May 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm #161480
Each week, GovLoop and the Washington Post host a “Question of the week” to get a sense of what government employees are thinking on a topic that’s important to them. It turns out that they liked this post and would like to feature it. Please share your opinions openly in the comments section below. A representative from GovLoop will contact you if they would like to use a quote from you in the Federal Buzz column.
I’m a federal contractor, and I must be honest. Becoming a government employee as many I’ve worked with in the past have done has held no appeal for me.
I’m not exactly sure why. I don’t know if it’s a rational fear or not. Perhaps I think I’ll get drowned in bureaucracy more than I already am.
So tell me, why would someone want to work for the government instead of a private organization?
May 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm #161574
I suggest answering your question with a question: Is someone who works for the government a “Government Employee” or a “Public Servant?”
I choose the later and I think it captures a lot about my career choice. Perhaps it might help you determine yours.
May 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm #161572
One has to find a government job that they are passionate about. That is hard to find, it make take years to get into a federal job that excites you everyday.
May 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm #161570
If you are interested in policy and decision making processes that are “inherently governmental” than you must be a government employee to participate. If you are primarily interested in support services and implementation activities which do not involve critcal decison making, than go for which ever is more satisfying on a personal (ie financial) level. Contractors and government employees both serve the public. One is no more or less a public servant than the other. Neither has any claim to moral superiority over the other.
I am a government emplyee becuse they were the first ones to offer a job in my career field when I was unemployed and it has been a good decision. I enjoy the work and like to believe I provide value for the money to the taxpayers. I work with many contractors who also enjoy their work and provide value for the money to the taxpayers. I’ve worked for private organizations in both the profit and nonprofit sectors. I have never found them more or less attractive or morally superior/inferior than government work. The whole government vs private is a non issue to me. A job is a job. The satisfaction is largely determined by your relationship with your immediate supervisor. And the value is what you make of it. The DOW chemical reseacher who developed Kevlar provided as much of a public service as any DOD employee.
May 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm #161568
I became a civil servant because I believed in the mission and was willing to dedicate a portion of my life to see it succeed. It was something I thought I would be proud to share with my kids and something I thought would be better than “chasing the dollar.”
I left $50k per year on the table when I became a civil servant. I started as a GS 14-step 8. My previous job had annual competitions, lay-offs, fake titles and authority, and awards for the most dollars (business) brought in. It felt empty.
I preferred to work for impact on society – maybe be recognized for my role in changing the way government makes decisions and re-routing hundreds of millions in tax payer money to places where it was most needed instead of where the biggest political power said it should be.
I got “inside” and found out that the mission was often secondary to kingdom building, political agendas, and advancement. I saw genuine “customers” being ignored while squabbles ensued over office window size how many square feet each rank should have in their cubicle. I saw red faced senior executives wag their fingers and raise their voices over the seating chart (there is actually a seating protocol based on seniority where I came from – and people get very angry when they perceive it has been compromised). I worked hard to change attitudes and stimulate action, but found risk aversion often outweighed action – individual private time favored over work brought about by actually engaging.
My teams did re-route hundreds of millions, and even established a bona-fide decision support system – to include communication with customers, an investment evaluation template, investment reviews, feedback loops, etc. It was later dismantled. It was politically inconvenient to switch from decision-based evidence making to evidence-based decision making.
I discovered the politics of power, quid-pro-quo, and compromise. I found too many people in “responsible” positions who were comfortable keeping their noses clean, the boat from rocking, testimony clouding the truth, and the press releases flowing.
I left government again in favor of small business. Sure, there’s money exchanged, but it’s directly proportional to the value my company and I can create for other people. There are real problems and real solutions – often in real time, without pomp and circumstance or bureaucratic red tape.
Believe it or not, I’m not bitter about government. I think employment with the government is great, necessary, and noble. The more senior I got, the more exposure I had to what I like to refer to as “the mad-hatter tea party.”
As a non-commisioned officer (when I first started in government) with relatively local but literally life-and-death awesome responsibility, I had clarity of purpose and a tremendous sense of satisfaction. As a senior government employee, I had a neck ache from shaking my head so much.
