What It’s Really Like to Work for Government

This week I came to the realization that the majority of people have a totally wrong view of what it’s like to work for government. I guess having worked in government for so long now, I take for granted all the rules, regulations, oversight, and general culture in the workplace. And I assumed with all the attention we get as government employees that citizens were also aware of our work environment. But now I know that people in general really have limited knowledge about how it is to work for government. Thinking back, I realized I was also not aware of all this when I first started in the public sector. So I figured I would try to do my best to open a little window in the world of government workers. Most of these lessons I am sharing have developed over the course of my 30-year career, and as you will see, many of these lessons were learned the hard way.

Copies of all of our correspondence including emails can be requested by the public
With all the talk of FOIA and transparency, I figured everyone knew this. But now I know that there are people who believe government employees still have some degree of privacy. We do not. We work as if everything we write could end up on the front page of the newspaper because it can. And those employees who do not figure that out risk finding out the hard way.

How we write those emails is subject to public criticism and reprimand
Because our correspondence is open to public scrutiny, it only makes sense that what we write can end up critiqued by anyone. Therefore, we learn to be very careful in how we phrase things. I learned this the hard way many years ago by responding to someone I knew well who emailed me about a work-related issue. Because we knew each other well, I responded in an informal, yet still appropriate, manner. An alderman ended up seeing my response, and at a council meeting he publicly reprimanded me for my casual language.

Which brings up the fact that we can be publicly ridiculed and reprimanded at whim
As my example above shows, particularly those of us who are appointed, are subject to public criticism at the whim of elected officials. I also found this out the hard way, again many years ago, after requiring a contractor to submit a bond in order to drive multiple heavy loads on a rural road that was definitely not designed for it. That contractor refused and complained about my requirement to the local developer to whom he was hauling the material. That developer complained to an alderman. Next thing I know, I am publicly reprimanded by an official council vote at a meeting. And all that for doing my job and looking out for the best interests of the public.

People take pictures of us during the day
Most of us are aware that this can happen, but even so, many times we end up in trouble because of it even though we have done nothing wrong. I once saw a photo online of a city van (can’t remember the city) parked at a retail store on a weekend. Based on the comments, it was obvious the public’s first thought was that the city employee was using the city van to shop at a store on the weekend. As a city employee, my first thought was the city had to have someone go out on overtime to answer a service call at that store for something like a sewer backup or water problem. The lesson here is that even though we are working somewhere legitimately, a picture can certainly be taken the wrong way.

We are never off the clock
My dad was a service manager at a Buick garage, so I know from his experience this is common to more than just government workers. But I think the difference is that my dad had a better chance convincing someone to contact him during working hours. Government workers are perceived many times as always being on the clock. And what I have found is that most of us also perceive ourselves in this way. Whether it is responding to a problem someone brings up at the grocery store or taking the time to stop and check out a problem we see on the road over the weekend, we have a hard time taking off our “city hat.”

The other problem with this is that while many people can take a 10 minute break during the day, if we stop somewhere for a few minutes to get a water or soda or use the restroom, we are perceived as lazy and not working. And someone might take our picture!

People yell at us and expect us to be silent and respectful in return
People working in government hear complaints on a regular basis, and we view this as a normal part of our job. Much like others working in the service industry, we are here to help and serve people in our community who have problems so complaints or questions or concerns are expected. We would rather have people call with a complaint than be worried and not call. However, there are people who feel because their taxes pay a portion of our salary that they can be totally abusive, and we are out of line if we do not quietly sit and listen. And everyone working in local government has heard the “You have to do what I say because I pay your salary.”

We have to be ready to justify everything we do in a deposition
Cities get sued a lot. After sitting through several depositions for lawsuits – fortunately for issues not related to work for which I was responsible – I have gotten to the point that each time I make a decision, I imagine myself justifying it to a room of attorneys. I try to imagine every angle they could take with my decision. And only after I feel I have carefully considered every angle and still believe it is in the public’s best interest and meets the law, do I proceed.

