Is Federal Employment a Calling or a Job?

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This topic contains 19 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Jim Bunch 8 years, 1 month ago.

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  • #146946

    Doris Tirone

    Back in September, there was talk about mandating unpaid leave and a 10 percent reduction in pay for Federal civilian employees (HR 6134/HR 335). Now the watchdogs are salivating in anxious anticipation of a possible EO that would authorize Fed employees an extra day or half-day off (with pay) around the Christmas holiday.

    Short-sighted as some are, John Q. Citizen doesn’t understand (or choses to ignore) the huge trade-offs one makes when accepting employment with the Federal government, high salaries -vs- public service being primary amongst them. Now, in these ailing economic times, those “trade-offs” are looking pretty good to Johnny-Come-Lately who took a gamble in the ’90’s when he was lured by Wall Street (and Main Street) promises of high salaries/wages, company-paid benefits, annual bonuses to knock your socks off, and overtime pay that regularly turned a $13/hr job into a $19.5/hr job.

    I think Federal employment is a privilege, a calling; it’s not a means to get rich (at least for the majority of us). In exchange for this privilege, the majority of the Federal civilian workforce doesn’t take for granted that we work to serve our fellow Americans; not to pad our own pockets. Most of us take this fiduciary responsibility seriously. Perhaps we’re not good at marketing this message but that’s part of who we are.

    True, there are a few among us who “work the system”; but I challenge anyone to point me to even ONE private sector employer who doesn’t also have similar employees on their payroll. It may be difficult for John Q. to avoid stereotyping Federal employees from what he hears on the airways but, it sure would be nice to see even a bit of media coverage about the majority of us who are doing our jobs right rather than being bombarded by coverage over salacious stories about a few bad apples in our bunch. Maybe we’re boring and what we do just doesn’t sell newspapers … but the little recognition we do get (in the form of paid time-off and job security) should be “hands-off” until Wall-Streeters decide to donate their annual bonus budgets to the struggling Ma-and-Pa companies who are the true employers and job-creators in this country. Taking from the Feds is not going to get this economy moving again.

  • #146984

    Jim Bunch

    Federal workers have it cushy compared to State and Local :-). Regardless, when I started my career working at a council of governments, and then a transit agency, it was a conscious choice to work in the public sector in order to “do good” over just making money. The majority of folks that I work with at the Federal, State, or Local levels of government have that attitude and are dedicated to getting the job done and doing the most good for society at large no matter how many hours they need to put in. Most work much much more than 40 hours a week.

    So in my mind its definitely a calling instead of just a job.

  • #146982

    Brian Gryth

    I am not sure I can agree with the job security premise A lot of State and Local governments are laying off or have laid off works. We also have hiring freezes and furloughs. So at a minimum job security in the public sector is not what it used to be. However, I will agree that the considerations for government work are different than private sector work.

    I will agree that public sector work is more of a calling, especially now. I work in for the State of Colorado. State employee have seen a pay freeze for at least 3 years. While we have seen benefit costs (i.e. health care and such) increase. In addition, we have been asked to pay 2.5% more into the public employee retirement program. Furthermore, some state agencies have been required to take furlough days. In short, most state employee have seen a decrease in take home pay.

    So I would say that anyone who wants to work in government is either financially well off or just a little crazy.

    Thanks for raising this questions because it raises an important topic for everyone. We have increasingly seen a trend today of people either saying or purporting to say “I don’t get health care benefits, why should they?”, “I don’t have a pension, so why do they get one?”, and other sentiment of this vain. I find it troubling that we have invested so much into a race to the bottom rather than question why we should accept these trends.

  • #146980

    Kevin Lanahan

    I’ll second @Jason: It depends on who you ask.

    I see three kinds of government workers.

    • Political appointees who may bounce back and forth between private sector and government.
    • People who happen to work at a government because that’s where the work is. Some IT, HR, clerical, data entry, construction, etc. If they find a higher-paying job outside of government, they’ll be gone in a heartbeat.
    • People who, like @doris and @Jim, see government service as an opportunity to work for the greater good and accept the trade-offs that government work demands.

    It takes a special mindset to devote yourself to pushing your agency’s mission through administration changes and public opinion mood swings. And it’s possible to start out with a feeling of calling, only to have it change to “just a job” after these sorts of agency changes (or just doing the same work for years).

    I was lucky to get into a policy position when I started in state government. Although I’ve transitioned to web and social media, I still have a sense of mission. As I creep closer to retirement, though, I find some of the passion is gone, and I have to motivate myself differently to regain that passion.

    Great post, Doris!

  • #146978

    Amanda Parker

    I couldn’t agree more and I do feel like the majority of us who are in this profession because it’s our calling do get overlooked in the popular media and policy discussions of late. Thanks for sharing, Doris!