May 17, 2012 at 5:37 pm #161566
Wow, thanks for sharing David. I used to be the lead work manager for the largest project on our contract, and I too had a sore neck from too much head shaking. I saw much of the same.
I enjoy my current role much more, directly leading project teams. Much less bureaucracy getting in the way of creating value. I still do a good amount of head shaking though!
May 17, 2012 at 5:39 pm #161564
Very much appreciated Peter. I like your perspective, I share it.
May 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm #161562
What do you like about working for the government as opposed to a private company?
May 17, 2012 at 5:46 pm #161560
That’s a good distinction Brian, especially if the role you can serve in isn’t available in the private sector. Thanks!
May 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm #161558
Being a government employee can be satisfying for the very reason it is so frustrating. The bureaucracy and old-fashioned practices that are part of many government agencies can also be seen as “low lying fruit” — fertile ground for change — by many employees who have the know-how, drive, and patience to try and make change for the better.
May 17, 2012 at 9:19 pm #161556
That’s a great point Samuel. One of the reasons I love working here is that I see so much that can be improved, and I am able to help make those improvements happen.
May 17, 2012 at 9:26 pm #161554
May 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm #161552
Gary G. SmithParticipant
Don’t fear the bureaucracy. It’s a result of public discourse and citizen involvement in government. Ironically the very people who generally call for less government are responsible for all the controls and procedures put in place. What makes the process work are dedicated men and women who have a calling to improve and contribute to their communities through government service. Unfortunately, public service has taken a hit, especially through the media and recent campaigns because we do what we do best: do our jobs to the best of our abilities. If you are looking for a 8-5 job with security and recognition, then stay in the private sector. Public work has been and will always be tough, requiring thick skin and the ability to be highly responsive and adaptive. What we do most people would not even consider doing for the compensation received. Like I said before, it’s more of a calling than a job.
May 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm #161550
Thanks for your input Gary. I can agree that bureaucracy in some part is a result of citizen involvement, but I think the vast majority of muda (waste) in processes are a result of the institutions themselves and a lack of lean thinking in the culture. I’d love to see true Lean thinking in government agencies everywhere take root and bloom.
May 21, 2012 at 9:07 am #161548
Thee are some major Lean initiatives going on in Washington State. Check out the State, King County, and City of Seattle for more info.
May 21, 2012 at 1:08 pm #161546
Thanks Mark, I’ll be looking at those today! I love examples of other agencies doing Lean, it adds weight to my case for a Lean initiative at the agency I work with.
May 22, 2012 at 12:57 pm #161544
Excellent post! I left many years ago when even after I offered demonstrative proof of a better way to do things, the response was “SGT K, this is how we’ve always done it”….ugh.
May 22, 2012 at 1:01 pm #161542
The central incentive for me is service. One must want to serve the Nation and be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint. Being a public servant means enduring lots of baseless accusations and stereotyping from politicians, the media, our neighbors, and comedians. However, once one considers the impact on the lives of Americans of any government position, it is a humbling thought. A career in government equates to perseverance, excellence, and hard work. Of course one can find lots of examples of people that are caricatures of incompetence, laziness, and bureaucracy in government, but you can find them in private industry as well. If service is the central incentive, then being a part of the solution becomes the challenge. I know far more competent, innovative, and energetic civil servants than caricatures. The great work that occurs across the Federal government affects each of us from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. Think of the alarm clocks, stoves, highways, and safety features that have been approved or inspected through government standards and by civil servants. Consider the compassionate servants at HHS, USAIDS, NIH, and SSA who help the elderly, sick, hungry, and disabled in America as well as across the globe live better lives. Public service is not just a job, it is a journey, calling, and a career of opportunity to help people. You may not get rich, but you will probably be enriched by the experiences.
May 22, 2012 at 1:05 pm #161540
Denise W. McGrainParticipant
I not so sure I would advise our young people to work for the civil service, anymore. It is not what it use to be and seems to only serve the purpose of those who have contacts and have authority. The little people have no representation, and is made to keep quiet. Is this good for those coming in, thinking they will make a difference?
I may be stepping out of line here; but that’s alright because there are too many government employees who are trying to walk that tight rope.
I’ve lived outside of the United States and there is no place I would rather call home and there is no other country that I am more proud of than the United States of America, I am a proud American!
