Government job: “for the first six months, I thought that I had to work”

I asked a friend who’d worked in private industry for more than 10 years how her new federal government job was going. “It’s great,” she said. “I’m non-essential, so I’m looking forward to being furloughed in a couple of weeks and having some time off.” Was the job so demanding? “For the six months, I thought that I had to work. Every time a senior person suggested something, I would scurry back to my office and write up a proposal. Then I’d show it to him and he’d say ‘I think we’re going to do something else.’ So now I just smile. I really hardly have to do anything.” How time-consuming is doing hardly anything? “I go in about 9:30 and leave at 4.”

Her salary for doing a couple of hours of real work daily? Nearly $100,000 per year plus fantastic pension and health care benefits.

20 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    February 26, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    1

    It’s unfortunate that the government can’t deal more quickly with people who are unproductive and ineffective. This is an area where the private sector really has an advantage: it’s far easier to get rid of lazy people.

    It’s also true that government salaries haven’t collapsed to the same degree as those in the private sector. Remember, though, that lots of people thought that municipal/state/Federal employees were crazy for not quitting to earn three times as much in the private sector when times were better. Even if government workers are paid more than directly-comparable private-sector counterparts right at this moment in time (not an undisputed fact), this simply isn’t true over the long term.

    You’re a smart and thoughful person, though, and it does you a disservice to latch onto a couple of convenient facts to support a Fox News worldview about government service. The truth is much more nuanced.

    In particular, you’re overlooking the fact that it’s easier for a motivated person to make a big difference in government than just about anywhere else. By way of example: a good friend of mine is a Federal employee (a career civil servant, not a political appointee). Over the last five years or so she’s worked to successfully secure deals worth tens of billions of dollars (and tens of thousands of jobs) for U.S. companies. Our private sector doesn’t like to admit it, but they would have an especially tough time operating effectively in foreign markets if it weren’t for the government-to-government efforts on their behalf. There are certainly private-sector employees who can also claim they’ve helped make such large deals happen, but they’re generally few in number and concentrated at the very top of the hierarchy.

    So, the bottom line is this: there are lazy and unproductive people in many organizations. It’s harder to deal with these people in government. But it’s disingenous to focus on this aspect of government service while ignoring the disproportionate leverage that the (many) good people have when advancing the interests of the citizens they represent.

  2. philg

    February 26, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    2

    Anonymous: I did not mean to suggest that my friend is unproductive or lazy or that she should be fired. In fact, she is bright and hard-working. She is far above average compared to the hundreds of government workers I’ve encountered in recent years. Though she works only a few hours per day, the government is getting far more value out of her than most of the people to whom it writes $100,000 checks annually. [A similarly bright friend used to work as a unionized patent examiner. He was able to complete his assigned tasks in 10-15 hours per week and used the extra time to earn a law degree. Now he is a patent litigator.]

    Nor would I argue that in a command-and-control centralized economy like half of the U.S. has become, a government worker cannot have a lot of power and influence. What you’ve left out from your analysis of your friend creating thousands of jobs by spending billions of dollars is that if your friend hadn’t spent the money it would have remained in the private economy and, quite likely, generated jobs there.

    Was your friend instrumental in spending taxpayer money on the innovative software profiled here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/us/politics/20data.html ?

  3. Anonymous

    February 26, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    3

    [Following up. Apologies for the anonymity; I’m posting that way because I don’t want to generate a lot of blowback for my friends. The current climate is pretty toxic for anyone who might admit that there are good things being done by public-sector workers anywhere in government.]

    Re-read my previous note. The billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs I was speaking of were in the private sector! Her office spent less than a million taxpayer dollars in support of the deals I was speaking of. It’s impossible to know with certainty, but it’s likely that many of these deals couldn’t have closed but for government advocacy and intercession on behalf of U.S.-based companies. In many cases, the U.S. companies wouldn’t have even had the chance to compete for business were it not for government-to-government negotiation. It’s hard to state the ROI figures for this sort of work with great precision because it quickly devolves into hypothetical questions about what would have happened in the absence of intervention–but the benefits are definitely there. I’m not exaggerating: billions of dollars in new private-sector work and tens of thousands of newly-created private-sector jobs enabled by the work of one office.

    Regarding the “innovative software” package: this looks a lot like criminal behavior, and I hope it’s treated that way. But I’m not sure of the point you’re making here: are you saying that people in our government have tried to conceal embarrassing facts to the detriment of the public? If so, I’ll certainly concede the point–but suggest that this behavior might exist in the private sector too with similar negative impact (just substitute “shareholders” for “taxpayers).

    To be clear: I’m not trying to defend the indefensible. And I’m not trying to suggest that my anecdotes represent typical results from a government program. There’s a lot of waste in government and many inefficiencies that ought to be addressed. Outrage over these things is understandable and healthy. And we face the obvious problem of spending beyond our means.

