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Op-Ed

For Many Federal Workers, Job Remains Just a Paycheck

Americans who read the headlines coming out of Washington this past year must be wondering whether the federal government can pound sand into a hole, let alone restore homeland security or win the war on terrorism.

  • The FBI fails to investigate warnings of terrorist flight training.

  • Immigration officials send visa notices to long-dead hijackers.
  • The IRS help line gives the wrong answer to one out of four tax-law questions.
  • The Social Security Administration can’t answer almost a third of its phone calls.
  • The U.S. government gave $20 billion last year to the wrong people and has no plan to get it all back.

No wonder the public has again lost faith in the government. The public’s increased pride in federal workers after Sept. 11 has been flattened by persistent cynicism about what makes the government tick. Before Sept. 11, the vast majority of Americans said federal employees cared more about keeping their jobs than helping the public—and we’ve found that the vast majority still thinks so today.

In fact, the public may be right. In a Brookings Institution Center for Public Service poll that we are releasing today, two-thirds of the federal employees interviewed this spring said they took their job for its security, pay and benefits—not the chance to help people, make a difference or accomplish something worthwhile. Two out of five said they come into work solely for the paycheck, while fewer than one in 20 said they show up to help the public. (Postal, military and employees of quasi-government agencies weren’t polled.)

The problem may not be unbridled self-interest. Some federal employees said they work just for the paycheck because they don’t have the resources to do much else. Although the government’s information technology has improved in recent years, two in five of its workers said their agencies don’t provide enough training to let them do their jobs well, and nearly three in five said their agencies do not have enough employees.

Technology is useless without enough well-trained employees. The IRS can’t get all of the answers right in part because its workforce needs constant training in a complex tax code. Social Security employees can’t answer phones because the agency is shorthanded. Like the U.S. government as a whole, half its workforce will retire in the coming decade.

Federal employees also need jobs that matter. They can hardly come to work raring to help the public when they aren’t given a chance to do what they do best, are stuck in dead-end jobs and believe that poor performance goes unpunished. They’re also discouraged when they believe top executives are incompetent, think their performance does not affect pay or promotions, and are buried under layers of needless bureaucracy.

Yet that is how many federal employees see their work. More than half say their organizations do not do a good job of disciplining poor performers, and almost as many say that there are too many layers of management in their agencies.

The effect of layering is clear. As FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley told a Senate committee, “Like the (plant in the) Little Shop of Horrors movie, the bureaucracy just keeps saying, ‘Feed me, feed me.’ ” The problem in preventing terrorist attacks is not a lack of information, for example. Rather, it is getting past the childhood game of telephone that the bureaucracy plays as intelligence rises through layer upon layer of interpreters.

The way to rebuild trust in the government is to ensure that federal employees come to work for the right reason and are given the tools, training and support to do their jobs well. They can do more with less for only so long. As the Coast Guard’s former commander, James Loy, said, the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing.

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