The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No wonder no one wants to work for the federal government

Federal workers in Chicago protest the possibility of a federal shutdown on Sept. 30, 2013. But even at work, their lives aren’t much better.  (M. Spencer Green/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Increasingly, top employers are competing to recruit top talent. Free gourmet food, massages and time to pursue your individual passions are on offer at Google. Other eager spots offer classes, exercise groups, learning sabbaticals and ultra-flexible work arrangements.

But one very large and important employer seems to be heading in the opposite direction: the government. Rather than enticing the next generation of public servants, federal hiring policies and subpar working conditions dissuade new college grads from joining up. At the same time, they’re pushing experienced employees out.

Less than 6 percent of graduating college seniors say their ideal career is in the federal government; only 7 percent of federal employees are under 30 years old. That’s a third of the rate in 1975 and the lowest in eight years. Individuals interested in public service are looking elsewhere — to nonprofit groups, international organizations or a new crop of socially motivated start-ups. And federal employee satisfaction dropped four years in a row, according to an office of Personnel Management survey. 

The problems start at the very beginning: the job application. Candidates must wrangle the subpar USAJobs Web site, the central federal hiring platform with a history of failures.

The process is ultra-standardized (here is a guide on “federalizing” your résumé), which means many top candidates are rejected right off the bat if they don’t fit neatly into the hiring procedures. Relying on specialized résumés and questionnaires (as the site does), the government misses out on evaluating candidates on their actual skills as many companies now do. And even qualified candidates can wait months to hear further about an opportunity.

The reliance on unpaid internship programs in many departments — which can serve as a gateway to employment — limits employment pools to only the wealthiest candidates.

And background checks sometimes arbitrarily disqualify potential talent for minor offenses, like marijuana use. The FBI, for example, is having trouble finding hackers who don’t smoke pot.

Even if you get hired, office life in modern government isn’t exactly dreamy.

Stifling hierarchies and antiquated office spaces wear many people out (young and old), even when agencies try to modernize. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, started in 2011, imagined a dynamic workplace that was a “Google-era regulator: a data-obsessed start-up, forever iterating … with a culture of creativity and corps of true believers.”  Instead, as Lydia DePillis wrote early this year, “it failed to escape the byzantine rules that hobble every other agency.”

According to sources interviewed by DePillis, the CFPB was slowed by “overhead” assignments and red tape, political attacks from the GOP and slow decision making. It now reflects standard government work more than its intended start-up culture. As a result, a host of the originally impassioned staff have burnt out and moved to the private sector.

There’s also the instability: Last year federal employment hit a 47-year low; the shutdown put 800,000 workers temporarily out of work; the sequester reduced hiring at 19 agencies and furloughed around 777,000 employees for some amount of time. In large part, government employees must contend with the fact that Republicans would prefer that their jobs not exist.

Then, of course, there’s the money. Public servants have always accepted that they’ll make less than their private counterparts, but that doesn’t mean employees don’t need adequate compensation. A lawyer, for example, averages $30,000 less per year in the public sector than in the private sector. Just compare the salaries and benefits of the U.S. government and the United Nations: both jobs an ambitious recent-grad pursue in the name of public service. An entry-level “staff assistant” in Congress makes $30,000 a year, less than either House parking lot attendants and Senate janitors. At the United Nations, an entry-level professional can expect to make around $37,000, before adjustment for living costs.

At the beginning of this year, some Federal employees received their first pay raise in three years (others didn’t). Low salaries and little growth in compensation simply won’t win over many applicants to the government’s offices—particularly when there are higher salaries nearby.

Interminable applications with rather arbitrary requirements; uncertain employment and certain bureaucracy; lower compensation and fewer pay raises: It’s not surprising the government isn’t the dream job for most people.

If the federal government wants to incentivize the best possible candidates, it’ll have to overhaul how it hires (and fires), and how it rewards good work. The fate of the country, quite literally, is in the hands of our public servants — we deserve, we need, to hire the best and treat them well. With Congress gridlocked and money tight, it’s hard to imagine how that’ll happen. Still, finding a new model for these reforms won’t be hard — one can just look to where our potential public servants are taking their talents instead.