"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 20, 2013

Are You Happy At Your Government Job?

Not surprisingly a recent survey has shown that government workers are far less happy with their jobs than those in the private sector.  Peter Orszag, quoted by Emma Green in The Atlantic (12.20.13) has provided some statistics: “On average, government employees reported a 57.8 percent satisfaction rate, compared to a 70.7 percent satisfaction rate in the private sector.

Why does this not surprise anyone?  Most people take government jobs for one of two reasons: 1) security, civil service tenure, and a guaranteed job; or 2) idealism – in government service one can make a difference.

Those – the vast majority - who opt for longevity have no interest in innovation, productivity, or risk-taking.  They are at their cubicle job for the long haul, ready to follow instructions, fill out the proper forms, punch the clock at 9 and 5, and go home.  The rest – the idealistic minority – soon find out that there is no such thing as creativity in the federal government, and it is actively discouraged at the county and municipal level.

My first job after graduate school was with the Newark (NJ) Housing Authority. I was an eager Urban Planner who wanted to be a part of urban renewal – the redesign of urban neighborhoods to reflect a newfound commitment to community, quality of life, and the integrity of neighborhoods.  Soon after I was installed at my desk, I asked for a typewriter.

“Ronnie”, said Joe Pantucci, “typing is for the girls”. 

The Newark Housing Authority was divided into discrete segments.  At the top of the pecking order were the No-Show jobs, rewards as part of political patronage.  You got a paycheck but were never expected to come to work.  Next were the political dribbles – the guys from Down Neck who roughed up a few volunteers for the opposing party, but had no money or influence.  Most of us were just plain shlubs who were expected to show up at some point during the day, but were never expected to do anything.  The secretaries were at the bottom of the ladder.  They typed and filed, but since none of us were expected to produce anything, they took half the day off to get their nails done or to make a few extra bucks doing hair.

At least the Newark Housing Authority was honest and upfront about work. What you did at your job was less important than what you did after hours; and if you helped keep the Aldermen and Mayor in office, your job was golden.  The Federal Government is one, big charade.  Employees are hired to work, but the bureaucracy is so big, so encrusted and barnacled, and so thick with sclerotic gunk in its inter-departmental channels, that nothing can get done. Those few make-a-difference idealists soon realize that they are no more than hamsters on a wheel.  For every new idea that is sent up the chain, nay-saying, defeatist, responses come down.  The only real raison d’etre of a bureaucracy is self-preservation.

I have a number of friends who work at USAID, a government agency whose mission is the alleviation of poverty and human misery. If any department had the incentive to do something – anything - to help out the world’s unfortunate, it would be this one.

Yet all new employees soon get absorbed by the oozing, spreading, and all-encompassing bureaucracy. The job is not – despite the welcoming speech by the Administrator – to do good, but to accommodate the wishes and desires of the American people, their representatives, and the lobby groups which provide the informational foundation on which to legislate. And, as anyone who has spent any time in Washington knows, there is no such thing as definitive good.  There is Republican good, Democratic good, Tea Party good, ‘Progressive Good’, General Foods good, and everything in between.

I always wondered why no one ever picked up the phone at USAID.  They were always in meetings. 

Diversity and gender meetings. Regional and departmental meetings. Inter-disciplinary technical sharing meetings. Strategic, operational, country, and agency meetings. Not only did the numbing bureaucratic regulations, sign-offs, and approvals take the juice out of an idea; once it passes through the breast-feeders, the insecticide-treated Oklahoma bed net lobby, the inclusivity wardens, and the environmentalists, there is nothing left but a few tattered threads.

What comes to mind when you think of municipal government? If you live in DC, you will think corruption, venality (Cadillacs, SUVs, wigs, and bling bought with taxpayers money), and inefficiency. But in this vast, extensive, bureaucratic swamp there is one thing that will always give night sweats – the DMV.  A trip down to C Street or to the Half Street Inspection Station is a descent to public sector hell.  Indifference, insolence, abuse, and spite are the rule. 

There is a large, hand-painted banner strung across the entrance way to the DMV offices downtown.  “We are here to serve you”, it says. Crossing into that penitential purgatory is bad enough, but to be greeted by a welcome sign which is far more threatening and ominous than even the Arbeit Macht Frei of Auschwitz is torture.

To be fair, the above-cited survey did note that well over half of government workers express satisfaction in their jobs; but what kind of satisfaction?  Judging by the DMV it is sadistic and infantile.  And judging by USAID it is taking pleasure in slowing the wheels of government, adding sludge and muck to administrative arteries;  and hectoring, harassing, and browbeating private contractors.

I worked for a private, for-profit company that took USAID money; and the difference between it and the great Pennsylvania Avenue Bureaucracy was night and day. Heads were on the block, numbers never lied, and winning was everything. There was no concern whatsoever for issues of gender, equity, community participation, or inclusivity. One-third of all contracts bid should be contracts won.  No one was under any illusions about private sector innovation or uniqueness.  All employees knew that they we were bidding on the tacky retreads produced by bureaucrats in the US Government, and that any hope of having an impact on Third World beneficiaries was just whistling in the wind.

Job satisfaction was a function of meeting targets and budgets and achieving high client approval ratings which in turn resulted in more contracts; and although many younger workers wished for more time in the field, closer to the real beneficiaries, they respected the clear objectives of the company, tight management, work discipline, and absolutely no nonsense.

The Orszag report says that much of the public sector employee dissatisfaction results from bad bosses.  The public sector cannot attract top managers, and the seniority system rewards patience and longevity more than it does talent.

I used to work for the World Bank, a pretty mean bureaucracy in its own right.  We may have been paid many times that of US State Department bureaucrats, travelled First Class, stayed in Five-Star hotels, and enjoyed the privileges of the elite class of International Civil Servants; but we were still office drones. The same creative juices flowing in the veins of new recruits to the State Department flowed in ours; and just as it was leached and sucked out by the US federal government, it was drained by the Pakistani, Indian, and Nigerian bureaucrats on H Street.

Seniority was the rule on both blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. World Bank employees were promoted to Division Chief because they had hung around long enough or because their country quota had not been met.  I worked for two supervisors who never should have been elevated to a managerial rank.  Both were dumb – at least by World Bank standards – and with no clue about personnel management or corporate leadership. We produced endless paper with no demonstrable results.

We were happy because we were paid well, not because of any job satisfaction.  We were, despite the cachet of working for the World Bank, no different from the ‘technicians’ down at the Half Street DC Inspection Station.

In a more ideal world, there would be a better work-life balance in public sector jobs; a more reasonable and equitable remuneration for work done and bonuses given for excellence. Offices would be bright and airy, supervisors thoughtful and considerate, and limited time spent on paperwork. Yet the nature of bureaucracies is to become self-protective, risk-averse, and conservative.  No matter how small a government agency may be at its beginning and no matter how goal-oriented its staff, slowly but surely it will grow in predictable ways. It will spread like a paramecium and consume and assimilate all in its path.  It will grow in every direction, divide and subdivide, create layers and territorial plats. Soon it will resemble all other bureaucracies.

In other words no cosmetic changes nor any sub-structural changes will do any good.  No plants, rugs, or track lighting. No flex time, maternity leave, or creative writing set-asides.  Unless the public sector becomes like the private – competitive, bottom-line, and profit-oriented, it will remain the same plodding, inefficient mastodon that it has always been.  And if the public sectors becomes just like the private sector, all distinctions between them will disappear.

Isn’t that what we all really want? The disappearance of government?

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