You Too Can Be a Bureaucrat

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Time has a "web exclusive" on impending government 'brain drain':

Over the next five years, over half of the federal government workforce is likely to retire, completely gutting vital agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, the Internal Revenue Service and Veterans Affairs… What happens when the brain drain hits the Federal Trade Commission, which investigates Internet fraud? Or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which makes sure kids don't choke on toys?

What, indeed? And even as the choking epidemic looms, no one seems psyched to snap up those hot CPSC jobs:

While the private sector has boasted of its commitment to quality and efficiency, the public sector still has a reputation branded by that notorious phrase, "good enough for government work."

Isn't it weird the way people think of government as ineffectual, even before the 'brain drain' hits? As the author explains, this wacky cultural perception is dead wrong:

The truth is, the average American would love one of these jobs—but they don't even think to look. Out of sight, out of mind. The government will need to wake up to the modern age, using recruiters and newspaper advertising.

So wake up, government! Newspaper advertising is the wave of the future.

NEXT: Plodding Plotters

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  1. I’ve found that ex-government workers have one remarkably good quality. …they’re meticulous.

    Ever heard the story of how GEICO got started?

  2. Why don’t you tell us?

  3. I’ve noticed the same thing as Ken, but the point is they’re EX-government workers for a reason – they couldn’t stand the incompetence they had to deal with day in and out.

  4. IIRC, GEICO=Government Employees’ Insurance Corporation, or something similar.

  5. Wikipedia sez:

    “GEICO stands for Government Employees Insurance COmpanies. Despite the name, it was never a government agency but rather a private firm originally founded by Leo and Lillian Goodwin to market auto insurance directly to federal government employees and their families. GEICO was based on the assumption that such persons would constitute a more financially stable and less risky pool of potential insureds than the general public.”

  6. Well I’m glad you asked!

    The way I heard it, once upon a time there was an actuary. …and he noticed that government workers get in fewer car accidents than the general population–much fewer. …probably because they’re so meticulous in everything they do. It’s so hard to compartmentalize you life!

    So, anyway, he started selling incredibly inexpensive auto insurance policies to government workers via direct mail. Hence the name of the company, which I understand stands for Government Employee Insurance Co. Wildly successful, I should add.

    Anyway, if you’ve ever worked with ex-government employees, you may notice a lot of things you don’t like. …but you have to admit that, generally speaking, they’re meticulous. Their jobs are defined by policy committees, and they live and die by how well they conform to those policies. That’s why anytime there’s a case of someone making an exception to a policy in the federal government, a senator can hold a hearing and know that some evidence will come up. …Because there’s no way in hell a government bureaucrat will make an exception, even under duress, without writing a memo and sending to everyone else in his department to cover his ass.

    So if you’ve got a job that requires someone to follow a policy as if he or she were a computer program, and for some reason you don’t want to just write a very small Unix script, hire some ex-government workers, give ’em a policy, wind ’em up and let ’em go!

  7. >using recruiters and newspaper advertising.

    >>So wake up, government! Newspaper advertising is the wave of the future.

    Hmm. And this they publish as a “web exclusive?”

  8. Yes, I am a gubmint worker, and I can categorize most of us as one of these:

    ineffective*
    inefficient
    incompetent
    corrupt

    *by far the majority of us – myself included (I work in Unemployment Insurance) – fall into this. It’s not that we’re not doing our jobs well – we are – it’s that our agencies themselves are ineffective in their missions.

    Most people I work with are fairly hard workers, knowledgable, and dedicated to their job. Unfortunately, most of that effort is spent on learning the minutiae, procedures, regulations, and bullshit rules thrust upon us by legislatures.

    Oh, I certainly enjoy the benefits from government work: low stress; nice hours (37.5/week – not a minute more); semi-nice retirement; job security baby!

  9. Government brain drain? Talk about an oxymoron…

  10. “Over the next five years, over half of the federal government workforce is likely to retire, completely gutting vital agencies….”

    Is this the part where the State withers away, and we are left in a workers’ paradise?

  11. I think this is an example of “To you it’s a bug. We call it a feature.” For government budgeteers, an exodus of retiring workers is one of the few ways to reduce headcount that doesn’t bring political headaches.* It is much easier to let attrition reduce the total number of employees than to review programs, eliminate some and actually let people go.

