John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: email@example.com
Anger at government and its employees is in the news, amped up in part by a bad economy and fueled by broad dissatisfaction with politicians.
A recent Pew survey found, and we quote: "a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government - a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."
President Obama recently addressed the concern with the audience of the National Prayer Breakfast. "There is a sense that something is different now, that something is broken, that those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should," Obama said in his remarks. "At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another, to have at once a serious and civil debate."
The question for public innovators is whether the discontent will fuel change--or merely further a sense of disconnect between government and the people it serves.
President Obama returned to the issue in May during his University of Michigan graduation remarks. While again acknowledging the problems, he expressed concerns about the nature of the tenor of the anti-government rhetoric. "What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad," Obama said after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree. "When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us."
The ultimate end game may be playing out in popular culture, not just from the president's bully pulpit. Saturday Night Live, hardly a bastion of right-wing thinking, has chimed in with its satirical "2010 Public Employee of the Year Awards," in which lazy and inept stereotypes of bureaucratic dolts compete for the dishonor.
As the unctuous emcee caustically notes: "It's important to remember that people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere... except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or co-payments."
For those engaged in the hard work of streamlining government, the energy must be focused on delivering more with less. No doubt things need to change. But getting caught up with the furor won't he deliver results.