We work in conservative surroundings with few special amenities
The public does usually support and take pride in a nice city hall, but there is still a limit on the amenities allowed in our work environment. Government work places could never have the same type of benefits enjoyed by private business such as work-out rooms, saunas, special coffee and beverage machines, lunch and break areas, sports facilities, etc. It would be considered completely unacceptable.

Where we shop is subject to review and criticism
This condition under which some of us work might not be true for everyone. From my experience it is more likely to be found in a smaller community. The reason this happens is because people feel they pay our salaries. So in return, we should only buy from businesses in our community, even for our personal purchases, regardless of cost. Knowing this, I did try at my last job to buy as much as possible from businesses in our city.

But when we built our own house, we bought from businesses in our city and also from those in neighboring cities. We just could not afford to do otherwise, and not all the items we needed or wanted were sold in our city. The home improvement store owner/employees in our city complained to the mayor and felt we were wrong to give the sales tax to other cities. What they did not realize was because of where our home was built, we were not paying sales tax anyway. But had they figured this out, I am not sure it would have lessened their frustration that we purchased outside the city nor stopped them from complaining about me to my supervisor.

All of our income and other benefits are subject to public scrutiny and criticism
Because we are paid by public funds, the amount of our income, terms of our benefits, and pensions amounts can be obtained by the public. And as many have recently witnessed, this information can often end up the subject of lengthy and very public discussions or become a pawn in the political arena.

Everything we do has to be done within the constraints of numerous rules, policies, regulations, and laws
So many times people contact us wanting us to do something that they perceive is a simple task. And many times it does appear to be so. But what people do not realize is that we now operate under a load of regulations, rules, policies, and laws all passed by elected officials to protect the public interest. So tasks that appear to be simple usually end up complicated and take a long time as we ensure we are not violating any of these conditions.


There are many other conditions under which we work, but I will stop there with the thought that those are probably the most obvious ones people might not have known about. Certainly, I do not intend to give the impression these conditions are negative, wrong, or should be changed – they just are part of the job. If someone cannot accept working within this environment, then they do not stay in government. For those of us who do stay, we do accept and understand the environment and are thankful we have been given an opportunity to work building and maintaining our communities. If you’re a government worker, feel free to share work conditions you think might not be obvious to those working in the private sector.

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Profile Photo Sarah Bourne

Nicely put, Pam. Now that you’ve outlined the environment government employees work in, I challenge folks to imagine trying to be innovative! Most people just end up seriously risk-averse. Just imagine if we could use the attention and energy spent on avoiding getting yelled at to do other things.

Profile Photo Daniel Bevarly

Pam – Very thoughtful post. I forgot about a lot of those attributes, and since I’m part of the “Gov2.Old” crowd (I left around the time the Internet was making its debut in the mid-late 90s), I was less under the public microscope, but still in the fishbowl. It’s been great to stay connected with my continued stints in public administration. One thing I am proud to say, I still consider myself a “govie” and a bureaucrat. It is a challenging institution in which to perform and those who do it with pride have a passion and drive that many, many people in the private sector should be so lucky to have.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Well said Daniel and Sarah! Today we were at a seminar addressing those very issues. Including how to work in this environment yet stay motivated and focused and professional and healthy! What is so important is to work together as a team and help each other out. We even try to do this between our neighboring cities when possible.

As you also pointed out Daniel, in the “old days” when we were much younger, we did not experience this level of scrutiny or questioning. But at least the new technology allows us to reach outside of our immediate network to other professionals like we do here on GovLoop.

Profile Photo Candace Riddle

Cities get sued a lot. After sitting through several depositions for lawsuits – fortunately for issues not related to work for which I was responsible – I have gotten to the point that each time I make a decision, I imagine myself justifying it to a room of attorneys. I try to imagine every angle they could take with my decision. And only after I feel I have carefully considered every angle and still believe it is in the public’s best interest and meets the law, do I proceed.

This is applaudable! The difference between a good and a great public employee is that a “good” public employee gets the job done in a legal fashion, a “great” public employee gets the job done legally, while making sure that all of the stakeholders are satisfied!

