October 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm #112980
Ughhh…..another study from Washington Post says a large percentage of americans think government workers are overpaid, less qualified, and lazier than private sectorHonestly, will these stereotypes ever change? Haven’t they been there now for 30 years?
October 18, 2010 at 1:14 pm #113012
People tend to think negatively about government employees for four basic reasons:
1) Government workers are rarely subject to the vicissitudes of employment-at-will, or their employer picking up and leaving town, so there is an expectation, based on maintaining equity, that the less someone risks by having a particular employer, the more they ought to deliver.
2) People often don’t know what government does, and simply don’t see the many services delivered, and the many steps required to provide those services, including those services they depend on and have come to take for granted. Should any particular service be delivered in a manner not to the individual’s satisfaction, the effort required to deliver it is viewed as worthless.
3) Top-heavy government (i.e., too many managers and meetings for accountability, not enough action) tends to result in stalling and sluggish response. That gets misinterpreted as “laziness”.
4) People don’t like to pay taxes at the best of times, and at the worst of times – particularly in such a consumerist culture as contemporary North America – they really hate paying taxes that might otherwise go to maintaining the quality of life they believe they have earned. That ramps up the expectations for “SIR! YES…SIR!!!” type service from those paid off the public purse even higher. I suppose equity theory would predict that too.
I draw your attention to the emerging literature on the psychology of tax evasion, and tax-paying behaviour. The reserarch I’m familiar with shows that people are more likely to do things like claim nonlegitimate deductions on their taxes when they feel that tax revenue is not spent “fairly” by government. My sense is that there are likely some serious fiscal implications of the views depicted in the survey results, well beyond whatever scorn those surveyed might feel for government workers, or how they might vote.
What I also find personally interesting is the political slant that the poll observed in their sample. It’s been my contenion for a while that where the left used to be the magnet for the disaffected voter, and the right was the home of those content with the status quo, it would appear that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and the right is now the home of the disaffected voter.
As an outsider (Canadian), and most especially as a public servant, I don’t wish to inject politics into the thread. I just find it interesting to see historical patterns in how angry voters cluster together. And at the moment, the anger would seem to be on the right. I’m not sure if the perception of government workers as lazy and overpaid is a product of disappointment in the government, or whether it precedes and causes the disappointment.
October 18, 2010 at 1:37 pm #113010
I am reasonably confident the first complaints about government workers were ingraved on clay tabletst delivered to Hamurabi. It seems the irrigation ditch diggers were spending too much time leaning on their shovels and the stone cutters had taken forever to erect the law codes, which were way too intrusive due to the excessive regulatory zeal of the early family services division in Babylon. I recall some mention in the history books of pits and hungry lions. Seems to have cleared up the complaints.
October 18, 2010 at 2:08 pm #113008
Big big cross-border smile, here. Thanks for that.
October 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm #113006
The interesting contradiction is that federal workers as a whole are disliked. But the same survey shows that people gave high marks for interactions with individual federal workers. Sounds like a great argument for increasing citizen engagement.
October 18, 2010 at 4:34 pm #113004
A city mid-level manager at CityCampSF on Saturday brought up the problem of how budgetary decisions influence perception of gov workers. Usually public affairs and communications staff are first fired during lean times because they are not providing direct services. Of course, they are the ones communicating directly with clients. So it’s a one-two punch when things are bad – less services, and less communication between agencies and the citizenry.
October 18, 2010 at 8:01 pm #113002
You might also note that 64% of the sample surveyed indicated not having had any contact “with an employee of a federal government agency as they were doing their job” at any time during the past year.
Clearly, for a large segment of the samle, they were operating off heresay and schemas, rather than empirical evidence. That’s pretty much how these things start.
Some 23 years ago, while doing my doctoral work, I surveyed a large-ish sample of seniors regarding their concerns over their memory, and their stereotypes of aging. For the heck of it, I threw in some questions regarding their contact with individuals whom they knew to have a neurodegenerative disease of some sort. By and large, few people had ever been in close contact with someone who actually was dementing. Small wonder that they made a bigger deal than was necessary out of their own memory slips.
Remarkable how much actually having personal experience with whatever you’re asked to provide opinions of can be.
