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Are federal workers 'the enemy'?

By Ed O'Keefe

The Federal Eye is a member of GovLoop, the so-called "Facebook for Feds" social media site that's an excellent way to take the temperature of public sector workers at the local, state and federal levels.

Members are in the midst of an interesting debate about how to change perceptions of federal workers.

"I've been a federal employee for (gulp) 25 years and it's rarely been something to be 'proud' of to non federal people, i.e. the general public," GovLoop member Sandy Ressler writes in a post. "I work for the government and I'm NOT the enemy."

"Perception of federal employees as lazy, overpaid, incompetent, among other adjectives are widespread," Ressler writes. "With the Obama administration there seems to be some recognition that this perception is an actual problem."

Ressler has asked fellow GovLoopers for their ideas on how to change the negative perceptions. Some have suggested that the federal government and unions should hire PR firms to help polish the public sector's image. Others think that colleagues who truly fit the perceptions of lazy, overpaid public servants should be fired.

User Arthur G. Grant adopted a more defeatist attitude: "Until Joe & Jane America believe your compensation is in line with theirs, you don't have a fixed pension when they don't, you aren't protected by seniority when they aren't, you don't contribute enough out of pocket (more each year) for health care like they do, you can't win."

What would you do? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below or share your thoughts here.

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 9, 2010; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  What Would You Do?, Workplace Issues  
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Also, because the government negotiates reduced rates at hotels, to save the tax payers money, I am treated like a second class citezen when I am checking in. We always get the room by the stairs or the ice machines, the one with the broken down bed and furniture, and I have even been told at check in that there is no room at the inn. And our health insurance isn't all that great. I have to buy (2) additional insurances for basic dental and vision.

Posted by: jojoranting | March 9, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Take this from a Libertarian.
It's not personal.
Many of us try to have as little contact with government as possible.
We don't like all the rules government workers enforce.
We have nothing against government workers. We just wish there were a lot fewer of you and a lot fewer rules.

Posted by: jfv123 | March 9, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

The 95% of federal employees who are illiterate, lazy, corrupt, incompetent, or overpaid make the rest look bad.

Posted by: member5 | March 9, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

When I first started working for the government, JFK made us proud of being public servants. I'm not sure when the skapegoating of the federal workforce began, but for at least the last 35-40 years politicians have blamed "the government" as the cause of the nation's ills. I'm retired now but remember the majority of my federal colleagues as hard-working, dedicated people--the opposite of the stereotype that exists within the public-at-large. Unfortunately, it's so much easier to scapegoat the "government" than to develop workable solutions to complex problems.

Posted by: indvoter37 | March 9, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Having been both a Fed and a contractor, it's just two different worlds. However, most people fail to realize a fundemental characteristic of government work: Government is about process, not results. About filling in the right form, checking the right box, having the right mix of all the protected classes, the three interviewees, the right number of bids. It's not about the vet, the SS annuitant or the DMV customer getting what they need or their problem solved. Add to that the job security and pension and the health benefits and there you go.

Posted by: ronjaboy | March 9, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

From this article and the posts, one can infer the public must really like the Unions!!!!!!!

Posted by: Jimbo77 | March 9, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

My agency has Pay Bands instead of the GS schedule. I know of several people who have not been given the automatic raises that others receive under the GS Schedule. It's still difficult to fire a federal employee but it's getting a little easier to make the underperforming ones a little more miserable and hopefully influence them to leave on their own.

In regards to health insurance, federal workers don't have short-term disability. The FMLA allows us to take time off due to the birth of a child, major surgery, or recovery from a major injury but unless we have enough leave built up we do not get paid for the weeks we are gone. And jojoranting is right--we have to pay extra on top of our regular health insurance premium to receive anything for dental and vision.

Posted by: Mason0406 | March 9, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

The only way to improve perception of govt is to get serious about getting rid of deadwood.

Each agency needs to get serious about this and be able to say that "we had xxx employess in 2010 and accomplished our mission but in 2011 we cut our employees to yyy and still accomplished our mission."

Reductions/RIF are going to happen - agencies who get out ahead of it will survive. Those who keep their head in the sand will suffer - deservedly so.

Posted by: ered1 | March 9, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Pensions are fading out. Anyone who joined the federal workforce after 1984 will not be receiving a pension. Instead those workers can contribute to the Thirft Savings Plan which is a lot like a 401K except the Government's matching funds are a lot less than what private companies contribute. Those workers will also receive social security benefits when they retire. If social security goes bust then federal and private sector retirees will suffer together.

