The key to overhauling the image of government may lie within agencies themselves.
It's not surprising that young workers in the United States would pick Google, Apple and Facebook among places they would most like to work. What may be surprising is that they also rate three federal agencies highly: the State Department, the FBI and the CIA.
But that's what a recent survey showed. Research firm Universum asked 6,700 professionals under age 40 with one to eight years' work experience for their views on the best places to work. The State Department came in fourth (just above Walt Disney), while the FBI took the seventh slot, and the CIA ranked 10th. Other firms in the top 10 included Amazon, Microsoft and Sony.
The federal agencies that made the list tend to have a reputation for world-changing work. And they, along with other government organizations, could be viewed as safe havens in an uncertain economy: "Stability is still very much a concern and people equate government jobs with stability," Universum's Chris Cordery told The Wall Street Journal.
Still, with the country's political class working overtime to tear down government's reputation, these and other survey results are an encouraging sign that some agencies still have strong brands in the public eye. For example, when Universum asked college students their views on where they'd like to work, some federal agencies fared very well.
In the engineering field, for example, NASA came in No. 1, ahead of Google, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Energy Department ranked eighth and the Environmental Protection Agency was 14th. In the natural sciences, federal agencies dominated the top 10 rankings, with the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Peace Corps, EPA, NASA and the FBI all listed in the upper ranks. Even in the information technology field, where private sector companies have long captured the imagination of many young people, five agencies grabbed slots among the top 20 potential employers: NASA, the FBI, National Security Agency, the CIA and the Defense Department.
That's a ray of hope in an era when, as Charlie Clark points out in this month's cover story, the overall brand of government has been severely tarnished in the public eye. The percentage of people who say they have confidence in the federal government has dropped below 30 percent after rebounding briefly following the 9/11 attacks. According to the Pew Research Center, only 11 percent of Americans say they're "basically content" with their government.
When you compare these results to the surveys of agencies as potential employers, it seems clear-and not at all shocking-that the dissatisfaction stems largely from the political process. To the extent federal agencies have a perception problem, it's due mostly to guilt by association. When Americans look at Congress and the White House, they see dysfunction playing out on a grand scale. The problem is, the dysfunction also extends to a "blame the bureaucracy" mentality among the political class that has been in place for decades.
To counter that image, federal labor unions, good government groups and other organizations are working overtime on brand-building exercises, from awards programs to placards on buses. We'll see how much impact they have. But what government really needs over the long haul is a fresh group of committed, dedicated employees who can tell their friends and families about the exciting, challenging work they get to do at mission-driven federal agencies. And all that requires, in turn, is agencies that provide such opportunities.
That may not be easy, but at least it's an area in which agency leaders can exercise some degree of control.