Message from agencies: Don't work here!

Readers find agencies are their own worst enemies in efforts to hire and retain top talent

Imagine walking into a car dealership with checkbook in hand, only to be waved off by dealership employees telling you how the cars are made of subpar materials and through mismanaged manufacturing.

That’s essentially what happens every time the topic of federal hiring comes up among our readers. In the latest case, blogger Steve Kelman wrote about the job prospects of new Harvard grads, some of who are considering entering public service.

But agencies should not get their hopes up, replied a reader named Joe. Even if new grads endure the hiring process, they are likely to be horrified by what they find in federal offices.

“From my short time in the federal government thus far, the one word that I would use to describe my work environment is 'primitive,' ” Joe commented. “The physical space itself is old and decrepit. The IT infrastructure is so old (Windows 2K, MS Office 2000, etc.) that we can't even read documents sent from within our own department.”

And let’s not forget the senior career employees, people “who seem to be trying to keep their heads down (translated as risk avoidance) and just kill time until retirement," Joe added.

Joe’s observations, highlighted at the FCW Insider blog, triggered an avalanche of comments from other readers, most of whom saw similar problems — and then some.

Reader comments

(Editor's note: Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.)

Hey, Genius!

The work is what it is. The vast majority of the government does not do innovation. It shuffles paper. Technology is a tool used to shuffle the paper. One does not need the latest game-playing supercomputer to do the work. If you are there for the perks, the latest and greatest toys, etc., you are likely looking in the wrong place. It also pays to stand before a mirror and recite until it sinks in: "I am not the genius I think I am and a lot less important in the grand scheme of things."

— Anonymous

To Anonymous: It is precisely that kind of thinking that blocks innovation and positive change in the federal government and its workforce.

— Anonymous

What a waste

I have only been in the federal government for nine months and came in as a GS-13 for stability, and it sucks. As soon as my one year (grade in service) is complete, I will be returning to the private sector. I reduced my income by $15,000 to $20,000 to be treated as an administrative assistant with the most menial tasks that you can imagine, especially coming from a senior-level position within the private sector. Additionally, I have a master’s degree. The federal government does not properly utilize their resources, knowledge, skill sets or experiences that [it has] among so many federal employees.

— Anonymous


I worked for a federal agency for eight years. The feds were very good to me, and I achieved a GS-13 rather quickly. But I was the one to push and help make that happen with a lot of hard work. After the GS-13, I saw the pay scale and advancement opportunities curve go rather flat and left for private industry and doubled my salary at once. There is tremendous potential within the existing federal workforce, untapped, and we need leadership with integrity in the government — at all levels in all areas.

— Anonymous

Fired at Last

A friend who works in government told me that a manager in her agency — whose actions on the job would have gotten her fired at any private-sector firm — was finally let go. What did she do this time that got her fired? They got her on time and attendance. This struck me as incredibly funny. The inevitable conclusion is that you can do anything you want on the job and not get fired, but don't falsify a time record — that will get you fired.

— Public-sector consultant

Sell, Sell, Sell

Agencies should consider hiring to be a selling transaction that requires market research, packaging, branding, marketing and closing, including segmentation and differentiation messaging that communicates across all of the targeted segments of the multigenerational workforce. Agencies need to address this demand for agency-specific information and branding, possibly including different landing pages for different demographics so that messaging can be properly tailored to the different populations — students, midcareer, core occupational specialty, executive.

— ep_vet

So Not True

I've worked for the government for over 25 years and disagree with almost everything in this article, at least for the IT departments I have been a part of. Although there are always some people who fit the description of "lazy government worker," that is not the norm. Most of the people I have had the pleasure to work with are highly skilled, devoted people who go far above what is required.

— bookworm

inside gcn

  • When cybersecurity capabilities are paid for, but untapped

Reader Comments

Tue, Aug 10, 2010 steve g baltimore

Back in the 70's, when I was a gov't contractor, my favorite sign at a person's desk (which I saw frequently): We, the unwilling, have been doing so much for so long with so little, that we are now qualified to do anything with nothing. There were others, generally more sarcastic and harsh, around the offices as 'decor', but this one has stuck with me. No one considers that with every major election (i.e., regime change), directions change, objectives are redefined, and the behemoth known as government has to change direction. It's a cost of being government, and part of why significant initiatives that require great effort are difficult to get commitment to - after all, it takes 2 years to plan, one year to budget, and with only one year left to do any work before the whole project is killed for political reasons... is it any wonder that some of our seasoned bureaucrats feel disheartened?

Wed, Jun 23, 2010 Paul Virginia

I have seen more concern about the hiring of family members in the federal government than a concern for qualified applicants. There are reasons for the road blocks in the process. If you are honest on your application, you will not be hired at some agencies. Agencies should not be allowed to hire! We need a revamping of the whole process, leaving the individual agencies completely out of the process of hiring. The failure of government agencies to respond to public emergencies is the result of a failure of leadership at the very top of government. I have seen former government workers given jobs by subcontractors of contracted companies. I have seen family members and fellow church members given jobs by both Federal agencies and by their contractors. Why? Is it hard to find the relationships? No... no one cares at the top.

Mon, Jun 21, 2010

As a state employee, we see the same sorts of criticisms of work ethic from outsiders. I've worked for this agency for seven years (the longest I've stayed in one spot; I learn something new every day). During that time, two new PhD program managers have begun trimming the dead wood. I've seen several workers leave involuntarily, and generally the result was an improvement. We live in a state with limitations on taxation (Colorado). Everybody wants something for nothing. So technological updates are carefully considered and come to the oldest computers first. And commenters are correct; Microsoft upgrades cost time in training and relearning the software. Why upgrade: Because Microsoft does not support the applications with new templates, how-tos, and customer service once a new app comes into play. Federal service pays better than state. I work for state government for two reasons; I needed a retirement plan with good insurance AND I serve the people in my native state, even though the citizens keep saying we are poor workers. County and city organizations that work with us know better. People forget government is not a business, it is a bureaucracy, and as such, needs a certain number of people who can come to work every day and handle masses of data without going too insane. And an unrelated comment; I enjoy reading literate, carefully thought out emails with no rants! Thank you!

Fri, Jun 18, 2010

Please name one thing that Vista or Office 2007 did to lower costs to the government or improve productivity. My observation was that both changes cost an enormous amount of money in acquisition, planning, roll-out execution and lost productivity.

The taxpayer isn't asking for or benefiting from "innovation" for innovation's sake exceot in rare circumstances (e.g., federal research labs). "Change" is not always a positive thing -- in fact, it is more often than not change in the wrong direction unless carefully planned and thought out.

Thu, Jun 17, 2010

I am very sad to read these comments. It is really necessary to upgrade your operating systems if the projects that each taxpayer, such as myself, feels is being done to increase productivity and lower the cost of government and improve security.The way the federal government recruits people is one of the worst and most protracted, and it is still in full practice today which I hoped would be corrected by the Obama administration. It really makes a difference to get people in the senior positions who demand and want to see innovation and motivation prevail. How can the taxpayer feel that the Health improvements which are critical and the President had many taxpayers behind him on will be instituted with what I see here. Very discouraging.

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