Posted by: Mason0406 | March 9, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Incompetent government workers and contractors should be fired, but many of the blanket assumptions made by the public about government workers just are not correct. It's not the workers, it's the system of red tape and sometimes just stupid and contradictory rules and regulations that make it difficult for the general public. So of course they shoot the messenger. But they forget that Federal Workers are taxpaying people too and many of them lost their homes and some even their jobs during this recession. There are many who have salaries that are not comparable with their private sector counterparts. Regular Federal workers don't have the same health coverage that Congress has and they have to buy all of this separate supplimental health insurance. The plans made available through the different health providers aren't the best plans those providers actually offer, but represent an average and affordable blanket option for workers and they are still subject to the same run around as everyone else when it comes to policy coverage, and moreover a double whammy from congressional prohibitions put on womens services. At least you do have more choices, if can afford them, in private-but that's the big problem-IF. It's easy to see waste and percieved perks when that is all that is highlighted in the media. Rest assured most Federal workers don't receieve any of those benefits, but just like anything else government, we aren't suppose to talk about it either.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | March 9, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"And jojoranting is right--we have to pay extra on top of our regular health insurance premium to receive anything for dental and vision."

I am a fed and have to say, "So what." That is what a salary is for - to pay for things you need. Nobody in the private sector has the choice of basic healthcare options that we feds have. It never ceases to amaze me that people don't complain about paying $600-$700 for cable tv, or $1500 for a big flat screen, but, ask them to pay for a pair of glasses, and they get upset.

Posted by: GRILLADES | March 9, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I work in private industry. My dad worked in the government. I can assure you that the things "the public" complains about regarding the government are also rampant in private industry. The government and its workers! They are no better or worse than the general population.

Posted by: didnik | March 9, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

In many cases, the answer is unfortunately "yes." Example: Federal employees of CMS are often so overzealous in the pursuit of health care fraud that they do more harm than good. If an elderly woman doesn't return their questionaire about her durable medical equipment within 30 days, they suspend all of her supplier's Medicare payments while they investigate, often putting a small mom and pop supplier out of business while their payments are shut down.

Another example: GAO and OIG have documented how poorly trained and underqualified contract rent a cops at federal facilities causes such a great deal of incompetence and abuse that it threatens the safety of all employees and visitors. Yet instead of recognizing a problem and working to fix it, federal officials try to retaliate by banning anyone who dares write a complaint from lobbying or visiting that facility. They then refuse to provide any of the constitutionally required due process, such as a hearing. It's McCarthyism 101.

It is remarkable that federal officials who consistently engage these efforts to squelch any dissent could then turn around and complain that they have a negative image with the public. The problem is an unaccountable bureaucracy totally insulated from reality, and a periodic housecleaning of non political positions is long overdue to ensure not only more accountability, but a basic level of common sense and maturity.

Posted by: BushMustGo | March 9, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Because there is no bottom line, managers would fire productive people left and right for bad reasons, such as the-employee-fails-to-kiss-my-ass or the-employee-is-a competitive-threat.

There are a LOT of really HORRIBLE managers in the federal government. They are the main reason the government has bad employees. For example, . . .

After 2O+ years of trying to do good and being abused for it by crazy and/or stupid managers, I have given up trying. Ironically, I was considered a bad employee when I tried to make a difference and am now considered a good employee because I no longer give a damn.

Are you starting to see the problem?

Posted by: themaryrose | March 9, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

"Until Joe & Jane America believe your compensation is in line with theirs, you don't have a fixed pension when they don't, you aren't protected by seniority when they aren't, you don't contribute enough out of pocket (more each year) for health care like they do, you can't win."

Your comment from Arthur Grant pretty much covers it. It is an image problem only if reality is different, but as a class government employees are paid better and have greater job protection than private employees. It is jealousy when the difference is small. It is anger when the difference is large and the cost of government exceeds the taxpayers collective ability to pay for it.

If government employees are feeling under attack now, it will only get much worse as more people understand the cumulative cost of under-funded pension and health obligations.

A quick check to the Bureau of Labor Statistics re comparable cost of government employees, (note this does not include Federal gov’t employees, who I doubt cost less).

“State and local government employers spent an average of $39.83 per hour worked for total employee compensation in September 2009. Wages and salaries averaged $26.24 per hour worked and accounted for 65.9 percent of these costs, while benefits averaged $13.60 and accounted for the remaining 34.1 percent. Total employer compensation costs for private industry workers averaged $27.49 per hour worked in September 2009.”

Posted by: jfx1 | March 9, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

They're all just jealous. While they were making all the big $$ on Wall street and other places in the private sector by basically ripping people off, I was plugging away at my Govt job. 33 years now...Best move I ever made !!! What comes around...goes around...I've still got a pension, health insurance, vacation time & sick leave..and sure, they will try to take it away now....but we've survived them all so far...Reagan....Clinton...the Bush leaguers...we're not worried about the tea party nitwits...Sour Grapes...thats all there is to it......