But most of us have become complacent, or afraid to speak up. Has everyone forgotten that America won it’s freedom with a price! Today it is very unpopular to go against the grain. Oh if it’s popular and the subject goes along with everything or does not touch on a subject that might OFFEND someone, it’s okay to play the radical.
People we need to wake up and start standing up for our Rights, we do have rights, if we are American Citizens – what does Citizen mean:
“somebody who has the right to live in a country because he or she was born there or has been legally accepted as a permanent resident.”
The problem is that we as citizens do not seem to have rights anymore or we are not allowed to acknowledge them, not even at work. If we go against the system, we are “black-listed” to a certain extent and frankly I’m just plain tired of it! There are those of us who need to “grow a pair” and start doing something about exercising our rights as American Citizens. Get a backbone!
I read somewhere that Freedom is when the government is afraid of the people, anything less is not free. People have we lost our Freedom, has it gotten to the point where we can no long exercise the right to speak?
I am going to come back and see if this has been added to the conversations and see what the comments are, if I can’t find this thread of discussion, I’ll know my answer and will feel sad that my freedom of speech has been taken away.
May 22, 2012 at 1:06 pm #161538
Well said Joe.
May 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm #161536
Your views are common and spread across the political spectrum, from liberals who worry about government encroachment on reproductive rights to conservatives who think government is regulating capitalism out of existence. And both sides hate the TSA. There’s a belief that government’s gotten too big, too complex and meddles in too much.
No one wants government to get bigger and do more. People have lost faith in the ability of the federal government (outside the military) to solve problems.
The solution is for government to get better. It needs to become more efficient and modern, resembling Starbucks or Amazon instead of General Motors of the 1950s.
May 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm #161534
The appropriate answer depends on what it is you want to do. There are those folks who commit themselves to a specific project or initiative, and there are those whose commitment is more in the form of providing a service. Both can be in the public interest. A project/initiative takes place through a single agency, or at least a fixed cluster of agencies, in which case there would be a reason to be permanently connected to one of them. A service can be provided anywhere, in which case contracting does not interfere with providing that service.
On the downside, being connected to a specific agency can emburden you with the bureaucracy of that place, and sometimes impose blinders on one’s thinking (“But this is how we’ve always done it!”). Being a contractor does not ensure one gets to see a project/initiative to fruition (kinda like being a surrogate mom).
Pick yer poison, pick yer perk.
May 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm #161532
My experience parallels David Dejewski’s. I worked for 10 years in the private sector, dealing with workers compensation insurance and claims. I found the constant pressure to watch the bottom line, even to the extent of denying benefits to workers who were entitled to them, was too soul-sucking.
I got into state government almost 20 years ago, and have been able to make significant contributions in several disciplines that I do not think I could make as a contractor. For me, I felt I made a decision to pursue meaningful work as opposed to chasing the dollar, which is what I was doing in insurance.
I can come to work each day and ask myself if the work I’m doing is helping the citizens of Missouri. So far the answer has been yes. When I answer “No”, it’s time to move on.
If you are happy as a contractor, stay in contracting. If, as Brian noted, you feel a calling to be a public servant, go there. Federal, state and local can all be rewarding and fulfilling.
May 22, 2012 at 4:55 pm #161530
great post! I can actually relate to your frustrations from all the way down here (GS-9). I think that may be part of what drives me because I want to change the status quo and find better ways of doing things. It might take a long time and I might get permanent neck damage, but someone’s got to do it. I’ve actually found that being a low rank allows me to ask “stupid questions” that people don’t ask because they are content with “because that’s the way it’s been done before.” My “stupid” questions have actually changed processes.
May 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm #161528
I became a civil servant becuase I wanted to serve. I know it may sound cliche, but it is true. I started out as a Project Manager in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps Program. I fell in love with the program as I watched young people who took advantage of the benefits of the program completely turn their lives around. I worked a job for a couple of years in a farl less exciting job after my Job Corps position ended, then found something better. For the past three years, I have served in a detail, running the largest shared neutrals Mediation program in the country for the Seattle Federal Executive Board. The job is creative and challenging with tons of automomy and room for personal and professional growth while also providing the stabiity of Federal pay and benefits.
