The biggest issue in government that no one talks about


When it comes to programmers, you get what you pay for. (Screenshot)

Our opinion of government workers is notoriously low. Just look at these suggested searches from Google.

While Silicon Valley start-ups reinvent the world, most government agencies can only dream of being innovators. Basic competence on tech projects is a struggle, as the rollout of HealthCare.com illustrated.

At a GE-hosted event in Washington on Thursday addressing the future of work, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) addressed what he believes is the root of the problem.

(GE)
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) discusses the struggle to hire talented employees. (GE)

“The biggest issue we have in government is the one thing no one talks about,” McCrory said. “It’s how to get the work done in the most efficient, effective and quality way. I’m CEO in addition to being chairman of the board as governor and my biggest issue is being hamstrung by policies and politics which don’t allow me to operate in the most efficient and productive way and that includes paying the people who are really good.”

He shared the story of trying to find an economic forecaster.

“I can’t find the talent right now. My health and human services secretary says ‘Please get me some talent. Please get me some forecasters. Please get me some technical people.’ [Information systems] people are very, very difficult to find. If I get a good [information systems] person, they’re stolen within a year by the private sector.”

There’s a tremendous range in the talent level of people with tech skills. Research has found that one great programmer may be as valuable as 10 average programmers. Steve Jobs said that his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was 50 times better than the average engineer.

“A great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer,” Bill Gates once said.

The private sector knows this and pays up for superstars, yet the government is boxed into a pay scale that can’t reward top talent. Until this changes, problems such as McCrory’s will continue.

It doesn’t help that many young people are uninterested or overlooked when government positions open. Only 9 percent of the federal workforce is under 30, as opposed to 23 percent of the country’s entire workforce, according to a study

For engineering graduates, government work is miles from attractive, according to Tom Cochran:

In today’s economy, an engineering student’s personal calculus rarely values a government job over one in the private sector. The former is perceived as bureaucratic, lumbering and change-averse. The latter is a world that’s innovative, agile, always progressing.

A student completing a degree in computer science is most likely aiming for a job at Google, Facebook or some hipster start-up in the Bay Area. And, if that doesn’t work out, the alternatives are far and wide.

“The thought of working for government never crossed my mind. It was just the last place I wanted to work,” said Richard Bennett, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who spent 30 years as a software engineer. “You want a job where you can actually do some cool stuff. Working for the government doesn’t really seem like where you go to do cool stuff.”

The problems begin with hiring, a report from the Partnership for Public Service noted this month:  “The federal hiring process over time has become so slow, complex, opaque and imprecise in its ability to identify the best candidates that it is more likely to impede than facilitate the government’s ability to hire well.”

 And things don’t get better once employees are in the door.

One study found that only 57.8 percent of federal government workers are satisfied with their jobs, as opposed to 70.7 percent of employees in the private sector. Bosses are generally seen as poor leaders

Until someone makes working for the government as cool and financially rewarding as the private sector, how good can we expect our government to be?

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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