Posted by: STILLAFED | March 9, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I don't believe that there is widespread public antipathy towards federal employees. Sure, some people may see federal employees as "lazy" or "incompetent," but most of us have enough sense to reject such sweeping generalizations and to realize that, in the public sector as in the private, there are a lot of hard-working, competent people, as well as some deadwood. Instead, the anger comes from the belief that we in the private sector are compelled, through taxes, to provide federal employees with a degree of security that has all but vanished in the private sector: with respect to pensions, health care, job security, etc. You simply can not ask people to fund, for their so-called "employees," what people can not afford for themselves. So the answer is either to improve conditions for private-sector workers or acknowledge that with the pie shrinking, federal employees will have to make the same sacrifices as everyone else.

Posted by: lydgate | March 9, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Having been involved with Federal Government employees on several occasions as a business person I have observations that may help 'civilian' folks look at government employees differently than they do now. Government employees need to simply....clean their own house! Stop telling folks that you don't care if they go to lawyers because it can't hurt you and the government has more lawyers that cost you nothing. ... Stop talking like your a 'superior' in charge and instead, talk like your a fellow human being. ... Try giving the same courtesy you expect to get.... You government folks are right, I don't understand your paperwork! But you don't understand my business either! Does not knowing my job show your stupid?... And stop with the threats or veiled threats every time you open your mouth.... On a personal note... I wouldn't let my kid marry a government employee. I don't want my grand children growing up with that strike against them. :^)

Posted by: gunnysgt77 | March 9, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I see two common threads in the unfounded negatives about Federal employees. One is that Republican politicians make a practice of running against the government and drown the public in lies. Second is that people make comments above such as 95 percent of Federal workers are lazy, imcompetent, etc., with nothing to back it up but Republicans propoganda or perhaps a bad experiece or two like I have with the telephone company, banks, etc., etc., and invalid statistical comparisons such as looking at average salaries and benefits with no comparison of educational levels of experience, etc., The government employs a lot of scientists, engineers, doctors, and other highly skilled workers. Simply comparind apples and oranges tell you nothing. Just a lot of hot, negative air.

Posted by: withersb | March 9, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

"Others think that colleagues who truly fit the perceptions of lazy, overpaid public servants should be fired." So true!

I've been a contractor working on site in a federal agency for almost 10 years now, and while some of my fed colleagues are wonderful, hard working folks, those few rotten apples seem to spoil the bunch. There's a few people that after 10 years, I'm still not sure what they actually DO besides take a lot of long walks to get coffee.

Posted by: k8isgr8r | March 9, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I cannot think of one, not one, experience where I have just completed contact with a government employee and thought to myself that was a pleasant experience. Take for example, a trip to the Post Office, which thankfully for me is less and less and less...hail to internet banking, paperless bills, etc. Usually, the lines are long at the Post Office, and yet despite the long lines, it never fails that one of the employees who is serving customers will then stop to announce he/she has to take a break. What? Are you kidding me? I am not and this is a common experience. Customer service the Post Office does not know. No private corporation with direct service to the public will ever allow its workers to take breaks when their lines snake out the doors. And oh, let me not forget about the absence of a sense of urgency. Why should they? There is no shortage of similar examples when dealing with federal workers. Federal workers have no one to blame for their unfavorable perception by the public.

Posted by: comments3 | March 9, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse


This is a MANAGEMENT problem. The managers are too dumb to recongnize that, despite decades of the obvious, customers want to come to the post office on their lunch hour. The managers send the workers to lunch at the same time anyway. Lunch is staggered between 11 and 1. If an employee doesn't go to lunch when assigned, he/she does not get lunch. If you were the employee, would you starve all day because you work for idiots?

Posted by: themaryrose | March 9, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I agree with withersb. For every negative experience with the government employee, I can recall equally bad experiences with customer service at the local big box stores, or cable companies, phone companies etc. Or you can cite private companies who have financially cheated the public. But no one generalizes and says all private sector workers are lazy and rude or cheat you out of your money.

Posted by: jhinva | March 9, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm . . . That sounds much more like my horrendous experiences with Comcast employees than with government employees.
I cannot think of one, not one, experience where I have just completed contact with a government employee and thought to myself that was a pleasant experience.

Posted by: comments3 | March 9, 2010 1:19 PM

Posted by: seaduck2001 | March 9, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm a federal employee.
I'm really surprised anyone who considers themselves a seroius person would ever issue a broad, blanket statement about federal employees. There are so many different types of person employed by the government that saying they all fit a certain mold is only a bit better than saying people of a certain skin color are all the same.