May 22, 2012 at 5:15 pm #161526
When I decided to work for the federal government, I assumed it meant I would be wearing dark suits 24/7 and fighting America-hating ninja’s on a nightly basis. So far, I’ve had no such luck. I’m still waiting for a late-night phone call from a mysterious voice whispering “Your mission, if you choose to accept it….”
In the meantime, I’ll keep practicing my roundhouse-kick in between meetings…
May 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm #161524
I’m glad you’re keeping your roundhouse kick up to snuff. A person needs to be prepared. You just never know when the ninjas will show up. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way…from watching all those music videos.
Correct me if I’m wrong, though, but isn’t Chuck Norris a contractor, rather than a government employee? Or is he above that? I mean, from what I’ve heard, Chuck Norris doesn’t create policy; he changes universal reality.
Apologies for the interruptions. We now return you to an otherwise serious thread.
May 22, 2012 at 6:17 pm #161522
My recent observation is that young people today interested in ‘public service’ careers don’t feel limited to the ‘public sector’. In addtion to any opportunities they see at the federal, state, or local level, they are just as open to (and often times more interested in) opportunities in the non-profit/philanthropic and private social enterprise sectors.
I’m not sure if this is entirely a bad thing. It certainly makes it more difficult for government to acquire talent. However, it may also inspire opportunities for us to look at delivery of government services in different ways. While government by bureacracy works well in some areas, perhaps government by partnership with with other juisdictions and sectors may create new and more effective ways of delivering services that we haven’t previously considered.
May 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm #161520
I agree that many young people have less traditional definitions of “public service”. Many would consider careers in the profit making private sector to be pbulic service if the work produces a positive societal benefit. Certainly many of the people in Silicon Valley believe they are on a mission to change the world. I think they have a point. The IT specialist who supports the bank where my paycheck is deposited and develops the security measures to prevent those funds from being subject to identity theft is no less a public servent than the one who performs the same work for the IRS.
I would also point out that many individuals who take pride in working in the private sector, are in fact government employees who just get paid through the acquisition process rather than a direct paycheck. Anyone in the D.C. area who works for Lockheed Martin, Deloit, SAIC, CACI, GTSI, etc is kidding themselves if they do not realize they are essentially federal employees. Personally, if the jobs are nearly identical, performed in the same location etc etc, the choice of government vs private sector employment comes down to income, job security, retirement benefits etc. Some people do better wlking into the building with a contractor id card, others perfer a federal employee id. As far as the public is concerned the two are interchangable.
May 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm #161518
This was definitely true in my case, Mark. My first job out of college was in the public sector, and from day one I knew I was not going to stay in government for my entire career. I felt that diversity of experience was important to me personally and would help my career track. I’m hoping my decision will make me an effective worker down the road for having honed skills in several settings.
May 22, 2012 at 8:10 pm #161516
I seem to recall an article in Public Personnel Administration a decade or so back on this very topic.
Government can be slow to carry things out, and large enough that it is easy to become a cog in a very big wheel, and find oneself re-assigned to other things as they crop up. The end result is that sometimes NGOs, and other 3rd sector employers, can provide more opportunities to remain connected to an endeavour across the entire arc, from inception to fruition.
I don’t know that the need to see a visible outcome of one’s efforts is unique to current generations or even to any age group. But I do suspect that the sense of urgency to have consequence can make many younger people less patient in jobs that don’t provide it, hence more inclined to find NGO work appealing. As people pack on a few years, pounds, kids, and square footage in their accommodations, the stability of taxation-based public-sector employment starts to gather more appeal than the excitement and connectedness of donor-based NGO work. That’s not a statement of what is better than what, but more a reflection of how career motives change over time.
May 23, 2012 at 2:55 am #161514
I think risk aversion and fear of innovation / fear of failure is a big stumbling block.
May 23, 2012 at 2:57 am #161512
Keep asking “stupid” questions Scott!
May 23, 2012 at 3:00 am #161510
Wow, I don’t even know what a neutrals Mediation program is.
