How Federal Employees See Themselves (And Are Seen): One Man’s Opinion

How do federal employees see themselves and why to they see themselves in this way? A retired human resources specialist discusses federal pay, job attitudes and why working for the government can be a very rewarding career. publisher/editor Ralph Smith suggested some time ago that there might be an article in how Federal employees are currently feeling about their employment, given the criticism the Federal workforce has endured in recent years, particularly since the recession began, for being overpaid and under-worked – stop me if you’ve heard that one before – among other things.

Federal pay and retirement benefits are viewed by many of our fellow citizens as overly generous, although the public’s concern about both of those expenditures clearly extends beyond the Federal Government to state and local governmental entities. Some truly egregious examples of government pay and retirement benefits have surfaced in recent weeks at non-Federal levels. For example, the city administrator of Bell, California, was being paid almost $800,000 a year in total compensation – not bad for a city of just 36,552 residents as of July 2009. The police chief had to struggle by on just $457K, and the assistant city administrator made a paltry $376,000. So much for asking not what your city can do for you.

(Author’s note: I’m pleased to report that, since I started writing this article, eight of these officials have been arrested on charges of bilking taxpayers out of $5.5 million. All of them were taken from their homes in handcuffs!)

As a civil service retirement system (CSRS) retiree, I will acknowledge that it is a generous retirement system by comparison to the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), which, in turn, is magnanimous when compared with the retirement programs of many major firms in the private sector, where the trend in recent years has been away from fixed annuities and toward 401(k)s. But the Federal Government’s “generosity” in structuring its retirement plans, particularly the CSRS, was designed to allow it to be competitive in the face of private sector salaries which were often much higher.

For no reason except an endless capacity for retaining trivia, always at the expense of important information, I still remember my salary as a brand-new GS-5 with a college degree – $6,548 per annum. It must have been above minimum wage, and it was certainly more than I had made while working at McDonald’s, but my $.85 per hour job at Mickey D’s was augmented by an “all you can eat” provision, and my Federal job didn’t allow me to soak towels in cold water and hurl them at the silly paper hats of my co-workers. My first Federal job did pay less than my position as a sales representative for the American Tobacco Company; however, that one was not an ideal match. When customers would ask me about the taste of a new brand, I would reply, sheepishly, that I didn’t know since I was not a smoker. For some reason, my career there did not flourish.

My sense, as an outsider now but one who still works with and has contacts in Federal agencies, is that most Federal employees are very grateful to have their jobs, but I think the drumbeat of negative articles and stories does take its toll on morale and can facilitate the development of a “siege mentality.” And, like many private sector firms, lots of Federal agencies have left positions vacant for extended periods, meaning that the remaining employees were often expected to pick up the slack. Most of the affected employees probably did not have a feasible alternative to accepting the additional workload, such as taking another job or retiring.

In a July 12 Washington Post article, Ed O’Keefe and Joe Davidson noted that “In these times of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, federal workers are continuing a trend of job satisfaction…though remaining skeptical on a key point: that career advancement in the government is based on merit…” (Author’s Note: Some of this skepticism was reflected in responses to my two recent articles on pre-selection. See Office of Special Counsel Prosecutes HR Specialists for Allegedly Helping Agency Management Pre-select a Candidate and Office of Special Counsel Prosecutes HR Specialists for Allegedly Helping Agency Management Pre-select a Candidate: The Sequel.)

Extracting information from the latest Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey of Federal employees’ satisfaction with their jobs and various aspects of how they see their agencies being managed, the authors reported that “Three-quarters of respondents said they feel a sense of personal accomplishment, 8 in 10 like the work they do, and more than 90 percent think it is important. In addition, two-thirds of respondents said they’re satisfied with their pay.”

I think the first three of those statistics are particularly significant. Throughout my Federal career, I believed that the work I was doing was important, regardless of agency. The National Park Service (NPS) is a well-known agency with high public approval, and I never worked with more dedicated people than my NPS colleagues, but I encountered equally talented and hard-working people with General Services Administration (GSA), an organization which was pretty widely despised by other Federal agencies (“Why can’t they ever get the building temperature cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter?”) and virtually unknown to the general public.

Long considered a political dumping ground, GSA turned a psychological corner, I thought, when Ray Kline, Associate Administrator for Management Operations at the prestigious National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), became our administrator. During the tenure of Mr. Kline, who later served as President of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), many of us were able to take pride in our agency’s leadership as well as in our work. I was saddened to learn that Mr. Kline passed away this past April after an exemplary career – and life.