The GS scale should be reformed dramatically (competantly, this time...). Those who do the minimum work necessary to slide by can and should be subject to termination or pay penalties. Those who outperform their positions should likewise be eligible for monetary incentives beyond just "you'll get the next supervisor position when it opens up in 10 years." Those of us who believe in what we do and work hard are not afraid of such a system; it is telling that the Unions are. (yes, I'm a republican)

Yes, some feds are overcompensated over time. Some are dramatically undercompensated to the tune of up to 1/3 of salary for comparable work in the private sector. Sometimes this is a deliberate decision to retain less competitive people at a fraction of the price, but in my experience lots of the time, the fed is choosing the more interesting work and superior work-life balance offered by the government.

Posted by: bdg226 | March 9, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Federal workers tend to treat their jobs as permanent. When this psychology sets in, it's harder to motivate them to go beyond and above. But they don't get filthy rich, either. No stock option is guaranteed.

However, government employees will not rob you like health insurance companies would. I still trust my government with my health care much more than private insurers.

Posted by: dummy4peace | March 9, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

So I am a senior at a high school in Washington state. I am applying for a scholarship from NARFE (National Active and Retired Federal Employees). I have to write an essay on a question about derogatory publicity of federal employees. The question is: Americans get their news from a variety of sources: television, print media, websites, blogs and more. How would you correct the derogatory publicity about federal employees as provided by the news media in order to provide accurate information regarding their (federal employees') dedicated service?... I believe that with President Obama's 2010-2011 budget speech, and him sending an increase in money to the department of defense, caused many citizens to assume that he is putting it all towards the training of new soldiers to be sent to the Middle East, but really he did increase money for training but not as much as he did for the rebuilding of cities overseas and helping out families over there. Should i write my essay on that? Please email me what you think I should do. My email is

Posted by: kelsey_frazer | March 9, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Just to list a few reasons. Because:

Federal employees (SEC) let Bernie Madoff slide through even though his ponzi scheme was reported to them. ("Oops, sorry we missed that one")

Federal employees had a big party with liqour, and prostitutes (Interior).

Federal employees not only brought their kids in the control tower, but let them bring jet liners (full of us) on and off the run way (DOT). (Currently leave with pay, until this blows over).

The USPS...we don't even need to go there.

Does any federal employee ever get terminated for anything. Rarely..If ever.

Fedreal employees receive something called "locality pay" in addition to their salaries...Private sector employers truly would laugh this one.

Federal employees always get COLA's even when the organization they work for (Federal Government) has an extraordinary deficit.

And, federal employees seem to always be whinning for more...WHY????

Posted by: PracticalIndependent | March 9, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

The 95% of federal employees who are illiterate, lazy, corrupt, incompetent, or overpaid make the rest look bad.

Posted by: member5 | March 9, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a federal emplyee BUT.

The slime ball scum sucking aholes like you that I have to deal with on a daily basis makes the WORSE federal emplyee look good.

The idiots that I deal with just walking down the street every day(people like you slime ball) shows why goverment employee's are hostile. They deal with dumb fks like you every day that are aragont aholes to people that are just enforcing rules that the elected officals put into place.

IF YOU are to stupid to realize that, then you deserve everything you get because your attitude AND NOT THEIRS is what drives people to HATE YOUR F'N GUTS at first sight or post(as is the case here)

Posted by: LiberalBasher | March 9, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

As a federal worker, I have to say that my benefits are somewhere in the middle of private sector benefits--some people get better, some get worse. My leave policies are average, not great. I make MUCH less than my private sector counterparts. My work-life balance is better than theirs, and my work more interesting. I'm harder to fire, but it's also harder to get a promotion.

Not all federal workers are the same (how could they be--there are millions of us?) but those I work with are almost all dedicated, capable, and hard working. Stereotypes and political propaganda don't do anyone any good.

Posted by: Katya2 | March 9, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Re: "Each agency needs to get serious about this and be able to say that 'we had xxx employes in 2010 and accomplished our mission but in 2011 we cut our employees to yyy and still accomplished our mission.'"

When they do that, and the quality of the so-called "accomplishment" is less, you will be the first to complain about the quality of the response you got from them.

Posted by: dcer | March 9, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

@ PracticalIndependent:

I'll leave your arguments by example aside (most of those things infuriate me just as much as think I like going to the post office?) and just address your point about locality pay.

If you think that privately negotiated salaries/pay in the private sector don't take account of different costs of living in different places, you're deeply mistaken. The price of labor reflects the cost of living. As for employers that have workers in different localities, if the job function is one that tends to provide mobility, then the different offices absolutely WILL pay different rates so as to keep a situation where people in NY/DC/CA aren't undercompensated from developing.

"Locality pay" is just the way the GS scale takes account of this.

Posted by: bdg226 | March 9, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

LiberalFdgpckr, you know where you can put your attitude.

Posted by: member5 | March 9, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

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