  • #146976

    Bill Brantley

    It’s a calling and my research laboratory – “Government Employees in the Mist.” 🙂

  • #146974

    Peter Sperry

    Government work has aspects of a calling; but so do most professions. A doctor in private practice is no less called to medicine than one working at the VA and the investment manager helping my elderly parents derive the most value from their retirement savings is performing no less a public service then the ones who manage the state or city pension fund.

    We all need to be dedicated and have a right take pride in our work but lets not break our arms patting ourselves on the back either. The holier than thou, “I am a saint because I am in public service” attitude is as annoying as it is undeserved. If you go to work every day committed to providing real value to your customers and the community, it does not matter who signs your paycheck.

  • #146972

    Doris Tirone

    Entitlement is a widespread concept these days. The “entitlement” generation often looks inward to see “what’s in it for me” rather than outward to see how they can serve with purpose. I appreciate your point of view and hope others can do the same!

  • #146970

    Doris Tirone

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kevin!

  • #146968

    Doris Tirone

    I think there’s a distinction to be made between “dedication” and “calling”. Regardless of one’s calling, one may or may not dedicate one’s self to a profession. So, while I see “dedication as someone’s efforts within a career field, I see one’s “calling” as a motivator toward a career field. You know Peter, there are many who believe physicians pursue private practice because they seek the financial rather than the altruist returns that come from helping patients. On the flipside, those who practice in a scheduled pay environment (like the VA) usually forego a huge financial return in order to serve some greater good.

  • #146966

    Jim Bunch

    Ha ! Yes, it’s hard to keep the passion going as adminstrations and policy directions come in and out of favor. In transportation we have the additional issue of rebranding the same old problems over and over again and having to deal with the solution of the hour to fix them.

    I have recently been re-invigorated by all of the young folks (when did I become “not young”?) that are using socail media such as GovLoop and transportation camps to bring new ideas and enthusiasm to the profession. The enthusiasm shown is like a breath of fresh air and is catching. In transportation the use of mobile devices to collect and distribute real time informaiton, crowd sourcing, Open Data, and new mobile apps are also actually providing new solutions to old problems.


  • #146964

    Janis Heim

    I agree that it depends on the mindset of the person. I see government service as a calling because I have done it at the federal, local, and state levels with the idea that I was working for the people of the United States, the people of Lincoln, or the people of Nebraska. If I do it for the money, my boss, or the office or agency, it is a job. That mindset also affects how I do the work and what compromises I am willing to make. People leave government work for better jobs, or because it does not measure up to their ideal of service. People who stick around in hopes of making it better have a calling.

  • #146962

    Mark Hammer

    I think we do a disservice when we adopt an either/or perspective. Federal employment is both a calling, and a job (and occasionally a bitter disappointment), depending on what sort of job/role one is in.

    We too often forget that not everybody is steeped in critical policy work or serving the public directly, or lowering themselves out of a helicopter to rescue someone. A significant portion of the federal workforce, no matter what the country, are involved in doing the very sorts of jobs they might do if they were working for an insurance company, or in accounting for a large retail chain, or for the local school board.

    Perhaps beantown cult favorite Jonathan Richman (and the Modern Lovers) said it best when they declared in song several decades back:

    Well we’ve got alot alot alot of hard work today
    We gotta rock at the government center
    Make the secretaries feel better
    When they put those stamps on the letters

    And they got alot alot alot of great desks and chairs
    Uh huh, at the government center
    We gotta make the secretaries feel better
    When they put those stamps on all those letters

    That is not to denigrate the work itself whatsoever, but there ARE a lot of folks working “for the feds” who are happy and proud to be part of a larger organization that serves the public interest and has such a long and noble history, but who were basically looking for a decent paycheck, with decent working conditions, doing work they weren’t ashamed to tell their grandparents they did, for an employer who wasn’t about to outsource to Bangalore or Jakarta. The overall mission was not their basis for job choice (or even work performance) but simply something nice and appreciated that comes along with the job.

    Some folks DO make it a point to have their job choices dictated by selected career paths that depend on serving their particular “calling”, but not everyone does, and it isn’t any badge of shame to simply do one’s job well, treat one’s co-workers with kindness and respect, and be appropriately compensated for it.

  • #146960

    Doris Tirone

    To be filed under “You’ve Got to be Kidding Me”, check out the latest on the subject of Job-Security and the Federal Workforce!

  • #146958

    Kevin Lanahan


  • #146956

    Mark Hammer

    I find that approaches like those outlined in the article tend not to think in terms of the institution of public service, and what allows it to function optimally, but through a much narrower aperture, in terms of things like pay costs, perceived fairness of compensation, and such. That’s not to say that total compensation costs should NOT be part of how one maintains an optimally-functioning public service. Rather, it is part of an entire system that one has to consider, not just think about money in isolation.