May 23, 2012 at 3:03 am #161508
May 23, 2012 at 3:07 am #161506
Thanks Mark. I certainly enjoy working on the mission I’m a part of, and you don’t get too much work with satellites supporting science missions in the private sector.
May 23, 2012 at 3:09 am #161504
Thanks for sharing your perspective Kevin!
May 23, 2012 at 3:09 am #161502
May 23, 2012 at 3:11 am #161500
It would be interesting to see a study on attitudes about public service and how that varies with age…
May 23, 2012 at 3:16 am #161498
Very insightful Mark. I can definitely see the difference in appeal for NGO work. I used to travel all the time for work in the private sector when I was younger. But I’m at a point with my family where staying in one place most of the time is optimal.
May 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm #161496
Twenty two years ago I worked in the private sector. I saw what butt kissing, lying, and falsifying documents got you. PROMOTED! My ethics would not allow me to continue so in a naive moment went to work in government believing that I would get away from that. I went in at an entry level and am now a bureau chief of contracting (eight years as a chief). I retain my private sector logic set and ask why we do things and we make improvements. I avoid the political arena, internal and external, and am allowed to perform my job of protecting the public dollars and have staff that hold contractors accountable. My role as a bureau chief is to hire good staff, train them and see that they are productive. I enjoy this role and beleive that there must be government staff to perform oversight of contractors. We maintain good relationships with the contractors are getting what the contracts specify. While my reason for going to the public sector was flawed (in hindsight) I have found an important role.
May 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm #161494
Well, for that I refer you to the ever expanding public admin literature on “public service motivation”. The original construct, and measurement instrument, advanced by James Perry and Lois Wise, may well eventually come up against criticism about being more age-biased than people initially thought.
This special issue of Review of Public Personnel Administration is a decent place to start: http://rop.sagepub.com/content/31/1.toc
May 23, 2012 at 4:40 pm #161492
Thomas A BrazeltonParticipant
I worked for corporations for 10 years out of college. While I learned a lot and gained valuable experience, sometimes it felt like I was throwing my efforts into a well. I never really saw the direct outcome.
Working for local government the last two years, I see directly how my role affects, informs and improves the lives of citizens.
I spent 10 years chasing a paycheck and was never really fulfilled. It may sound naive, but improving my community at the source is worth very much its own reward.
May 23, 2012 at 4:47 pm #161490
As the son of a public servant who made significant contributions while employed at NASA, I made becoming a federal employee a goal at an early age. I had this sense of duty that I should support the country as best I could. Not being able to join the military, I went to work for small and large private companies. I learned a lot, especially from Kodak, and was well paid while working long hours. But I felt like I was just punching the clock.
I had the opportunity to go to work for a government contractor and jumped at the chance. Over five years I worked for four different contractors doing the same thing. One contract was even terminated due to fraud and embezzlement even after we warned the CTR of the company’s bad reputation before the contractor was awarded. This level of uncertainty in job security was not a good way to try and raise a family.
19 years ago someone tipped me off to a job opening with a federal agency. I applied and was hired as a section chief in a technical field. Through hard work and initiative I rose through the ranks and was given more responsibility. I went through leadership and SES training and eventually became a legislative specialist working on bureau policy and impacting legislation.
I am now making a difference in ways that have a positive impact on millions of citizens. Even after 19 years, I still put on my badge every morning with pride and walk a little taller on my way to the office.
My point is, that while federal employment may not be for everyone, for those who have a calling to public service and want to work hard and contribute to a solution, there is a way to accomplish that as a federal employee. I would never consider going back to the private sector where I would just feel like another employee number turning out widgets.
May 23, 2012 at 5:43 pm #161488
I’m curious about people’s thoughts regarding careers in federal vs. state vs. local government…including quasi-private organizations like port authorities. Do folks see a difference in the nature and fulfillment of the work?
May 25, 2012 at 3:59 pm #161486
June 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm #161484
Rochelle M. KithcartParticipant
Your words are inspiring. It’s not the money (“you may not get rich”), it’s caricatures that leave a bad taste (“you will probably be enriched by the experiences”). I hope to find the enrichment soon.
June 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm #161482
Rochelle M. KithcartParticipant
Yes, this study would be interesting. I believe you will see/hear the attitudes that Mark is stating.
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