The federal workforce: Abandon all hope, ye who work here

Federal employees voice anger and resignation about their working conditions, their bosses and the likelihood that anything will change

Editor's note: This article was modified on July 27 to give the proper name of the Student Career Experience Program.

Whenever the topic is the federal workplace, one thing always leads to another.

Two months ago, blogger Steve Kelman wrote a post about some Harvard graduates and their thoughts about public service. That led one reader, signing himself Joe, to suggest that most top-flight job candidates are not likely to stick around once they scope out the primitive work environment and bureaucratic politics.

When the FCW Insider blogged about Joe’s comment, we received a slew of new comments from other readers, most of whom shared their own horror stories, which we collected for an article in our June 14 issue. That, in turn, triggered another wave of missives.

Granted, a few readers took exception to the negative tone of the article, but even they found it difficult to sign off without noting their frustrations. Here is another sampling of what readers have to say. (Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.)

No Respect (1)

The irony is that Congress dumped billions of dollars with little or no oversight to bail out banks but doesn't trust a contracting officer to decide if a $551,000 contract should be sole-source or not.
— Anonymous

No Respect (2)

In spite of constant attempts to reform the system, rewards usually go to well-connected, shameless self-promoters and political appointees. Each successive administration mistrusts and even punishes career civil servants for doing their best to carry out the wishes of the previous leadership and brings in top officials whose qualifications may have much more to do with their fundraising ability than their knowledge of the job in which they are placed.
— Stuck in the Middle (Washington)

Blame the Boss

I've been a federal employee for more than 30 years and have to agree with some comments I've seen here about dead weight. But part of the problem is that so much of the dead weight is lodged in middle management. And even middle managers who would like to do better are often stymied by the latest harebrained edict from above.
— Anon E Mouse

When I was hired three years ago through the Student Career Experience Program, I got the song and dance about how they wanted to innovate and change things for the better. That only seems to happen where it won't have as much consequence or argument with the upper echelons of management. Otherwise, it is all marching in lockstep with whatever someone has decided…will be done, whether or not it works right or at all.
— Anonymous

Tick, Tick, Tick

The only way to change the environment is to create a steady stream of new blood. Change the retirement system to 20 years and out. Only let employees stay longer by exception.
— Anonymous

Hope Is on the Way?

I have been with government for 20-plus years, and I have seen it change and evolve during that time but never as much as I have in the past five years. And I would like to think IT has been a major catalyst toward change. With the government workforce getting older and so many nearing eligibility for retirement, the opportunity for change and being able to effect change is greater now than it has been for those who want to make a difference and are considering a position in public service.
— Anonymous

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications:, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jul 12, 2010 Observant AnyMouse NoVA

How ironic that when this topic comes up it is always "middle managements" fault. And yet, when faced with the opportunity to actually reward some of the "brighter bulbs" in the room through Pay-for-Performance Management, the UNIONS decided it was hair-brained, discriminatory, and unfair" to their rank and file. WHY? Because even DEAD WOOD pays UNION DUES! The UNIONS fight you tooth and nail, and you simply can't get rid of these non-performers. AND the UNIONS don't want THE PERFORMERS getting paid more than others, who are not performing, because that would create friction. So, the Democrats kill PFP, you keep your non-performers, and your better-to-high performers get disgruntled and leave federal employment. How very sad.

Mon, Jul 12, 2010 RayW

Like the first commenter stated, a lot of gripers are still working in a job they do not like?

I see most of these articles as originating back east in the 'beltway bandit' territory and are referencing the folks who are in the high GS-13 to SES levels.

Anytime you have an organization whose bosses are appointed, elected by the masses, and otherwise not accountable, you will have major issues. Now in my group, we took the time and created a process team that consists of all of our workers, excluding the 'management'. We make changes to the way we do things to give the customer, the slob flying the fighter, the best product he can get to help him survive his mission. Yes, some of the things we do are not quite the official congressionally/chief of staff mandated way, but it does a better job of getting the work done, correctly and faster.

The trade off we mainstream federal workers have is that for the right to not be laid off randomly, we put up with idiots who have no clue what to do passing rules to make themselves look like they are doing something or to benefit a bribe payer. But we CAN change that by tailoring our process to work around some of the idiotic decrees from the DC cesspool, resulting in a better work place with a better product.

Fri, Jul 9, 2010

There is a lot of bashing going on here, but, like your "Blame the Boss" writer, many have been in the Federal government for decades. If it's so bad in government why do they stay so long?

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