Traveling through the western US, Jason and I have been spending most of our time on public lands: National Parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management lands. We do stay at a state park from time to time, but the majority of our camping and recreating has been on federal lands. This is true for many other Americans as well. In fact, there are tens of millions of tourists vacationing on public lands this summer. For each beloved National Park, there is a workforce that keeps facilities open and safe for visitors, ensures protection of wildlife, biodiversity, and archeological sites for future generations, and keeps resources safe from poachers. Other federal land-management agencies are tasked with ensuring resources are extracted sustainably. This means meeting the country’s needs for paper, building materials, petroleum, and minerals without destroying the land, the natural diversity of life, or the recreation opportunities it provides. Not a small task.
While visiting public lands on this trip, we regularly hear people discuss some common misconceptions about the federal workforce. The public opinion of Civil Servants – those who dedicate their careers to taking care of the shared public trusts for the benefit of the American people – is harmed by statements such as “It’s good enough for government work.” In the most extreme cases, federal workers are the object of home-grown terrorism in the case of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the armed-militia siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year. I worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service the past six years. That could have been my office that was seized.
It is certainly true that you can find lazy people in about any job across the country, but the public servants I know and worked with are some of the most passionate and dedicated people I have ever met.
Here are five myths about federal workers that need to be debunked:
- “Feds have more money than they know what to do with.” – I call this the Government Fat Cat Myth, and is by far the most common misconception I have heard during my two-month trip. The truth is that federal agencies have faced budget cuts each year that I was a federal employee (from 2011 – 2017), and for many years prior. Employees are finding innovative ways to get their jobs done, despite ever decreasing funding. It’s common for vacant position to not be filled, but the work load stays the same or increases. When I received a promotion in 2015, I couldn’t rehire my old position due to budget woes. I tried my best to do both jobs for 18 months. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation.
- “They sit in cushy offices while I’m out here making a living.” – Next time you need to visit the Social Security Office or other federal agency, take some time to look around. I’ve worked in two federal buildings and the first had such low air quality due to poor ventilation that we were occasionally sent home due to safety concerns. The second has peeling paint and thread-bare carpet. The first time Jason came to my office, he was dismayed at the poor shape of the building. I recently facilitated a meeting at the federal building in downtown Seattle. I’m not kidding when I say there was dial-up internet and no phone jacks in the meeting space. In 2017!!!
- “Once you get your foot in the door you can relax and play solitaire all day.” – I worked with several federal agencies and the one thing they all have in common is employees with drive, passion, and commitment to the American people. In the face of declining budgets and personnel, their creativity and resourcefulness is beyond anything I’ve seen in the private sector or academia. People stay late, check emails during the evenings and weekends, and willingly give up personal holidays when necessity calls. There’s no time for card games.
- “Feds just waste tax payer money.” – The ethics standards for federal employees who are entrusted with tax payer funds are arguably the highest in the world. The hoops that federal employees jump through to fund projects would make anyone in the private sector’s head spin. There is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, but all that red tape means that the accounting is rock solid. In my experience, the greatest care was taken to ensure that each dollar spent had value for trust resources and the public.
- “They get excellent healthcare and benefits for free.” It is true that federal employee healthcare and retirement benefits are top notch. Many people chose civil service because of the benefits rather than the expectation of getting rich. But they are not free. I had the basic option from the most popular federal healthcare provider, the most economical option available. For just me, no dependents, I paid $300 a month in premiums. I never once complained about the premiums because the quality of the plan was unbeatable, but it certainly wasn’t free nor did it come without copays. Unfortunately, the future of federal employee healthcare is uncertain.
A Washington Post report from 2010 found that 50% of Americans polled had negative views of federal employees, yet those who had interacted with one had a 75% approval rating. This tells me that there’s a disconnect between what we’re led to believe and our actual experiences. Your neighbor could be a civil servant. Ask him (or her) what he does for his job, you may be surprised.
Hug a federal worker today!