In advance of the Government Doesn’t Suck Rally, I wanted to answer a question here that I encountered on Facebook Questions:
Like a lot of people, I disagree with the thrust of this question.My parents are wicked smart, as is my wife. My father is a Rabbi, my mother teaches learning disabled kids (as does my mother-in-law) and my wife works for the federal government. None of us are eating cat food, but we’re not raking in the Benjamins, either.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked in nearly every sector: public, private, nonprofit, academic, lobbying, and of course, the Ice Cream sector. And some of the smartest colleagues I had were either current or former govvies.
Some presidents have disparaged public sector workers, one going as far as to say “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away.” And while it is true that some great minds choose employment and flourish in the world of business, I can think of three reasons why many of the best minds work in government.
Government work offers unique intellectual challenges. Let’s face it: a lot of the work of a corporation is boring. The bottom line is making money, and everything else is a detail. It isn’t profitable to build roads (and then maintain them) over, around, or through mountains, but it is necessary for our country, and that job falls to staff of the DOT. It isn’t quarterly profit that motivates people at the FCC to figure out a way to regulate the air waves that both protects current businesses and leaves enough room open for future innovation. And even for career managers, government offers unparalleled opportunities: how many private corporates have positions that oversee thousands of employees in hundreds of geographic locations?
Government work offers the chance to have enormous impact. As a society changes–through advances in technology, growth of certain segments of the population relative to others, or economic or political realignments–the rules that govern our society also need to change. The metaphor I always reach for is the Double Overhead Cam (DOHC). If you’re running a small engine, the intake valve and exhaust valve don’t need to be open at the same time for very long. But if you’re in a Ferrari, you’re going to want a both valves open for a longer period. See what I’m talking about The DOHC doesn’t change how many CCs of air the engine displaces, but it does regulate how the air gets into the combustion chamber, and in that act of regulation it makes the difference between an engine running at peak performance, and one just squeaking by.
Government work allows people to align their professional and civic priorities. This one strikes at the heart of that quote: some people care more about helping out, about giving back, about what they have to offer rather than what is being offered to them. As I wrote in my answer to the Facebook questions, we all have thresholds, and everyone I’ve met in government wants to earn as much as they can, but that metric–“as much as they can”–means something totally different in the public sector than it does in the private.
So that’s my list for why the best and brightest work in/for/around government. What am I leaving out? Why do you work for government?