and public servants comes to view their career path differently. Opportunities come and go, policies and priorities change, and budgets shrink and grow. At times, a majority of Americans viewed federal service as a noble profession; other times, it was considered stagnant and frustrating work. Gallup polling results over the last several decades demonstrate these trends; or, look no further for reflections of these attitudes than pop culture political drama and satire over the last 20 years (pop culture knows, right?). These perceptions influence the attitudes towards federal and public servants, and the attitudes of those serving. It’s not uncommon to find a range of varying attitudes from federal servants about their roles, their work, and their career paths. In addition, many federal servants stay within the public service sector for most of their careers, and their attitudes about their job change over time. The end result is a mixed bag of opinions - a true reflection of the gradual changes to the federal workforce and culture over time. Some love it, some hate it, and you’ll likely work with those who hold either view.

Challenges for Early Career Federal Servants

Early career servants are upbeat, ambitious, and exude pride in their work. After all, you’re just getting started, and the sky is the limit. As is the case with many career fields, federal service starts slow, and it’s easy for eager folks to get frustrated. This frustration can be compounded by unique circumstances surrounding federal work.

First, progress can be slow due to leadership turnover. Elected officials, political appointed leaders, and decision makers who direct priorities change out as administrations change out. As a result, an agency’s priorities and efforts can change frequently. This makes it difficult at times to make fast progress, as the work you do one day could be rolled back in the future. As such, many folks are comfortable moving at a pace that will slowly yield progress with the changing political winds. Moreover, the public sector is known for relatively steady job security, and as stated earlier, many people spend a fair amount of time in federal service. Some federal servants do not feel the immediate pressure their private sector counterparts may feel to complete challenging projects quickly, knowing that circumstances may change and that will impact their work.

Second, the structure of the federal workforce likewise changes with leadership changes. Different administrations and elected or appointed officials enter office with their own view of how the government should function, and thus how it should be structured. Positions can be created or eliminated, or simply reorganized. It’s important to recognize the opportunities that emerge from such instances, but also the challenges posed as workers adapt to a new way of doing business.

Finally, and often cited drawback of federal work is bureaucracy. But the truth is that bureaucratic obstacles in federal service are not that much different than other sectors. There may be more involved: federal codes and statutes, legislative requirements, internal procedures, etc. Keep in mind that bureaucracy exists almost everywhere, and bureaucratic obstacles also change as the structure of government changes and new leaders come and go. If federal service speaks to you, don’t let bureaucratic red tape stand in your way.

This Generation’s Leaders

Federal service always needs eager leaders in the making, and the ebb and flow of this career field shouldn’t stop aspiring young professionals from the call to serve. The greatest opportunity in federal and public service is the ability to make lasting change and impacts on significant issues. Like any job, take the bitter with the better: progress may be slow, turnover may disrupt your work, and a seemingly endless list of perceived bureaucratic obstacles can frustrate the best and brightest. But as we said before, you can flourish or be frustrated into resignation. Ultimately, the traits that will help you adapt best to federal service are common for any emerging leader: patience and persistence. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and there are plenty of milestones to achieve along the way. Don’t let the culture of federal service bog you down; you always have the opportunity to change it.

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