    But I am trying to say that it’s unhelpful to suggest that all (or even most) government employees are ineffective layabouts who are simply out to collect a fat paycheck for minimum effort. As I mentioned in my previous note, the truth is a lot more nuanced. Broad-brush attacks are simplistic and satisfying, but they make solving the actual problems quite a bit harder in the end.

  4. philg

    February 26, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    4

    Anonymous: Sorry for misunderstanding your comment. I wasn’t attacking government workers and certainly not my friend. Just pointing out that comparisons of government salaries and private sector salaries aren’t meaningful unless you look at the actual number of working hours, potential stress from fear of layoffs, etc. As a new airline pilot, for example, I worked 16-hour days, lived in Hilton Garden Inns, and was away from home every weekend. The new FAA guy regulating me? He worked 8-hour days, was home in bed every night and every weekend, and, I hope, earned more than the $19,000/year that I was earning (in 2008).

  5. Anonymous

    February 26, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    5

    “plus fantastic pension … benefits”

    Actually the federal pension plan isn’t what it used to be. You get a 401k commensurate to what you’d get in the private sector and an annuity that is equal to .01 * (average of highest three years) X years of service. At $100k salary and 20 years of service you get 20k a year. Not bad, but much lower than many state plans.

  6. M Wms

    February 26, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    6

    Just another anecdote, but my sister and her partner work for the federal government (DIA and Pentagon) and each actually _works_ from about 7 am to 6 pm M-F , plus some weekend time once or twice a month. They are busy all day long and come in early and work late to try to catch-up or stay ahead of the workload.

  7. philg

    February 26, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    7

    M Wms: Thanks for the data point. Let’s hope your sister is being more effective than the folks that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bing_West chronicles in http://www.amazon.com/Wrong-War-Grit-Strategy-Afghanistan/dp/1400068738/

  8. MedfordMustang

    February 26, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    8

    At this exact moment I am faced with the decision to leave a contracting position that works for the Federal Gov’t and join the Federal Gov’t as a full time employee. My salary would be at the 6 figure level. My decision is due by Monday. My decision is not based on the fact of how less I can do, but rather on the opportunities that I believe are available within the gov’t if I work hard. I have tried to “help” the economy twice by working at start-up organizations only to find myself in a position that did not continue to grow or was folded for various reasons. At 41, what incentive is their for me to continue to work and find positions in private industry to help achieve my goal of becoming an operating manager or Chief Information Officer? What are my options at 50 for employment if I join a private organization today and I am let go after 10 years? If any reader can convince me otherwise that I would do better in private industry to achieve my goals, I would welcome the thoughts.

    I maintain that the Federal Gov’t has tremendous opportunity, and I will attest to the fact that most here are working VERY hard. The “blue badge” workers spend weekends on outage calls and emergency change control review. I find that the work is actually harder as most roles require consensus and coordination amongst several parties before a decision is made. Even if you are the “manager”, you need consensus from your peers. (Think, checks and balances at all levels, just like house, senate and president.) Unlike my experience in private industry where I could say “Because I said so…”, decisions are not made that way. For someone like myself that is driven to make a difference and improve things, the job will be challenging as I will need to build consensus for all of my “Fresh ideas.”
    For those that “don’t want to work” and take advantage of all it has to offer, then like any company, the hiring manager made a mistake. Unfortunately, that mistake can not be erased as easily as it can be in the private sector. I am one of those people that do want to work, and believe the only organization that will have reward for my work is now with the Federal Government.
    Would anyone disagree with this statement?
    -Decision Point From Medford To DC…..
    P.S. I can only dream that tuition reimbursement could cover learning how to fly! What a bonus that would be! I guess I will ask in orientation.

  9. philg

    February 26, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    9

    Medford: I overheard an FAA employee replying to a pilot who envied him his high salary and infinite job security: “it’s okay once you accept that you can never accomplish or change anything”. Earning 6 figures and working for the government has got to beat the vast majority of jobs in the U.S. other than physician or Wall Street.

    I don’t think the large number of government workers who work just a handful of productive hours per week is evidence that the government is making hiring mistakes. With no competition, there is no incentive for a government agency to accomplish anything. A worker hired at age 25, for example, might get married at 28 and have children. Who could blame that person for deciding to devote just 15 hours per week to the government job and the rest of his or her time for the next 18 years to the children?

    I don’t think that there is a moral obligation for a human to work as many hours as possible. And for a government worker there is no practical obligation for a person of average competence to work more than a few hours per week. In fact, you could argue that a person with a spouse and children was obligated to work as few hours as possible so as to have more time to devote to the family.

  10. MedfordMustang

    February 26, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    10

    Good thoughts.
    Good news, I am not married and do not have kids. I guess I will be one of the few working as many hours as possible to achieve my goals. Silly I know.