I borrow that statement from former DHS, CPO, Greg Rothwell, when speaking of the difference between a “good” and a “great” contracting officer. I think that statement is applicable at all levels of public service.

Profile Photo Ari Herzog

Has anyone walked into city hall and taken pictures of city staff behind their desks or whatnot, and then shared those pictures with whoever? Any reason why such picture taking would be frowned upon?

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Ari,

I am sure that has happened, and there are probably people who are ok with that but I have known some who believe they should still have some measure of privacy. They were not people who did not work hard so it was not to keep from hiding poor performance on their part. Instead they were very private people who felt uncomfortable with having no control over whether or not their picture could be taken and posted anywhere just because they work for a government agency.

The other problem with pictures is they are a snapshot in time and can be taken out of context on purpose to try to create a negative image. We were given an example of this yesterday at our seminar. There is supposed to be a channel in Michigan where they go around taping public works people working for a month. Then they cut that footage down to 30 seconds only showing times when the crew is not working. Perhaps they are taking a break or doing something else that requires them to stop working. So people are only shown 30 seconds of no work and not the images of all the work that was done. As government employees we have to understand there are those who are running around taking our pictures for the purpose of trying to create a negative image.

In both the cases above, this is not something necessarily tolerated in the private sector so it becomes a condition of the government workplace. In order to work for government, we have to understand that as government employees that we are expected to be ok with not having any privacy at work and being subject to image manipulation by those who want government to look bad.

Profile Photo Darrel W. Cole

Wow Pam. What a summary. One of the items you touch on but not hit directly is the role politics plays and that for many people their job security is related to the election cycle. This is a raw nerve for me at this point because someone I admire greatly “resigned” after serving an entire career in one agency. I hate that legislators, new administrations and influence peddlers have such an impact and in many cases prevent good work from being done by the excellent gov workers that serve the public. Mistakes are unforgiven if the “perception” is bad, or if elected officials decide they need to get involved. I saw it firsthand, witnessed the arrogance of elected officials and saw policy decisions made based on whims or to appease the few. Of course it wasn’t all bad, but that aspect has surely left a bitter taste in my mouth, and the recent news I read about one of my mentors has brought it all back.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Yes, I probably avoided that because you have nudged open the door to the ugly disastrous state of our current government in the United States. A truth upon which few, including myself, have dared to tread and no one seems willing to fix. And a truth that few who are not directly involved can imagine. But I suppose it continues to consume us as workers and as citizens because no one is openly discussing it so let’s dive in. I start with a brutal and very short summary of how I see it from my position:

While there are excellent elected officials, there are too many that don’t understand government, don’t understand their role, are in it for the wrong reason, are looking for self-gratification or benefits, or just looking for power and have only been elected because of popularity. They vote with a short-term, arrogant, and narrow vision often based on an uninformed opinion (either their own or a citizen’s) or with a concern about their survival in the next election. How in the world is a dedicated, professional staff supposed to manage a challenging, cash-strapped multi-million dollar operation with that type of leadership? And how are the elected officials who are informed, educated, reasonable and voting in the public interest supposed to maintain their vision, dedication, and commitment? In a brutal nutshell that is the state of our country and as you mention, the reason many great professionals are leaving the public sector.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Reading that back over I figured I better clarify that “my position” is that within local government in general – not necessarily my current position of employment. And my concern over the need to clarify this only goes to show you why so many of us are hesitant to discuss this topic.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Pam,

I also appreciate how much thought went into this post. If I had to sum it up you are saying that government has a CYA culture, and that this is out of necessity.

Having been in gov since 2003 (internal “wow!”) I would say that times are changing in that regard. When I joined it was much more conservative. Now I think feds see that it’s actually strategic to take a “managed risk” approach to innovation. In particular I have seen this with social media.

Anyway, one other thing people don’t realize about gov is how smart public sector employees are. It is one thing I really like. Also that govies have a great, wry sense of humor.

Thanks for writing this.