    As for compensation itself, I think there are a great many whose attitude is to pursue a “calling” without feeling like they are penalized/punished for doing so. That is, prosocial impact IS important to them, but they do not want to be martyrs. A modicum of stability and comfort helps to justify the choice in their own mind.

    In some respects compensation levels just slightly below the private sector may well entrench the self-perceived value of their role. I refer people back to the classic work on “cognitive dissonance” from Leon Festinger and colleagues/students. Sometimes, when we are undercompensated for doing something, we can inflate the perceived personal meaning or importance of the task/action to ourselves, as a way of rationalizing why we were not compensated as much as we would have preferred. I.E., it must be important, or else why would I have done it for less reward than I should have, or felt I deserved?

    The disjunction between public perception and reality is that public sector compensation rates ARE often higher than private sector…for lower level jobs. Once you move upwards, though, compensation rates tend to be lower than the private sector; what some like to refer to as “wage compression”. Of course, some of the loudest complaints come from those who have low paying jobs in the private sector, and are envious of their public sector equivalents, or those in lower paying jobs who resent management or anyone making more than them. You will generally never hear complaints about government pay from a consultant in the private sector making $40-60k a year more than I do for the same work.

  • #146954

    Peter Sperry

    I actually think we would do well to examine Singapore’s public service plan. Their top civil service employees (equivilant to SES in U.S. and Permanent Secretaries in Canada) make betwee $360,000 and $1,600,000 per year. They do not have tenure and can be fired at will. Singapore is widely considered to have some of the best public employees in the world. Their government is relatively small compared to many, tightly focused on providing a strictly limited range of public services but doing so with world class results. They recruit the very best graduates from universities, demand results comprable to the private sector, weed out non performers rapidly and ruthlessly but pay princely salaries to those who earn them.

  • #146952

    Mark Hammer


    I am generally cautious about flagging things like that as a best practice to be emulated. Sometimes, such practices “work” because of some very hospitable circumstances that aren’t necessarily replicated elsewhere. As you note, “Their government is relatively small compared to many, tightly focused on providing a strictly limited range of public services“.

    I’m reminded of a committee I served on as a graduate student, assessing the university’s graduate program (in general, not faculty-specific). One of the faculty members on the committee emphasized that the ratio of undergraduate to graduate students in highly-esteemed world-class universities was generally lower than that of our school, and that we should emulate such places. I hastened to remind him that virtually all of the places he was mentioning had other much larger post-secondary institutions nearby, either in the same municipality, or a short commute away, that could absorb all the local undergrads doing general arts degrees 2 or 3 courses at a time, giving the better schools the freedom to stay small and focus on their graduate programs. We were large, the only university within a 4hr drive, and publicly funded. Adopting any sort of “ideal ratio” as a strategy, by either ramping up graduate admissions, or ramping down undergrad admissions, was sheer folly and a non-starter in our context.

    Sometimes, you just have to let someone else’s success float downstream past you, and admire it for what it is, without trying to hitch your own boat to it.

  • #146950

    Peter Sperry

    I see your point. Nevertheless, it seems intuitive to pay top dollar for people who can produce results and then hold them accountable rather than paying meidocre money plus job security and hoping the staff you recruit are motivated by a sense of “calling”. First, you do tend to get what you pay for. Second, if public employees produce world class results; they deserve world class compensation. Given what they have produced, I would have no problems paying the team at DARPA seven figure salaries, and I am a tightwad fiscal conservative.

  • #146948

    Mark Hammer

    If I felt that one could reliably attribute everything that went wrong or right to the individual in question, I might agree with you completely. It’s not clear to me that even highly-paid superstars can necessarily produce results that justify their salaries, simply because there are all too often a lot of exogenous factors that one can’t control, in addition to facilitative factors you might have had nothing to do with. Government is superimposed upon the relentless trudge of history, world markets, natural and man-made cataclysms, people’s personal lives, etc.. I don’t know that salary is going to override an executive’s kid or spouse coming down with leukemia, or supercede a massive change in the labor market or economy. Stuff happens, and money seldom makes it go away.

    I’m not throwing my hands up in the air, but my sense is that truly competitive salaries work when a) one can directly and consistently link performance to individuals,.and b) you have enough flex in the budget that you can afford a little inaccuracy in that first thing.

    And, lest I digress too far into a redundant pay-for-performance debate, many writers concur that pay-for-performance requires certain circumstance to work well, and those circumstances are only rarely achieved within the public sector context. One of those circumstances is that there has to be some degree of general parity in the awarding of salaries, simply because people compare their compensation against other people, not against their own individual performance. So, what a high-performer earns in agency X better be what an equally high performer in agency Y gets for the same stellar performance, or else you’re going to keep losing people in the agency where they feel undervalued. And once you get into contests about which agency warrants a bigger budget to attract and hold high-performers, you tend to invite problems.

    Call me a hopeful skeptic. I’d certainly like it to work as you describe, but I have my doubts that it will.

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