The Scared Govvie


Something has become pretty clear to me in terms of a trend amongst the older portion of the government workforce I’ve interacted with over the years. A somewhat recent poll from the Washington Post indicated a similar view of federal employees by the surveyed people. even among government employees, there are polarized views of the quality of federal worker, as well as the salary in comparison to the private sector. There are some great talented people who are motivated and who motivate others. These are the ones who are the crown jewels of federal employment. Conversely, there are also the… what I’ll call the “bottom performers”. These are the ones who you typically hear complaints about being lazy, slow to react, indecisive, sticks in the mud, etc.

On an aside, I’m about 16 chapters into the Steve Jobs book, and he refers to these people as A, B, or C performers. the A performers are the ones who are incredibly hard working and are constantly innovating. the B performers are the ones who put in the necessary effort on the job, but aren’t innovating much at all. the C performers are the ones who are just terrible – minimum effort necessary (if that). Jobs wanted all A performers because he found that A performers worked exponentially better when they’re around other A performers. this makes sense if you think about who your dream team would be in your office – likely a bunch of A performers.

These bottom performers have a profound effect on the federal employment landscape. I don’t know the statistics but I’m pretty certain most federal employees are on the older side of the workforce, closer to 40-50 than they are 30-40. I know I feel that way when I walk around the halls. These bottom performers have a three-fold effect on the people around them:

1. Their lack of output or performance puts strains on their department as well as others.

2. The slower pacing and sluggish turn-around time for assignments affects those employees who may be more efficient or motivated, slowing the overall output of production.

3. The combination of not being able to keep motivated employees; the government “lazy” stigma that prevents hiring motivated employees; and the lower government compensation** make it an unattractive place to be for a younger, motivated worker.

The fourth step is that this leads the government to hire more bottom-performing employees who just perpetuate this cycle.

This kind of circuitous logic seems to be hopeless, you can only lead a camel to water. For the longest time I couldn’t figure it out why some of these workers just didn’t care to get their work done in a timely manner. When asked for an estimated completion time, they would shy away or not respond at all. Although we have a service ticketing system, it is rarely used correctly, oftentimes, I find my tickets have been altered with incorrect times to make it look like the work was done in a very timely manner. For one full year, I calculated the average time it took a certain department to close out my work orders/tickets (using their “adjusted” times to give them benefit of doubt) and it was still averaging about 46 days to close out a ticket that would have been taken care of within hours if we were in the private sector. These bottom performers are the ones who you know you’ve given assignments who are still seem chatting away in the hallways every time they take a walk – a carefree attitude that translates to the work.

But, I did figure out something. Some of these workers, the reason why they act this way is because they are scared. They’re scared of losing this sweet gig to someone younger and more motivated. Add on top of that they possess skills that were long outdated because they were never motivated to keep up learning the new procedures or technology. These are not just scared govvies, they are practically useless in the private (real) world. They wouldn’t be able to find a job on the private side because no one wants to hire a lazy, out-of-touch, not-willing-to-go-the-extra-mile ex-govvie who’s got 20 years of government [in]experience. especially when they can hire a new college grad for half the price who has way more motivation. The new hires are groomed by these poor performers and ultimately become poor performers. good managers are strained to the point where they get threatened back by the people they supervise****.

It’s a powerful thing, fear. it mongers selfishness. I see it everyday, that an employee in my building would rather let people potentially suffer and have an easier day, than to work marginally more and have these people come and go with ease. The fear and selfishness that perpetuates itself within the government is not easy to overcome. but hopefully steps will be taken to up the fear level a bit more and make the government more competitive in the job market.

I would ideally like to see a few things happen – of course, this wishlist is likely not going to happen, but it is christmastime….

– make performance reviews mandatory for anyone who wants any raise (cost of living or the GSA grade/step increase). no gimmes. you need to earn it and the performance will be reviewed by a combination of upper management, peers in the same grade/step, and random employees. I would want people to present their accomplishments for the year and see if it is on par with the expectations for the job. this way, you can ensure people are getting promotions as they earn them.

– make consequences for poor performance reviews, have action plans for improvement and have required reviews of their progress. If they don’t improve, they need to go. the government needs to trim the fat and this improvement allows the bottom performers to slowly get weeded out.

– use the GSA pay scale as the basis for improvement, but offer more competitive high-performance bonuses to help motivate workers to perform all year at the level that is analogous to the private side.

– HR needs to be robust and complaints need to be taken seriously. HR needs to also be staffed with the better performers, so maybe start by raising the pay and requiring the performance reviews for HR staff. private sector HR people are headhunted and scouted relentlessly – why don’t we do the same?

– the regulatory BS perpetuates itself, when I first started as a fed, I just did my work as it came in, verbally, on a note, in a meeting, I didn’t really think much of having summaries written in emails, etc. It wasn’t until a co-worker in my department tried to railroad me in front of a lot of higher-ups that I realized it was necessary. the BS of having to keep a paper trail for someone to do their work is wasted time. If you wanted a babysitter, you can get one for way cheaper than me. If you tell me to do a job, I’m going to do it. I expect the inverse to be true, but it is unfortunately not always the case. these scared, selfish govvies don’t want you to show that they didn’t do the work. that’s why they call, the ask you in person, they use any un-traceable means to request work from you so they can look better. CYA is a real thing, unfortunately, and I know it exists on the private side, but shouldn’t the government be better? (I said should, not can)

Rule of thumb: the one doing the railroading is probably one of these bottom performers – if not the lowest of the low. They’re the most scared, the most selfish, and frankly, the least likely to contribute positive things for the good of the mission.

so this realization that I’ve been formulating for a while has left me with several unforseen effects – some things which I’m sure you’ve experienced at your job, too:

– I don’t really worry about the A, B, or C performers anymore. my assumption is everyone is a B or C performer unless I see otherwise. what I worry about more is my loyalties and work-friendships – those that have tried to railroad me get the most business-like emails and responses. I don’t try to cajole them or convince them I’m right or they’re wrong. I just tell them. the ones (especially in my own department) who have behaved poorly don’t deserve any more from me than the facts.

– I value my work-friendships and partnerships much more. the loyalties and the allies I’ve made are hopefully the right ones – only time will tell. but I know these people have similar work integrity like me, so I don’t expect this to bite me in the ass.

** I’m not saying the government compensation is not good, I’m pretty sure OPM and GSA make good assessments of people and their jobs and what they should be paid. the reason why I say it isn’t good compensation is that the better performing workers end up doing more than their share, diluting their pay and benefits.

**** yes, a recent example is a manager I respect who came from a strong military background who confided in a couple people that he is getting reviewed for her managerial practices. someone who works under him reported these “practices” to HR and OPM – the reason? the worker didn’t get his performance bonus at the end of the year (somewhere between $400-$1100). shallow? yes. deserving? no.

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  • By Under or Over? | Wade Chi on February 15, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    […] the government pays significantly higher for the same job in the private sector. This reinforces an old post on scared govvies, where you get low performers who may know how to work the system, and keep their relatively high […]

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