  11. M Wms

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

    11

    “I don’t think that there is a moral obligation for a human to work as many hours as possible”

    Completely agree with you here, but my sister and friend mentioned above are both what I would call workaholics who derive most of their worth from their jobs/careers.Many of their peers seem to be cut from the same cloth.

    Whether they are actually effective, I can’t say. (And do I really want them to be?)

  12. michael slater

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    12

    A job like that is poisonous for the soul and brain.

  13. philg

    February 26, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    13

    Michael: If you’re right, there are approximately 20 million Americans going to work every day without either a soul or a brain.

    sources: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/governments/cb10-132.html and http://www2.census.gov/govs/apes/09fedfun.pdf

    Anyway, I don’t think there is any evidence that my friend’s 15 hours/week of work in the patent office (while being paid for 40) destroyed his soul or brain. He’s a good private-sector lawyer now with a great family, including kids.

  14. Mike

    February 27, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    14

    Phil – I have noticed that you (and most in the media) use the generic term “government worker pensions” quite frequently. Anonymous above notes that the federal plan isn’t nearly as good as most state and local plans. This point is minimized in nearly every discussion on pensions that I have read/seen. Why not the call to simply align state and city/county workers with a plan similar to the federal plan? It seems this would save many billions (trillions(?)).

    The federal government switched from a very high pension to a rather low pension about 1984. This seems to be something the feds got right.

  15. G

    February 28, 2011 @ 8:19 am

    15

    Phil, ever heard of Dilbert? I understand it’s 100% true and 100% based on private sector. It might also explain the slump in the US hegemony….

  16. stephenl

    February 28, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    16

    While it has been several decades since I actually worked in a government lab, I must admit that your friends experience is quite different to what I have seen of scientists working for the government. Most of whom seem to work quite hard. In my limited interactions over the last 20 years, this still seems to be the case.

    I would offer up as some evidence, that at least some government scientists work hard, a look at the last 10 years of physics Nobel Prize winners reveals at least 4 who performed the work while working for the government.

  17. philg

    February 28, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    17

    G: I have seen Dilbert. My understanding is that it is based on Scott Adams’s experience working for Pacific Bell, a government-regulated monopoly providing local phone service. If all of U.S. enterprise were as productive, innovative, and responsive as the phone company, we would indeed have an economy for the rest of the world to envy.

    Stephen: Great to hear the the news that we’ll get excellent value for our tax dollars as soon as the average government worker has a Ph.D. in science and the better ones follow in President Obama’s footsteps by earning the Nobel Prize for their efforts.

  18. patrick giagnocavo

    March 1, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    18

    Funny, snarky – I like the combination.

    In many countries where corruption is endemic, it is the mid-range people, like the police captain who is neither the chief nor the lowest level officer, who are straight arrows and work hard.

    Those at the lowest level have little autonomy and are either worked very hard or not at all (as the position is a gift to the ne’er-do-well brother in law to keep him solvent) … while those at the top are busy networking/socializing to maintain their power and potentially move up further.

  19. Jesse

    March 1, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    19

    Anonymous, your logic is broken.

    1) In a proper economy, if an industry can’t exist without interference/intervention from the government it is for the reason that it simply won’t add enough value to society for it to be done.
    2) In the crony capitalistic/socialist mess of economies we currently have. Often the reason why a company or business can’t exist in the economy is “because” of previous or current government intervention(taxes, regulations, anti-competitive laws, min wage laws, ect). So when the government swoops in to either take away one of those barriers or offer some other incentive. All they are doing is solving a problem they created. So basically they just cost society at both ends. It’s like digging a hole and filling it back in.

  20. JMiller

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    20

    My observations as an engineer who has worked for the Federal Government since 1984 (I have two Masters degrees in engineering, am a licensed professional engineer and have CISSP and PMP certifications):
    1. The vast majority of engineers I have worked with were hard working and competent. Salaries for engineers with over 20 years work experience and advanced degrees are generally between $125-$150K in the DC area. The pension benefits are comparable to private industry (unless you are in the old CSRS system which was “fantastic” but ended in early 1984).
    2. Many older private sector employees leave their jobs to work as a Fed for 5 years to get the Federal health care benefits upon retirement. I agree that the health care benefits have been very good but this is changing. Yearly double digit percentage increases in employee contributions to health care are the norm.
    3. I estimate that my salary has always been 20-30% less than engineers (with similar education and experience) in private industry.
    4. For the last 10 years I have managed many IT contracts. The smartest people at the table are usually the Feds. This is usually due to the lower paid, inexperienced contractor employees placed on the contracts.
    5. The amount of bureaucracy that Federal employees have to deal with is incredible, especially here at my agency headquarters in DC. We are constantly responding to OMB, Congress, GAO, IG and other requests and inquiries. Support contractors that I work with feel the same way and do not entertain the thought of working here.
    6. Almost everyone I work with is old. Young people are not being recruited to replace retirees nor are there any incentives for young people to work for the Federal government, especially in the present political climate.

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