By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A young fed speaks

I had an interesting lunch today with a former fed who (in my humble view) is in a happy situation –- a child has followed his footsteps and entered government service, working in contracting and program management for a major federal agency.  The good news is that the son likes his job a lot. But the bigger story -– gleaned through several father-son conversations -- is more complicated.

Perhaps the two most important reasons the son likes his job are first, that he is constantly challenged to develop his skills, given assignments that in some sense are over his head, but that he loves to have the opportunity to learn and second, that the mission and what is being bought are both intrinsically interesting and substantively important for the nation.

The downside is that, according to the son, a main reason he is given so many challenging assignments is that the GS-15’s and even SES’ers above him are older people whom he describes as basically all being “retired in place.” They are willing to give the new recruit challenging work so they don’t have to do it themselves. This hardly bodes well for my friend’s son being able to gain the advantages of mentoring and dealing with a challenging assignment as part of a team including more experienced people.

A second point that his son raised is that he really feels the government is outgunned by the contractors they deal with at the negotiating table. The contractor personnel he deals with are of the age and experience level of his bosses, but they are not retired in place by any means. This puts the government at a disadvantage.

Finally -- and perhaps this won’t be surprising given the earlier points -- he and the other 150 or so young people working in his organization are overwhelmingly big fans of pay for performance, and don’t like the traditional GS system. They want to work hard, to achieve, and to be recognized for their achievements.

With the disappearance of the National Security Personnel System, which tried to bring pay for performance into the Defense Department, these young people are under a similar system in the Acquisition Workforce personnel demonstration program. I have written a number of times in earlier blogs about how my master’s students at Harvard have a similar view; they believe that the impression that achievement is not rewarded in government is a very big downside of going to work for government. These posts in the past have often been greeted with skeptical responses from some feds, who have referred to “Harvard brats” or “the elite.” However, my friend’s son went to a middle-tier state university, and none of his fellow new hires are from the Ivy League. They just want excellence to be respected and rewarded.

Posted on Jun 19, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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