October 19, 2010 at 2:26 am #113000
I think a large part of this has to do with being used as a punching bag during the mid-term elections. Actually, we’ve been one of the right’s go-to villains since Regan. After awhile, it’s bound to have some effect.
October 19, 2010 at 1:43 pm #112998
I read that WaPo survey and some of the comments posted.
I don’t think the stereotype has existed and persisted for 30 years. My father had an older cousin who didn’t have a college degree and worked her way up the ladder to a high-ranking GS position. In my family, she was always known as the one with a “good government job.” We thought she was smart and sophisticated. At the time, she also remained single and didn’t have any kids and was very focused on her career, which may have been more of a factor decades ago for women moving up the ranks than it is today.
I think the perception decades ago was that the government was very selective in hiring and promoting, and that it wasn’t easy to get a “good government job.”
October 19, 2010 at 6:17 pm #112996
Respect for, or resentment towards, public servants has varied over time. Some of you may recall some public opinion survey work that Paul Light had done just after 09/11, where public servants and public sector employment received a real shot in the arm as far as public respect went. For a brief shining period, the public associated the public service with doing something important.
How soon we forget when times get tough, though.
I’d be curious to see if there is any sort of connection over time between prevailing unemployment rates, and attitudes towards government workers. Obviously, the sorts of tasks people associate with public servants have changed over time and included more things that people have a hard time wrapping their head around, in terms of its necessity. But my gut sense is that as things become tighter in the private sector, that tends to breed resentment towards the security that federal and state workers have. It’s a “What do they do that they deserve more than I do?” reaction.
October 19, 2010 at 7:06 pm #112994
It would be nice if we had more education and less reactionalism in our society. New study shows that California’s public workers make 7 percent less when compared to private sector, but benefits largely make up for the deficit.
October 19, 2010 at 7:33 pm #112992
October 26, 2010 at 4:05 pm #112990
Generally, Government doesn’t have good PR. A council member that is notorious for tooting his own horn once told me…if you don’t let people know the good you are doing, they will never know.
August 30, 2013 at 3:48 am #112988
Most government workers are lazy because of the fact that they’re protected by their unions, at least that’s what I saw when I worked for a government agency. The fact that you virtually can’t be fired means you don’t have to try.
I am saddened by how much tax dollars are wasted by people who don’t work. I used to be in a team of about 20 people, and only about 5 did actual work. Sheessh!
August 30, 2013 at 5:18 pm #112986
Samuel F DoucetteParticipant
Mark, I know this is an old but ever-interesting discussion. I too have noticed that resentment. I believe it tracks to the relative health of the private sector economy and the age-old human condition of jealousy and envy. When unemployment is low and the private sector economy is booming, then those who work in the private sector smugly look at us and snicker, “They couldn’t make it in our world so they work for the government.” When the economy tanks and the unemployment rate rises, these same people then act in the way you describe. At least some of them. I don’t mean to over-generalize.
August 30, 2013 at 5:40 pm #112984
Government workers are, unfortunately, seen as being lazy and less qualifed. That, however, could not be farther from the truth. I can speak from personal experience by saying that in order to obtain a job with the government you have to show that you have the skills and ability to perform certain duties. In addition, the amount of applicants applying to each job is tremendous, therfore the person that they do decide to hire is probably one who possess certain qualifications that the agency is looking for. Having said that, those skills are transferred into an employees work, thus creating a qualified employee. Let us not forget how many basic functions that the government performs that we all take for granted. Guess what? There is a government worker behind all of it. I don’t think the stereotype will ever change, no matter how much government workers try to get past it.
August 31, 2013 at 3:10 pm #112982
I heard a story recently which echoed Bill’s point.
The bottom line: We should be putting government employees in direct contact with the customer (the public) as much as possible for a lot of good “business” reasons. (Vineet Nayar wrote a good book on these, “Employees First, Customers Second.)
Primary among them is that the interaction itself changes the equation: Awareness of their needs makes us better while awareness of our limitations helps them reframe requests and contribute ideas for improvement.
The more we hide away in our cubicles the further we are from the action — it is all about what they need and want — the system is to serve the people not the other way around.
Might help cut down on leadership/management analysis paralysis as well – citizen interactions yield metrics upon which decisions can “safely” be made.
A better image would be a positive side effect.
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