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Tips For Entry Level Public Servants

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
July 28, 2015

Public sector organizations are under pressure like never before. Many agencies are overwhelmed and are not fully meeting their objectives. Your agency needs you to be as productive as possible.

If you read a news article about a government agency, usually failure to perform sufficient work is at the heart of the problem — failure to stop illegal immigration, failure to prevent computer security lapses, failure to process benefit claims in a timely manner, or failure to set up an adequate health care website. A vertical view of your job may be helpful to gain perspective.

What legislation applies to your job? Are there agency regulations with the force of law? What about agency manuals, training guides, websites, pamphlets or other internal or external documents? What about the computer systems that support the agency’s mission? Are there user guides or other documentation for the systems that affect your job? In your search for answers, you may find existing documents are out-of-date or incomplete due to workload pressures on your agency.

Part of your challenge is to figure out which documents are reliable. Legislation is never out-of-date. Your agency is accountable for correctly implementing individual sentences in legislation – not just achieving broad objectives. 

Writing may be central to your government job. For smaller writing assignments, your agency may expect you to do the necessary research, writing and editing before it is released. Bear in mind the approval process for many documents can be very frustrating. Rewrites are common. Don’t be disappointed if your document is returned. If you are reviewing someone else’s document, it never hurts to say, “I don’t understand this passage.” Clear writing is difficult to achieve.

Your oral skills are critical to success. Learn to express your ideas clearly and succinctly. You must participate in meetings, virtual or in person, effectively — as either the leader or participant. You will no doubt have impromptu meetings, presentations, demonstrations or even speeches. Always be respectful of others. Avoid personal attacks, platitudes or griping. Meetings should accomplish something. They are concerned with efficiency, not your free speech rights.

Your computer skills are essential. You may need to navigate a number of agency computer systems. Just gaining access with the necessary permissions may be a challenge. As a business user, you may be asked to assist with the software development process including writing business requirements and testing new code. You may need to study specific data elements in agency databases if you are asked to work with data requests. You certainly will be expected to be competent in standard desktop products such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. In today’s environment, you should pay extremely close attention to your agency’s computer security procedures. You don’t want to be in trouble with the IT security staff!

Quick retrieval of information will be essential for success. You need to think carefully about how you organize your personal files, emails and website favorites. You need to constantly be learning about your agency’s information sources.

the jobThe relationships you develop with coworkers are extremely important too. A quick phone call to the right person can save hours of individual research.

Be careful about making glib comments or suggestions. Platitudes like, “it’s political” do not help get work accomplished. Sometimes policies don’t make sense to someone outside the organization. It is OK to question a policy, but you need to understand which policies can be changed by the organization and which require legislative action. If a policy seems problematic, it is OK to ask, “Are we correctly interpreting this law or regulation?  Is there an alternate interpretation that might be acceptable to agency lawyers and managers?”

Comments like, “computer system X is antiquated” are not helpful. Management knows that system X is antiquated. It costs money to replace a computer system and funding may not be available to replace system X.

If you are a manager, be sure you understand what you can and cannot do. Civil service rules are very complex. I found practicing leadership in a lab setting was more effective than studying leadership theories in textbooks. I found that former military officers had practical leadership skills that exceeded anything I learned in the MPA program.

Be sure to address any personal issues that could affect your performance like addictions, depression, attention deficit, abrasive personality or excessive shyness. Be sure you are continually adding to your knowledge and skills.

Study your agency’s ethical rules carefully. Be as accurate as possible in communicating your findings even if your information is negative. Try to resist “spin.” If you encounter misconduct, refer the matter to the inspector general or appropriate channel.

Remember, your agency and its programs were created by the legislature. What you are doing is important. The public is counting on you to deliver the services required by law.

Best wishes for success!

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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