    Kevin

    *Caveat: sometimes a government unit has so screwed up its pension and health care benefits that having too many folks retire at once severely screws up the annual budget.

  12. Ok, pay attention class…..
    1) Government jobs are based on performance appraisals, not profit or measurable results (on a conceptual level).
    2) The aforementioned appraisals are overinflated, on a A->F scale, pretty much everyone is an A. The military suffers from this also.
    3) As such, it’s not so much what you have going for you to get ahead in govt, it’s what you don’t have going against you.
    4) The surest way to not have anything against you is? (hint: Don’t do anything, at least that can be traced to your idea, make sure it’s tagged to someone else…if it goes well, you made the idea happen, if it goes bad, it’s the fault of the idea)

    Given this approach, the govt could probably take a 60-75% hit in personnel and do just fine, probably why nobody’s getting too upset.

  13. Government will find a way to replace those workers as well as continue adding more. Of that you can be assured.

    The only question is whether they will do it by taxing us more to raise gov’t salaries, or just simply outlaw the private sector altogether.

  14. Let’s not forget the tendency for elected pols to take any “savings” from a reduced civil service headcount and spend it on outside consultants.

    Kevin

  15. I don’t know anybody who had ever managed a job interview with the federal government, let alone gotten a job, at least for agencies that hire through the standard OPM channels. The ratings system seems to pretty much ensure that nobody but current government employees or veterans can have a high enough rating to proceed.

    But let’s not forget that the federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on being ineffective. Some of us are outside the federal government but have contracts with the federal government. I’m currently working on a project that was supposed to go 1/1/04 to 12/31/04. I count myself as totally ineffective whenever I’m working on this project.

  16. Wasn’t it just last month we were hearing that Mexicans only take the jobs that we don’t want?

    I think we can kill two birds with one stone, here…

  17. I think government recruiters face an uphill battle because work conditions in private sector have improved so much in the last decade or so.

    Up until the early-80’s, both private and public organizations shared the same fundamental top-down, deeply hierarchal organizational model. There was little difference between working in depths of corporate bureaucracy and working for the state. Over the last 20 years or so competition and technology drove the private sector to a more bottom up, shallow hierarchy model. People in the private sector have more control over their work, exercise more discretion and have a better chance of making a real difference than those still trapped in the bowels of government.

    In addition, fewer people today have that mid-20th century fetish for attaching themselves to some large institution just for the security.

  18. A conversation I had with my roommate in college:

    Roomie: PoN, you should get a position with the goverment.
    Me: Well, the Foreign Service does sound intriguing-
    Roomie: ‘Cause then you wouldn’t have to work hard.

    Guess what he does now?

  19. I got a B.A. in Political Science. Except for a two-month stint as a file clerk one summer when I was a college boy, I’ve never worked for the government. When I’ve been job hunting, people sometimes asked me why I didn’t go that route. My stock answer was “If you got a degree in biology, would you want to get a job as a disease?”

    Kevin

  20. I agree with Shannon Love – A government job is where you go to work the 9-5, earn your pension, and retire. It is not going to attract highly motivated people at the lower levels.

  21. I don’t know anybody who had ever managed a job interview with the federal government, let alone gotten a job, at least for agencies that hire through the standard OPM channels.

    I’ve actually heard of a lot of students getting internships in government and eventually job offers. …but turning those jobs down.

  22. I was, until recently, a gov’t worker. I’m now at a small, private software company. When I had my gov’t job, I called in sick a lot and just generally disliked my job. But I didn’t really realise this until I finally got my current job. The first day was a breath of fresh air – everyone here is working to make money and grow the business. Such a different vibe from just trying to maintain the behemoth that employeed me previously.

    However, I am far from meticulous. Part of that is because at my old job I only worked about 2 hours a day. So I’m almost having to re-learn how to work…although I’ve never been what I would consider a hard-worker. But the fact that I actually like my old job does make a huge difference.

  23. I’ve actually heard of a lot of students getting internships in government and eventually job offers. …but turning those jobs down.

    I had some friends that interned for the federal government. But based on those experinces, all of them turned down the offers that the government offered them.

    They said that they wanted government jobs because they did not want to work too hard while in school.

