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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Defending Public Servants

On his father’s birthday, David Goodfriend on MSNBC paid tribute to him (and to all public sector employees) for spending a lifetime (or a good portion thereof ) serving the interests of fellow citizens.  What he made clear is something that must be re-iterated for all the ordinary citizens who believe the ranting of the radical Right-Wing.  Public employees are not the cause of our economic woes; they are not earning exorbitant salaries and benefits attributed to them by that same cadre of bamboozlers; and, they are not the bumbling bureaucrats nor the wastrels they are made out to be by the Right-wing.

I am writing today as a person who has worked in the private sector (retail); in a small business (print shop); as (technically) self-employed; as a federal employee for a summer;  in a community action agency; and finally for 25 years as a government (state) worker.  I have, during my varied work-life, from the age of sixteen to age sixty-two, been both a union and non-union worker, in both the private and public sectors. While I did receive an adequate salary and benefit package as a state worker, it was not extravagant, and neither is the pension I now receive.  As a matter of fact, I probably received a better benefits package (adjusted for inflation) when I was self-employed in a religious institution than when I entered state service, simply because a house was provided and maintained free of charge (and property taxes paid), in addition to receiving health insurance, life insurance, pension at no cost to me, along with very flexible sick, personal, and vacation time, and emergency help (one time with car payments) when absolutely needed.   

In accord with this personal experience, I present a few thoughts today as a contrast to those who disparage public employees.

1)   People are human no matter in which sector they work.  There are good employees and bad employees; there are very dedicated employees and some who are not so dedicated;  there are very active employees and there are lazy employees.    There are some who go out of their way to be helpful and useful and there are others who go out of their way to be unhelpful and useless.  There are some who are there just to collect a paycheck and a pension; there are others who are there for the satisfaction of knowing they did a good job, brought help to some people, saved or influenced a life, or changed things for the better.  Supervisors are no different:  they are as varied as just described.  Some are tyrants and some are mentors; some coach and some belittle; some cheerlead  and support while others take delight in criticizing everyone. 
The point to make is that the public sector and the private sector are both flawed because human beings are flawed; but both can produce much of value for the rest of us because human potential is also unlimited.

2)    The public sector is not limited to “bureaucrats”.  The picture painted too often is that government employees are bureaucrats who sit around all day planning ways to increase “red tape”; to regulate and destroy incentive; to decrease efficiency, and to spend money in an orgy of inefficiency and ineffectiveness.  Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience.

First of all, budgeting for efficiency and effectiveness was a watchword, at least in my agency.  In fact, “do more with less” was almost a battle-cry!  I know of few departments, or agencies, or units, or teams that were there simply to spend money.  They were there mainly to carry out their specific mission as efficiently and effectively as possible.  In fact, most supervisors were required to evaluate their individual team members on how effectively they carried out their assigned goals and objectives with the resources available.

And that brings up the “aimlessness” that is often charged or implied against public sector workers.  Most cadres of workers - whether a team or unit or office - had goals and objectives to meet, as did individual workers.  In my case, I not only had to develop a set of  these for the state, but was required to submit a yearly Goal Plan and evaluation report for the federal government which oversaw my project/program. 

Secondly, public employees are not limited to desks.  Some are in laboratories, others in schools, others fighting fires, and others on the front lines of being first responders to emergencies and citizen needs; and others outdoors following postal routes or policing hiking trails.  And, let us not forget the armed services personnel - all recruited, trained, commissioned, and paid for by government funds, and overseen by one of the largest bureaucracies in the world--the Department of Defense.  Moreover, armed services personnel not only fight for their country, but many are doing all kinds of construction and re-construction for the welfare of other nations and their populace.

Finally, let us not forget that many government personnel fall under a large heading of “field agents.”  They spend a major portion of their time in cities, in rural areas, throughout this country (and abroad), attending to the needs and welfare of others:  CIA, FBI, EPA, FEMA, SBA, ATF, etc.  Departments of Agriculture and Interior even have some field agents; and how about all those forest rangers attending to all those national parks, preserves, historic sites?

3)   Public employees, as a whole and on average, are not over-compensated, as some would have you believe.  This is especially true now that states, in particular, have begun to reduce pension and health benefit packages; in addition, pay freezes are prevalent in states and the federal government.  But even when I was in the public sector, being paid at a management level, the compensation was not out-of-line with comparable positions in the private sector.  In fact, a number of my colleagues complained that they could be making much more in the private sector; and some did make the move to the private sector for an increase in salary and benefits. 

Not even at the highest appointed positions in the federal government are salary and benefits out-of line.  Think how many private sector CEOs and others come into government as high-level appointees, complain of the sacrifices they are making, and soon return to the private sector in order to rake-in what they were missing in their short tenure!  And just to tweak politicians a bit, where do they go when their legislative tenure is ended?  To the “well-compensated” public sector?  Not likely; more often than not to the private sector (often in firms they dealt with in Congress) where they can feather their nests in a manner that is too often outrageous! 

Of course, if you simply compare apples to oranges, you can make a case, as some do, that the public sector is a better deal.  But, in order to do that, you have to skew the comparison, rather than make it straightforward.  For instance, if you take from the civil service list of jobs a certain kind of clerk that is really a top-level office manager and compare that with an average clerk’s salary in the private sector, you have rendered a false comparison that will favor the public sector job as higher-paying.  In other words, just comparing jobs from civil service lists, without researching the job qualifications, duties, special provisions and requirements, can yield a false comparison with the private sector.  In my own case, my position paid a higher salary than private sector jobs of the same title simply because my job involved many more personnel to supervise, a statewide rather than city- or county-wide responsibility, and a much larger budget to oversee.  This is not to say that there aren’t jobs in the public sector that pay more than comparable jobs in the private sector, but they are nowhere as plentiful as the public sector detractors would have you believe.

4)    Finally, public employees find satisfaction in serving the public welfare, not in gouging the taxpayers.  Public employee motivation, in my experience, is generally of a positive nature.  Most of the people with whom I worked were dedicated to the welfare and well-being and independence of the persons whom they served, who happened to be persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.  Many, like myself, were often in the field, examining their programs and trying through various means to improve upon them in order to bring greater benefit to the users of their services. 

In the twenty-five years that I served with this particular agency, I saw great accomplishments: huge numbers of residents of large institutions (especially children) transitioned to community living;  self-advocacy increased among the served population; more and better services available to the adult cohort; numbers of small residences built, more apartments utilized and family placements made; large institutions closed; normalized living realized; a larger voice for parents; integrated education in public schools; heath care enhanced and drug interventions restricted; zero tolerance of abusive actions toward the people served.   Suffice to say that momentous changes occurred during the years I served in this agency, and they occurred because public employees not only did their jobs, but stood up as innovators, as advocates for the people they served, and even as whistle-blowers in circumstances where this was necessary.

Instead of vilifying public employees, attacking their bargaining rights, their jobs and their benefits, politicians need first to examine the results of public service and advocate for those who do their jobs well, who contribute every day to the well-being of individuals, communities and the nation.  Politicians, of necessity, must continue to find ways to save taxpayer dollars, but should not, in the process, diminish the accomplishments, the inventiveness, the dedication, the sacrifices, the motivations of public employees.  They are teachers, first responders, soldiers, doctors, nurses, researchers, inventors, life-savers, neighbors, and patriots.  They are, above all, partners with all of us in helping citizens realize the freedoms, the opportunities, the benefits and the hopes that are the well-spring of our representative democracy.