I also believe it is very important to like the work you are doing. In my own career, I really enjoyed human resources (HR) work – some functions more than others – but I only loved the work I did after my Congressional Fellowship built a bridge which allowed me to cross over to the natural resources side of the National Park Service. It would have been unseemly to complain about getting paid to: visit national parks; help protect their unique resources; work with and for some truly remarkable people; talk about our program with Congressional staff; and represent the NPS at Air Force Regional Airspace & Range Council meetings around the country, where I quickly learned that agencies which often seemed on the surface to have conflicting missions and objectives could work together cooperatively and even become partners and friends.

In point of fact, I could not wait to get up in the morning and get started with my natural sounds preservation work. I would have done that job without pay, although I was careful never to let my employer hear those words. My enthusiasm for the work was shared by all of my associates, and even the inevitable setbacks couldn’t keep us down for long. We also had a common vision of our mission, even when we argued, which we often did – sometimes heatedly – on the question of how best to accomplish it.

And, in terms of feeling a sense of personal accomplishment, every night I felt the contentment of believing I had done something positive that day for a park or for the national park system as a whole. While others would have to judge whether that feeling was reality-based or delusional, I understood the wisdom of Chinese philosopher Confucius’ saying: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

The statistics quoted above by Messrs. O’Keefe and Davidson reflect a gap between liking one’s work and believing it to be important, on the one hand, and a sense of personal accomplishment on the other. The specific factors related to the lower percentage of employees who feel a sense of personal accomplishment were not listed, but I would be surprised if they didn’t include an employee’s view of her/his supervisor, co-workers, and agency leadership.

The lowest number in the Washington Post article about Federal employee job satisfaction was the two-thirds who were satisfied with their pay. The late psychologist, professor, and management guru Frederick Herzberg, who introduced the concept of job enrichment and the Motivation-Hygiene theory, considered pay and benefits to be one of the “hygiene” factors – in other words, raising an employee’s salary could cause her/him to move, at least temporarily, from dissatisfied to less dissatisfied, but could not motivate the employee. Professor Herzberg considered the principal motivators to be achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, promotion and growth.

I have no argument with his list of motivators, but I think some people are motivated by money, as a means of living well, a method of “keeping score,” etc. Bernie Madoff and fellow former Chief Executive Officers and current prison inmates come to mind as examples. But whether or not you buy into Professor Herzberg’s theory on pay, I would guess that most of the one-third of Federal employees who are not satisfied with their salaries are either not sufficiently disaffected to leave or cannot find a job in another sector of the economy which would increase their pay.

As for how the American public views Federal employees and Federal jobs, I have read enough lately about the subject to get a clear sense that many worried private sector employees, and probably most every unemployed and under-employed worker in the U.S., would give their eye teeth, and probably some other body parts, if necessary, to have a Federal job about now.

The question of whether and to what degree Federal employees are underpaid or overpaid vis-à-vis their private sector counterparts has been debated for decades, with each side offering various surveys and statistical analyses to support its point. Perhaps some day there will be a salary comparison so definitive as to end the debate, but I am not holding my breath, particularly since I think the argument goes beyond metrics. However, assuming for the sake of argument that Federal employees are currently widely viewed as being overpaid, I think it is particularly important to make American citizens feel they are getting consistently excellent service from Federal agencies, which I’m not sure is the prevailing sentiment at the moment. Drawing an admittedly crude analogy, let’s suppose that Leonardo DiCaprio gets paid $20 million per film. I think that’s crazy, but then I watch him in Blood Diamond and Body of Lies and his performances are so good that my concern about how much he is being paid fades into the background.

Between perceived incompetence and misconduct scandals, the Federal Government has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons too many times in recent years. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) combined efforts with the White House (“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”) and other agencies to make the government look totally inept, and even uncaring, in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. Similar allegations have been raised in the British Petroleum oil rig explosion, which killed 11 men on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent massive oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

And a series of misconduct scandals has undoubtedly served to further undermine the public’s confidence in Federal agencies, particularly when the public perceives that the affected agencies are unwilling or unable to deal effectively with conduct which in a number of cases can only be characterized as outrageous.

A Washington Post article published on October 10 stated that “Americans have a more negative view of government today than they did a decade ago, or even a few years ago. Most say it focuses on the wrong things and lack confidence that it can solve big domestic programs…” In a new study done by the Post, the Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University, “55 percent of Americans say the government isn’t paying attention to the biggest issues,” and “Similar percentages say the government does not use tax money wisely…”

Perhaps the most worrisome statistic from the standpoint of Federal employees is that 43 percent would give the federal government a grade of D or F. Most Federal employee don’t have much control over the mission or priorities of their agencies, but, by virtue of the way they perform their jobs, they can often have a significant impact on the public’s perception as to how well the agencies are performing.

In part two, I will address some high-profile recent misconduct scandals and will speculate about their overall impact on the Federal Government.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.