  24. I’ve been told that government employment is welfare for college grads that are still looking for “real” jobs.

  25. Well said.

  26. bullshit rules thrust upon us by legislatures.

    those bastards, if it werent for those elected fuckers us crats could rule everyones lives from craddle to grave far more efficiantly.

    Jesus Christ am i wrong or are there even any libertarians who read reason hit and run…or are you all here for the chicks and drugs?

  27. Jesus Christ am i wrong or are there even any libertarians who read reason hit and run…or are you all here for the chicks and drugs?

    How many comments did you have to skip in this thread to come up with that?

  28. “Jesus Christ am i wrong or are there even any libertarians who read reason hit and run…or are you all here for the chicks and drugs?”

    Isn’t that what Libertarianism is all about? Well, that and escaping in your own private space colony…

  29. bullshit rules thrust upon us by legislatures.
    those bastards, if it weren’t for those elected fuckers us crats could rule everyone’s lives from cradle to grave far more efficiently.

    Actually, if it wasn’t for Federal regulations we be telling the bureaucrats to shove it.

    Right now 1.8 million people work for the government, not including the military or the postal service. The government will have to replace almost a million of them in the next few years ? as many as already work at Ford, IBM and Bank of America combined.

    Over the last four decades or so the Federal government has shut down several times. Mostly no one noticed any difference.

  30. “I agree with Shannon Love – A government job is where you go to work the 9-5, earn your pension, and retire. It is not going to attract highly motivated people at the lower levels.”
    This may be true for some jobs (DMV, etc.), but in my field (criminal prosecution), there are a lot of young motivated people coming through. This is where you make a reputation to move up. The same is true for young lawyers in a number of federal agencies, like the SEC and DOJ, and of course in the courts (law clerks).

  31. For Ph.D. scientists, some of the government’s research institutes are really good places to work. Some scientists consider these places to be preferable to universities. The government basically spoils its best scientists. This is true for a variety of fields, not just those with heavy military applications.

    My cynical take on it is that it’s a combination of a “brain drain” strategy, and subsidized production of basic research that industry can then draw on. Good scientists are the privileged beneficiaries of this very non-market policy.

    Of course, some places are better than others. Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore have excellent reputations as places to work, but some of the other DOE labs are much more miserable. NIST and NIH are great places to work. (NIST is nicer but smaller.) I hear mixed things about NASA, it probably depends on what you’re doing. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab certainly has a good reputation. Regulatory agencies aren’t quite as much fun, although I have heard some good things there as well. The NSA has a reputation for attracting very good mathematicians, although I don’t know if that’s still true today or if it’s just a reputation based on the past.

    Of course, people complain about bureaucracy, and some places are worse than others in that regard. (DOE labs are said to be especially awful.) But if you consider the fact that university researchers mostly work on government grants and have to do a lot of paperwork to get those grants, it’s not clear to me that government scientists are doing any more paperwork than their university colleagues. In my view, whether one prefers universities or government labs depends on whether one wants to teach.

    Of course, the privileged scientists at government labs are a very tiny portion of the federal workforce. Their retirement won’t have a huge budgetary impact, and their slots will be VERY easy to fill, because the positions are highly sought-after.

  32. Maybe I’m looking at this throught libertarian-colored glasses, but reading the responses by geof and thoreau and looking at my 4 years in government employment leads me to think that it’s the departments in areas that Reasonoids think the government has more legitimate business in – the judiciary, military, NIH and NASA – that are capable of putting their employees to more productive, useful work.

    I can also attest to government agencies having all types of workers (the good, the bad and the ugly) and how crushing paperwork, endless policy and ineffective agencies drive bright, energetic new hires screaming for the doors leaving behind a pissy desk clerk whose lunch hour starts NOW and to hell with the line of customers (clients, as the department of human services told me to call them) who are backing up out the door.

  33. I’ve never worked in government, but I’ve had a couple brushes with it. One project I did was for required reporting to the NYS DMV, and surprisingly it hasn’t been too bad. Their IT department has been mostly a pleasure to work with. My other brush with the gov’t was in relation to the Sorbanes-Oxley thing – yuck. They want detailed time sheets of when I access certain systems and I’m like “I don’t ‘access’ them, I program them” and the “compliance” person is like “Oh. OK.”

