Is it worth applying for government jobs? I used to think that working in government would be a way to do good in the world, to have financial security and to get ahead. But the news is full of governments doing terrible things and people resigning so they don’t have to do terrible things, or being reassigned to force them to resign. I see people on social media bragging about the passion of their work in government, but no one I know personally feels that way. Should I even try to enter?
Signed, not Winston Smith
Dear Not Winston,
There’s an old picture of what a career in government can be: join an agency whose mission you believe in, get training and progress through the agency, maybe to a high-level position, and retire with a pension and the pride of a job well done. Even in the heyday of public service, most careers fell short of this ideal. But now it’s even less realistic.
Most government work is now done by people who are not government employees. Since 2005, according to research by Paul C. Light. So your entry-level job in the public sector, or the job that could be your next step, is likely to be with a beneficiary or contractor rather than the government itself.
The days of identifying with an agency’s mission for your entire career are also mostly over. According to Light’s research, the number of appointees to federal government leadership positions has risen to around 1,700. A political appointee’s job is to ensure that their agency serves the preferences of the administration in power. at any time. Even senior non-political officials, the Senior Executive Service, are under pressure to align themselves with the ruling administration, as political appointees control the bonuses and rewards that make up a large part of SES members’ income, and can transferring SES members to unattractive jobs in places they don’t want to move to. So if you work in government, you should expect that each time a new president is elected, the mission your job supports will change to match the public interest view of the new political appointees and to appeal to the constituency groups they favour.
A government career isn’t what it used to be, but there are still good reasons to try a government job. You might land in a sweet spot, where the work your agency wants you to do aligns with your view of the public interest. I have been in this situation. It’s exhilarating to feel the power of a government agency behind your efforts to make the world a better place. Don’t expect the sweet spot to last forever. Changes in political power. Policies, budgets and personnel change. Perhaps your view of the public interest is changing so that the work you were once passionate about seems hollow.
Even when you disagree with your agency officials, you might still be satisfied serving the public interest. The goal of the civil service is for employees to do their jobs according to the law despite changes in political power. Whether you quietly continue to do your job properly even when officials do not support you or openly dissent within your agency, you are part of the checks and balances that keep government from turning into mere patronage and spoils.
Government jobs offer a combination of job security, quality health insurance, and benefits that have become rare in private and nonprofit jobs. Few private or nonprofit employers still offer defined benefit pension plans, where you get predictable payments throughout retirement rather than relying on investments in your 401(k). But federal and many state and local government jobs still provide them.
Even a government job you don’t want to stay in can be extremely valuable on your resume. Organizations that deal with government as a customer or regulator want to hire people who have worked in government, know how particular programs work, and can deal effectively with government officials. If you have security clearance from your government job, you will be a prime candidate for many contractors working on classified projects.
So yes, it is still worth getting a government job. Don’t expect it to open a clear path to a satisfying career. You will need to adapt as power shifts, opportunities open and close, and your public interest goals and private goals may change.
Dear Bureaucrat offers federal employees the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the sector public. Reed spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for major contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School and is a frequent speaker in public administration. conferences.
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