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Seven Fundamental Tips for Starting a New Government Job

Image via Crystal Eye Studio/Shutterstock

You did it. After months of scouring USAJOBS, you’ve landed the opportunity to serve your country working for the federal government. Kudos, hats off, congrats, etc. Are you ready to work?

Few new jobs are harder than a new government job—whether you’re fresh out of school or a new political appointee. You worked hard and waited long for this opportunity—and now you have to learn the basics.

A friend recently started a new job with a federal agency and came to me with a range of concerns from “I’m in over my head” to “I don’t understand what anyone is saying.” Her concerns prompted me to reflect on my own experience starting out as a contractor at the US Treasury Department and how I worked to learn the ropes. The following are seven fundamental tips for starting your new government job off right:

The Fundamentals

1.   What law or presidential order gives your office the authority to exist? Find this out ASAP. Ask your supervisor or human capital officer where this can be found and read it—twice. You’ll likely hear reference to it again and again. Also, it’s essential you understand the originating purpose of your office and why tax dollars go to support your mission. Knowing why you exist is step one in being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.

2.   Read, read…and then read some more. Get your hands on as many reports, manuals, flow charts and budgets as you can. Compile it all in one neat stack (I like to put things in a three ring binder) and then start doing your homework.

3.   As you read, create your own glossary. Welcome to the US Government! Where in your first staff meeting you’ll understand 10 percent of what’s said (if you’re a savant). In government, they only serve alphabet soup. As you read, write down acronyms in your own glossary of terms. Study it like they’re your flash cards from high school Spanish—the learning curve is about the same.

4.   Ask questions, embrace the awkward. Don’t let people talk above you. When you hear a term you don’t understand, ask that it be repeated or spelled out. Acknowledge what you don’t know—and don’t feel bad for not knowing. After all, nobody was born knowing “gov speak” (theoretically, even the oldest bureaucrat was once new too).

5.   Set up informational interviews. Get to know your team, and your job, by doing informational interviews. Set up time with your boss and your boss’s boss for a learning interview. Ask questions, seek advice and learn the perspectives of those you work with—you’ll gain insight on avoiding bureaucratic pitfalls, understand expectations and pinpoint where the office most needs your time and talents. When you're just beginning, you're equal parts learner and doer. Always make time for learning.

6.   Get your plastic—HSPD-12. When someone refers to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12), they’re usually referring to your government ID (not the actual order mandating you have it). Your government ID gives you access to your facility, your computer and a range of other benefits that make your day-to-day life easier. It can take time to get (sometimes a lot of time—I know someone who waited a year). Once you’ve submitted your form to get your card, don’t let up. Keep checking in on its progress. If you’re a contractor, get your COTR involved. There can be high demand for new IDs, push hard for yours.

7.   Find a mentor. Mentoring is important in any job, public or private. In government, where navigating the system often determines success, a mentor is invaluable. Your mentor, ideally, is not your boss. It’s someone who you can talk to about a range of issues—including those with your boss. See if your agency has a formal mentoring program or ask someone in your office you grow to trust if they’d be interested in taking on a mentee. Mentors provide career advice, feedback and help learning the bureaucracy. A good mentor can make all the difference.

Have I missed anything? What tips do you have for new federal employees?

Next time: tips for navigating the technology of your new government job

(Image via Crystal Eye Studio/

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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