A civil servant's effort to humanize government, one fed at a time

Brian Whittaker, the creator of Humans of Public Service

Brian Whittaker, the creator of Humans of Public Service Photo courtesy Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

An effort to tell the stories of government workers has the goal of letting the American people know that public servants actually care.

In the midst of growing distrust and, at times, vitriol against government employees, one federal employee is working to tell the stories of individual public sector workers.

Brian Whittaker launched the project, called Humans of Public Service, or HOPS, in May. 

Currently, the project lives on social media platforms. It has over 1,400 followers on Linkedin. The project is modeled on the popular Humans of New York photography and interview series launched in 2010.

Whittaker, who is the acting chief innovation officer at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and a member of the Federal Innovation Council at the Partnership for Public Service, solicits nominations for public employees working for governments on the state, local and federal level on the HOPS website. He follows up with those nominated for more information and pictures before eventually posting a profile written by his wife and fellow civil servant, Meghan Whittaker, with a photo. The project is a labor of love, and not part of his professional duties.

He's motivated by this question – "how do I let the American public know that there are people in public service that actually care?"

The feeling that he needed to do something came after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, although at that point, he wasn't sure what to do.

"One of the big things that sort of hit me was just the shock of other people's shock," said Whittaker, who is Afro-Latino. "I feel like the majority were opening up their eyes to the minority experience."

Then, in 2021, he saw a blog post from the Partnership for Public Service showing disparities in the representation of people of color in government leadership positions. People of color make up just under 23% of the government's managerial cadre, called the Senior Executive Service, but they represent about 38% of the full time federal workforce and about 40% of the U.S. population, according to the report.

Whittaker knew that he couldn't singlehandedly solve these problems, but he could "highlight people of color within government that are doing great work that often aren't seen," he said.

That appetite for action grew into HOPS.

The project is meant to be both celebratory and educational, telling stories about public servants and what they do in the hope that it humanizes them, increases trust in government and potentially even inspires people to join the ranks of public service.

Another core motive is celebrating diversity. Whittaker says that he's been intentional about trying to showcase employees from all the levels of government, parts of the United States and demographics. Long-term, Whittaker says that he wants to use HOPS to be an active driver for government leadership ranks to reflect the diversity seen on the HOPS page. 

The goal is to eventually take HOPS off-screen with the help of more volunteers, partnerships with other non-profits and sponsorships. That could look like an in-person celebration of public servants, mentorship opportunities and online resources. Whittaker is currently working to get HOPS certified as a 501(c)3.

The effort comes as trust in government employees has been decreasing over time.

The share of American adults who say that they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in career employees at federal agencies to act in the best interest of the public has gone down by 9 points since 2018 to 52%, according to a Pew Research Center survey done in spring 2022.

It also follows years of rhetoric from former President Donald Trump about an alleged "deep state" of bureaucrats secretly controlling government policy and thwarting his agenda, as well as continuing plans to drastically reshape the civil service by removing protections from swaths of government workforce that are meant to insulate government civil servants from political whims. 

Marlena Medford, communications director at nonprofit Code for America and former local government employee, has been volunteering to help with HOPS social media. She says she wants to help tell governments' good stories.

"There's such a need for this. This is such a missed opportunity, and it feels just incredibly timely now," she said. "Somewhere along the way, government became this nebulous entity, when in reality it's us. These are our neighbors, our relatives, our friends… not some far off entity that exists outside of us."

Stories matter because they fuel public perceptions of and trust in government, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, told FCW. He said the government has a twin mandate both to make improvements in how it operates – to be more trustworthy – and better communicate its successes – to be more trusted.

"This is fundamental to our democracy," he said. "If the public loses trust in its own government, then it loses faith in the ability to solve problems collectively, and that's a huge, huge problem for us as a country."

Amber Chaudhry, a customer experience lead at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was featured on the page about a month ago. 

Although Chaudhry was initially wary of drawing attention by participating, she appreciated having other South Asian people reach out to say that her experiences resonated with them, she told FCW.

The post, which got over 1,200 reactions on Linkedin, details her experience as a Pakistani American and Muslim who decided that she wanted to go into public service after 9/11, when she was in seventh grade. 

The "wave of patriotism" that she and other Americans felt, as well as the prejudice she and other Muslim Americans and Americans of Arab and South Asian descent faced in the wake of the attack, pushed her to want to work for the government, she said.

"Just because I am Pakistani American doesn't make me any less American," said Chaudhry of why she wanted to be a government employee. "I definitely wanted to be a model for my community, but also help people realize that I wasn't this weird stereotype. I think sometimes … people need to meet a regular Pakistani woman to really understand, 'Oh. She's just like everybody else.'"