Steve Ressler is keenly aware of all the stereotypes about government workers: They're overpaid, they're incompetent, they're lazy, they're ineffective. Their benefits are too generous. They don't actually solve problems. They're paper-pushers, clock-punchers, tax mooches. There are too many of them. You know the saying: "Good enough for government work"?
Yes, yes, Ressler gets the idea. (Although he does want to point out that "good enough for government work" was originally meant as a compliment.)
The Washington Post actually field-tested these insults recently ("A Negative Poll for Federal Workers"). The paper found that a majority of people think federal workers are overpaid and don't work as hard as the private-sector counterparts. Mulling these poll results, Ressler Googled upon the ultimate affront: There's even a national Government Sucks Day.
A third-generation public servant, he is quite certain its organizers have his colleagues pegged all wrong. And while anti-government sentiment seems to be at its apex these days — catching in its sights institutions and individuals alike — he decided to plan a counter event, timed this weekend to riff off of Jon Stewart's mock-serious Washington "Rally to Restore Sanity."
Ressler is calling his event — to borrow the lofty language of his accusers — the "Government Doesn't Suck" march.
Planned signs include:
"Government is awesome."
"I'm not red tape."
"Chicks dig govies."
"What if Gov. was one of us?"
"We believe government is more than not sucking, it's actually awesome, but people have such low expectations," Ressler said. "If the idea is to restore sanity, let's restore sanity in our conversation around government employees. We're not all evil, we're not all lazy."
In 2008, while he was working for the Department of Homeland Security, Ressler founded a kind of Facebook for feds, a networking site where government workers meet up to do exactly what a majority of survey respondents suspect they don't do — share best practices and innovations for more effective government. GovLoop, which now has more than 36,000 members from federal, state and local governments, also serves as a source of affirmation (available swag: "Gov't Rock Star" T-shirts) Ressler, who perhaps a tad ironically has left government and now runs the network full time, is using it to help spearhead the Saturday march.
"You can imagine, if you work in public service, you're giving your heart to something you believe in," he said, "and to have people bash you every day, it's not fun."
Many critics may not even realize they're bashing these people. But when politicians preach about slashing "wasteful government," they're implicating millions of government workers in the waste. And when angry activists shout about "taking back our government," it is in fact from an army of apolitical fellow citizens, not a monolith of party power, that they would take it.
(Vexed by these recent slogans, the largest union of federal employees is even airing ads in some heated congressional races this fall: "Food and mine inspection — gone," intones the narrator, should "cut government" solutions come to pass. "Forget about border patrol or keeping terrorists locked up. And returning veterans? Give them a cheap voucher instead of a quality VA hospital.")
Ressler sadly notes that government workers get the smear from both sides. Small-government activists don't like them. But neither, surprisingly, do the do-gooders, most of whom would pick a non-profit or NGO gig over government service.
"People don't think deeply about the issue," Ressler said. "They think of maybe their experience of how they interact with government at the DMV, or with TSA screeners. They don't think of the reason why we have national parks and they're effective, the reason why we have clean water, the reason why there's rules around protecting radon in your house so you don't get hurt."
Government workers, though, may benefit from a phenomenon familiar to many other maligned groups: Anyone who actually knows one of these people is more likely to view the whole lot favorably. So maybe Ressler's "Government is Awesome" sign on Saturday will encourage a few cynics to come up to him and ask why.
"For me, it's not about politics, it's not about whether we should have health care or not, whether we should build up troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Homeland Security is too big or too small," he said. "It's about once we get those issues, let's implement them well as government bureaucrats. If the politicians have decided we're doing health care, I would want the smartest people in the world implementing it to make it the most effective."
Most people, he suspects, would say the same.