Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bureaucracy Deluxe

Neal B. Freeman at the American Spectator celebrates a recent article in USA Today that blows the lid off of pay and benefit disparity between the public and private sectors.

I work for the federal government, and I can’t honestly say that I disagree with a single word of Freeman’s article. The notion that government workers are, among other things, better educated than workers in the private sector is – even if true – a distinction of rapidly diminishing significance, given the state of higher education in America these days. My agency is engaged in finance, and although most people here seem to be competent workers, I am reasonably certain that their education is no better than that of the people with whom I used to work in the private banking sector. Nor are any of them (including myself) self-evident geniuses; far from it. Most of us would be hard-pressed to find jobs in the private sector that offered anything close to the compensation (let alone the job security) provided by the government, and I have not detected any legitimate reason for this disparity. I have had people working for me in government – in the capacity of financial analysts - who would manifestly have been more appropriately employed in stocking produce at a grocery store (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with stocking produce; my point is that government workers don’t deserve to be paid an extraordinarily high salary for doing something that they don’t do any better – and sometimes not as well as – their private sector counterparts).

I have had people working for me who, although highly intelligent, are mental and emotional basket-cases for whom this agency is something like a half-way house, and who would not survive six months in practically any kind of remotely comparable private-sector job. Also, getting rid of a lazy or incompetent worker is damned near impossible, unless the person is a new employee who hasn’t yet cleared the probationary period.

And while it’s true that the compensation for the chief executives of federal agencies is frequently lower than what you see in the private sector, many of them are already independently wealthy and take government jobs because, having made their pile, they now want to do something noble – like inflicting themselves on the public as the clueless bureaucrats they tend to wind up being, using their terms at federal agencies to boost their chances of landing something really prestigious, like a major cabinet position, or perhaps a shot at running for office. Or they’re academics who are trying to pad their resumes in the hope of getting fat (or fatter) job offers from top-tier schools. It’s almost always an ego trip of some kind. In any event, the chief execs are invariably big donors who have lavished gravy on the campaigns of victorious elected officials (usually the president). The job is a reward for political support, not for demonstrated talent in running the machinery of government. My point being that someone who accepts a job as head of an agency isn’t doing it primarily for the money, anyway, so comparisons with the private sector are not valid, in this instance.

And just what precipitated this rant, you might ask? I mean, besides the article linked? I had to sit in for my vacationing boss yesterday on a one-and-a-half hour meeting in which two of our senior political appointees gassed on interminably, with all of their usual earnest self-importance, about an off-site strategic-planning-and-circle-jerk confab that I won’t even be attending (I took one note for my boss: “I’ll be out that day.”)


JeffS said...

Paco, my biggest complaint about most Federal employees is their belief of importance, which is wildly overinflated at best.

Now, I've known some genuinely brilliant people in Federal employment. This comes from observing the results of their labor, not just my personal opinion. But the fact is, the vast majority of Federal employees are no better than their counterparts in other parts of the country, in education or training. As you note, getting rid of the incompetents is near impossible, and they generally survive for their entire career. This is sad, but true; I just watched one such person retire with many accolades and well wishes at an open ceremony in the office. (Personally, I suspect most of them were just celebrating his departure, or wanted some official excuse not to work.)

But this belief of their importance leads to an attitude that I find most disturbing, the "I know best because I'm the Fed!" That's bogus on many levels, and leads to some really bad decision making.

Isophorone said...

Hey, at least no one attacked you with a fish!

Paco said...

Jeff: There are, indeed, some brilliant people in government. Unfortunately, most of the ones I've known in my organization went into the private sector the first opportunity they got (and more power to them).

Isophorone: Yes, there is that upside.

JeffS said...

That's generally the case, Paco. Unfortunately.