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Why I almost remained a government employee and why I did not (joshorr.us)
30 points by marmot1101 1426 days ago | hide | past | web | 14 comments | favorite



As I've surely alluded to on HN in the past, I have too much experience with Government work.

I generally consider most of the list of positives as negatives.

1. Huge sense of purpose.

Makes it even more frustrating when work which would serve the people is dashed due to petty internal politics and vanity projects.

2. Stability / 3. Pension

Widespread complacency about performance from entrenched employees and extreme defensiveness born from the knowledge that they can't hope to go anywhere else and reap the same wage/benefits.

When a place is full of people whose primary goal is to last long enough to retire with a pension or simply collect a stable check any perceived threat to the status quo, much less real change is out of the question.

4. Time off

Scheduling becomes a nightmare as someone or other is always off. Absolutely nothing gets done from the second week of November to the third week of January.

Most senior employees are gone at least 5 weeks a year.

When someone does finally retire, the position might be held up a year or more as they burn off accrued leave.

5. Big fish, small pond. Government tends to promote from within for most positions.

This compounds number 2 and 3 as the complacent culture of caring only for the next check and retirement exists from the top down.

Towers of management are created as moving up becomes the only/most effective way to increase salary at longevity.


> Most senior employees are gone at least 5 weeks a year.

Isn't this the case everywhere? I know we're a bit spoiled in Denmark with everyone getting at least seven weeks off by law, whether you're senior engineering staff or a janitor (10 statutory holidays plus 5 weeks of movable holiday).

But I thought in the U.S., senior professional staff at least got 4+ weeks, and were encouraged to take it. When I was growing up (in Chicago) my dad worked for a big engineering firm, and while he started with only 2 weeks a year of vacation, it went up with seniority to a max of 6 weeks once he was at the senior engineering ranks. It was quite useful from a work/life balance perspective, since it enabled us to take family trips to relatives in Greece for 3-4 weeks at a time, without which I would neither know my relatives there nor be able to speak anything approaching fluent Greek. My brother works for a Valley hardware company and gets something like 4-5 weeks as well, so I thought it was still a fairly standard perk if you had an upper-middle-class professional job. In fact to me it's one of the defining features of being on the upper side of middle-class, that you can both afford and are allowed take a few weeks of vacation each year.


I realized I probably should have been more specific about that.

It's not really the amount of leave that's a problem, rather how leave in general is used/abused to compound other problems in the government culture.

Big project coming due in 6 months? Several people who should be accountable to deliver major parts of the effort are scheduled for leave on the due date.

Need to backfill someone who will be gone for 4 solid weeks during a busy period? Sorry, you can't bring on a short-duration contractor, only FTEs are allowed perform this completely generic role.

So you've decided to be a bold manager and take issue with any of this? The grievance is already in the inter-office mail.

I have to imagine (hope) that where accountability exists, the bottom line matters or employees are invested producing something these things wouldn't occur.

>In fact to me it's one of the defining features of being on the upper side of middle-class, that you can both afford and are allowed take a few weeks of vacation each year.

You don't have to be upper or even middle class, even within the hierarchy of the organizational layers. It's often just a matter of having seniority within your job description.


When I was in government, I was amazed at the way a relatively minor initiative could become an all-consuming journey involving year after year of heartbreak, despair and triumph. And that would be just to get the damn thing greenlighted. God help you if you had to put it out for contract.


>When I was in government, I was amazed at the way a relatively minor initiative could become an all-consuming journey involving year after year of heartbreak, despair and triumph.

Then, in the end, you and the half a dozen others who performed 85% of the work don't get invited to the "Project Completion Ceremony" where 47 people pat each other on the back and hand out plaques.


As a government IT employee, I agree with all points listed.

In particular, the most major issue for me on the positive side is stability, and the most negative issue is lack of growth.

I interviewed at Microsoft (as a courtesy to a friend who works there), and one of the interviewers was genuinely curious about life in the government. I told him that, barring severe budget issues or personal lawlessness, I could not be fired or demoted. But, I'm also at the top of my scale, which means I can't be promoted either. It doesn't matter much what I do (or don't), I can't go up, I can't go down. I'm just "here".

In some sense, that's supremely freeing. I can put in exactly as much effort as I feel comfortable with, learn new technologies and techniques right up until I don't feel like it anymore, and so on.

On the other hand, I'm kind of a lazy guy who works better when there is a boot up my rear. I know in the private sector I would learn a lot more, and grow professionally a lot more, because there is always that "up or out" mentality. You can't stagnate and survive in most businesses.

With more modern government employees, some of his advantages are lessened. For example, our retirement plan is a traditional defined contribution plan, which invests in a stock portfolio of our choosing. Likewise, our time off is two weeks per year plus federal holidays. Neither of these seems more "generous" than the average established private industry, although I don't have direct experience so I'm not sure. Startups of course I wouldn't expect retirement plans and more than the minimum time off.

Also the more money part would be nice, with the possibility of things like bonuses. For comparison, Microsoft offered me $110K/year base salary, presumably with the opportunity to earn a bonus on top of that. My current government position pays $84K/year fixed, no opportunity for bonus.

That's almost a 50% raise by making a lateral move into private industry, plus then there is further opportunity for advancement once there. (I didn't make the move because of the whole toxic environment/sinking ship, among other considerations.)


>Barring severe budget issues or personal lawlessness, I could not be fired or demoted. But, I'm also at the top of my scale, which means I can't be promoted either. It doesn't matter much what I do (or don't), I can't go up, I can't go down. I'm just "here".

>In some sense, that's supremely freeing. I can put in exactly as much effort as I feel comfortable with, learn new technologies and techniques right up until I don't feel like it anymore, and so on.

>On the other hand, I'm kind of a lazy guy who works better when there is a boot up my rear. I know in the private sector I would learn a lot more, and grow professionally a lot more, because there is always that "up or out" mentality.

Spot on. Personally, I have thought about this a lot and came to the conclusion that I would rather have the flexibility and breathing space to work on side projects rather than having a high pressure, long hours job be the only thing I can focus on.


I always laugh and think of this [1] when I read about government employees. I worked at a state university for 10 years, I am much happier in the private sector.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v...


I work a private university, and I somehow doubt a private one is remarkably better in terms of politicking.


Your experience mirrors mine working at a DOE lab on the US side of a LHC dectector's data taking team.

Can't get fired, but no where to grow. Oh, and you worked your ass off? Here's a $500/raise for the year. My boss (who had worked at the lab his entire career) was verbally abusive to a female subordinate, and HR told me nothing could be done about that.

Fark government work.


From my experience, Government work is broken, and it takes a very special type of person to consider it for the long haul. Once you complete your training, you're usually worth double your salary on the open market, or more.

However, few industries really continue to invest in their people the way government does. I had the ability to go anywhere, learn anything, and do anything at any time, and I loved it.


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