By Mike Koetting May 1, 2019
This is the final post in my series on government workers. The last two posts have addressed government jobs, particularly federal jobs, in general. This post will focus more on government jobs at the higher end of the education spectrum. Generally speaking, these jobs require some specific expertise, are leadership/management positions, or both. As a society, we focus a lot of attention on political jobs, but we don’t pay much attention to jobs at the top range of the bureaucracy. Failing to get the appropriate people in these positions is as potentially dangerous as electing the wrong politicians. (See Michael Lewis’ new book, The Fifth Risk.)
My views on this matter are heavily influenced by two stints in Illinois state government. It appears to me that the issues in Illinois, and probably other state governments, are a bit more extreme than the issues facing the federal government. But the same general problems are facing all government organizations.
Salary Differentials Drive Out Experienced Managers
As noted in previous posts, federal jobs for people with advanced education pay less than the private sector. The differences are even starker at state and local levels. Government salaries have always been lower but relied on people’s interest in working for government. However, at some point, the differences become so large they surely impact. I noticed the change in Illinois. At the end of my first time in state government in the late-seventies and early eighties, I was a deputy director of an agency. When I did move to the private sector my salary went up, but as I recollect by less than 10%. Twenty-eight years later, when I returned to government from the private sector at approximately the same bureaucratic level, my compensation declined by more than half. People who moved to the private sector at senior levels often received salaries that were multiples of their state salary.
A recent paper published by the Milbank Memorial Fund suggests that this problem isn’t limited to Illinois. In most states the Medicaid agencies offer insufficient salaries to attract and retain people with the right skills and expertise to run Medicaid, which is typically a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Among other things, this leads to agencies controlled by the healthcare industry and beholden to private firms with whom it contracts, which don’t have the same agenda as the agency itself.
My knowledge base mostly involves state level healthcare functions; however, I have every reason to assume that the issues are much the same in the other difficult subject areas addressed by government at various levels.
This gets reflected in salary increases as well as base salaries. In Illinois, salaries of senior agency officials and other non-union positions (e.g. legal staff) were frozen for 10 years. During the five years of my second stint in state government, neither I nor any of the other senior administrators received any salary increase. One can only guess this reflects a sense in the broader society that investment in government is not a good investment. Attitudes range from skepticism that government is an effective tool to downright hostility to government as an evil “deep state.” Nevertheless, pretending government jobs are immune to the laws of the market is a bad strategy. Government work is an honor, but honor only goes so far.
It is no surprise, therefore, that people at senior levels or with special expertise are leaving government in the face of the shutdown and other difficulties. A Washington Post article from January says:
An upcoming job fair for workers with security clearances has seen a 20 percent jump in registrations over last year’s, said Rob Riggins of Cleared Jobs, which is organizing the Jan. 31 event in Tysons, Va. He attributed the increase to the shutdown.
Even before the shutdown, there was a drift away from government service. In the first six months of the Trump administration, 71,000 career employees quite or retired, compared with 50,000 in the first six months of the Obama administration. In Cook County, in the face of stagnant salaries, 40% of the civil litigators have left the State’s Attorney’s Office over the last year This slows down all the County’s business and increases the risks to many basic functions.
Salaries are by no means the only issue. Research shows people in government jobs, particularly senior positions, are motivated by a desire to provide public service. They care deeply about the mission of their agency and their role in serving the public. When these missions are attacked or denigrated, when the hierarchy of their agencies are filled with people who disagree with the fundamental purpose of the agency, some people who are doing good and important work are more likely to take advantage of non-government options than when their work is being celebrated.
Not Getting Young People
There is also a problem at the other end. As noted earlier, there are disproportionately many older employees in government and disproportionately fewer young people in the federal civil service, a pattern seen in many states as well.
Part of this is distrust of the current administration and part is the accumulated damage of 40 years attacking government. But a big part is the fact that government sclerosis makes hiring and retaining young people difficult. At the federal level the inefficiency of the hiring process is noted in virtually every report on the status of the federal workforce. The current process makes it hard to find out about relevant jobs, takes roughly forever to crank out an actual job offer, and then often puts people into a rigid bureaucracy which is particularly unattractive for young people.
The same problems impact state and local governments. In fact, their structural problems may be even more acute. The number of state and local government jobs has decreased by 3% (11% per-capita) in the last 10 years. This widespread downward pressure on the number of jobs means fewer job openings. Further, in many places well-intentioned provisions designed to root out political influence from hiring, have made it almost impossible to bring talented young people into government service, or, indeed, bring in anyone who is not already working in state government. During my first stint in state government, there was a flow of talented young people into state government who provided yeoman’s services and, in many cases, rose to form the backbone of Illinois government for the following decade. During my second stint, the entire department was only able to hire a handful of young people in five years. At the bureaucratic leadership level, we were aghast at the consequences. We were not getting new blood into the agency and many of our systems were being held together by retirement-eligible workers who were the only ones who knew how the systems really worked.
This need not be the case. Despite skepticism about government, many young people are strongly altruistic and could be attracted to government with approaches and opportunities that speak to them. For instance, the UK has nearly double the US’ share of people under 30 in its civil service, thanks in large part to its Civil Service Fast Stream, a development program for new graduates who want to work in government. The program is highly competitive (fewer than 1 in 25 applicants is accepted) and attracts some of the best talent in the UK. The federal government has tried a number of programs that adopt some of these elements but, according to the Volker Alliance, a non-profit group founded by Paul Volker to strengthen government service, none of them has been consistent or comprehensive enough to really have the desired outcome.
All of this leads the Volker Alliance to conclude:
Simply put, too many of the best of the nation’s senior executives are ready to leave government, and not enough of its most talented young people are willing to join. This erosion in the attractiveness of public service at all levels—most specifically in the federal civil service—undermines the ability of government to respond effectively to the needs and aspirations of the American people, and ultimately damages the democratic process itself.
We are inflicting serious damage on ourselves.