– Dannielle Blumenthal

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

You are so right Dannielle – just today I got in a discussion with someone who told me, “If people in government were really good at their jobs they wouldn’t be working in government.” I could not believe someone would actually believe this. Tried to convince him the norm is that there are incredibly talented and smart people in the public sector but just could not get him to see it.

Profile Photo Darrel W. Cole

Great, honest feedback Pam in response to what I brought up and I liked the follow up disclaimer note! I am sure many, many others wanted to day the same thing. My feelings on this ugly side of government work were raw given the situation that occurred to someone I knew last week.

The majority of government employees that I worked with in state government were there not for the money but for the ideal of public service. And, yes, I agree with Dannielle below in that those I respected are still some of the best in the industry I work in, period.

Profile Photo James Ferreira

I have taken a different approach. After arthritis took me out of the game in a labor job I went back to school and learned that I wanted to try and change the world. Too many middle classers just get screwed. They make too much to access service for the poor and too little to pay on their own. I felt that I wanted to get elected and make a difference. A wise mayor told me to get to work in the public sector and know what it looks like from the inside. An even wiser governor told me to always do the right thing even if it was unpopular. I am not in government because of he job but because I believe in making a difference. I am plain spoken and try to follow my instinct to do what will best help. I do care about constructive criticism and will admit when I am wrong and change course. I have stood on the senate floor and said Mr. Chairman, rep. Soandso you are wrong and that is not what will be best for the public.

Pam I deeply respect what you have said here but much of it comes from fear. The press and even many supervisors are out to sensationalize untruth. Keep things simple, speak directly and always do what is right. I know it is common political theory to go to the middle while the public polarized but truth is always true, if some ego maniac has to publicly reprimand you too bad for them. They opened the public box and you have every right to stand up and say wait a minute that is not true then justify why you made the common sense choices you did and ask if there was any other way of seeing it.

Profile Photo Mike Lisagor

As a management consultant who has worked for over 70 contractors and government agencies, I can honestly say that I have met countless dedicated and capable individuals in both arenas. And, some less than sincere people, too! Human nature doesn’t draw organizational lines. Frustrated customers, employees and citizens, lacking the ability (or desire) to make positive change, often feel the need to place blame. But, clearly there are also distinct disadvantages to working in the public sector in a time of rapidly increasing transparency (and lunacy!). For this reason, if no other, you all have my greatest admiration and respect for caring on with the good fight! There is no hope without action.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

@James Your comments are right on target, and your approach and attitude are fortunately shared by many I know who work for government as either staff or elected officials. I also believe it is the right way to go, but have also realized that in following this path we have to be ready to face the consequences. For me that was the reprimand, the alienation, and finally political moves focused on making sure I was no longer around to cause problems with their agenda. Which in the end, while difficult, still makes it the best path because who wants to be part of an agency that cannot afford to be fully transparent and damages community.

@Michael I have also seen dedicated people and non-performers in all work environments. In the end, the best service seems to be achieved by a cooperative, reasonable and efficient collaboration and application of all work forces. It just seems that no one wants to take the time or make the effort to figure out how best to do this.

Profile Photo David Kuehn

Based on experience with federal agency employee focus groups and surveys, the people who join government have an extreemly strong mission orientation. Whichever agency they joined, they strongly support the purpose and overall goals and will minimize or mitigate many of the elements that are percieved as negative or limiting. I would find it helpful if the public better understood and recognized the servie element of government employment, which is one element of outreach provided by the Partnership for Public Service.

Profile Photo Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

Just a humorous aside to the “we pay your salary” comment those of us who work in government often hear. A colleague who worked in “balance due” (aka collections) for the IRS once responded to an irate phone caller who said “I pay your salary” with “no you don’t, you haven’t paid your taxes”.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

David – you hit on a very fundamental need: we should be educating citizens at the high school level about the function of government and about the responsibility they have to their communities in which they live. This would go a long way to solving a lot of the problems in our country.

And thanks Tamara for your comment – my husband and I got a good laugh out of it! 🙂