  34. How many comments did you have to skip in this thread to come up with that?

    pretty much all of em… 🙂

  35. Todd,

    I’ve noticed the same thing as Ken, but the point is they’re EX-government workers for a reason – they couldn’t stand the incompetence they had to deal with day in and out.

    The ones I’ve met almost all left because they got paid better in the private sector. But yes, the ones I’ve met have been meticulous as a rule.

  36. Over the next five years, over half of the federal government workforce is likely to retire, completely gutting vital agencies

    This same problem is also about to “completely gut” vital American industries. Maybe congress can pass a law banning both retirement and death.

    And maybe, this will be Ron’s big chance to get in the spotlight and tell congress how they really ought to be dealing with biotech. 🙂

    I await the day that Ron Baily gives up writing for Reason and becomes a congressional consultant. With all those retirements looming, there’s going to be this big upward sucking noise.

  37. Shannon,

    competition and technology drove the private sector to a more bottom up, shallow hierarchy model. People in the private sector have more control over their work, exercise more discretion and have a better chance of making a real difference

    Sure. And the end result has been that nobody has real authority over anybody else. We’ve got huge corporations full of cowboys. Maybe you can make a difference there. Or maybe, nobody makes a difference because every horse hitched to the wagon is pulling in a different direction.

    This has been my experience in recent years. Somebody near the top setting at least some general directions would go a long way right about now.

    Where’s the balance between “one boss who knows all” and “there are no bosses”? I don’t see that we’ve found it.

    If you want to make a difference, the GM’s and IBM’s of the world may not be where you want to go. I’ve heard way too many VPs in corporations whose attitude is that any workers (blue collar, white collar, whatever) can replace any other workers in 60 days. Corporate employees are supposed to be interchangeable cogs, they really don’t want to have key people.

  38. While the private sector has boasted of its commitment to quality and efficiency, the public sector still has a reputation branded by that notorious phrase, “good enough for government work.”

    That only sounds good if you never worked inside a large, publicly traded corporation. Those beasts are marvelously ineffective and inefficient. Not to mention the group think they spawn, especially over the last decade.

    As much as I’m a greedy capitalist pig, I’m still waiting to see a large publicly traded corp that marches to anything but the tune of “Next Quarter on Wall Street”. Rarely have I seen these behemoths think ahead for any extended time frame (though Wall Street would do better in the long haul if they thought a little further ahead).

    The big corps survive because, when they get on the ropes they go buy a (privately held) small to mid size company that’s developed the innovative products they couldn’t possibly produce themselves.

    The privately held sector works. I’ve never been convinced publicly traded corporations are much better than government, in the long run. The only difference is that they have congress jamming less stupidy down their throats all the time. But I’ve watched this trend chaning in recent years too….

    Publicly traded corporations do not, as a rule, tell lawmakers “this is assinine”. Whatever rules government wishes to impose, corps just say “okay”.

    OTOH, corps do occassionally weed out some blatantly dead wood through layoffs, which governments don’t do. So maybe I’m being a little harsh towards publicly traded corps. A little.

    Now, where’s joe to tell me I’m all wet and the truth is that government is far, far more efficient than corporate America?

    After which, maybe JC will be vindicated.

  39. Abernathy,

    Guess what? It works about the same way in big corporations. At performance review time you better make sure nobody’s got an axe to grind against you. Except, in a big corporation you can sometimes pretend that your great idea made a difference to that mystical cloven hooved creature, The Bottom Line.

    And if, at the end of the year, you add up everybody’s big, great contributions to the corporate bottom line, it comes to somewhere between 5X and 10X what the entire corporation grossed. 🙂 See how much different it is in the corporate world?

    I’ve long thought that America has grown its very own aristocracy. When big companies flop, upper management usually doesn’t take the hit. They’re the last to get laid off, and they’ve got their golden parachutes when all else fails. But before that happens they can usually manage to a) buy up a small company with innovative product(s) or b) get bought up by some larger corp.

    It’s usually the middle and lower rungs of the corporate ladder that take the hit when the people above make stupid decisions. Which they are at least as likely to do as not.

    Oh no — I’m not sounding like a greedy capitalist pig anymore. Ahh!

    [I’m self destructing…]

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