Dear Bureaucrat,

Is it worth the hassle to apply for government jobs? I used to think working in government would be a way to do good in the world, have financial security, and get ahead. But the news is full of government doing terrible things and people quitting so they won’t have to do terrible things, or being reassigned to force them to quit. I see people on social media bragging about how exciting their government jobs are, but nobody I know personally feels that way. Should I even bother trying to get in?

Signed, Not Winston Smith

Dear Not Winston,

There is an old image of what a government career can be: join an agency whose mission you believe in, get trained and advance within the agency, maybe to a top job, and retire with a pension and pride in a job well done. Even in the heyday of the civil service, most careers fell short of that ideal. But now it is even less realistic.

Most government work is now done by people who are not government employees. Since 2005, more people are doing the work of the federal government as employees of grantees and contractors than as government employees (including military and postal) according to research by Paul C. Light. So your entry-level public-sector job, or the job that could be your next step up, is likely to be with a grantee or contractor rather than the government itself.

The days of identifying with an agency’s mission for your entire career are also mostly past. The number of political appointees in federal government leadership positions has grown to about 1,700, according to Light’s research. A political appointee’s job is to make sure her agency serves the preferences of the administration in power at any given time. Even the top non-political officials, the Senior Executive Service, are under pressure to fall in line with whatever administration is in power, because political appointees control the bonuses and awards that make up a significant part of SES members’ income, and can transfer SES members to unappealing jobs in places they do not want to move to. So if you work in government you should expect that every time a new president is elected, the mission your work supports will change to match the new political appointees’ view of the public interest, and to please the constituency groups they favor.

A government career is not what it used to be, but there are still good reasons to try for a government job. You might land in a sweet spot, where the work your agency wants you to do lines up with your view of the public interest. I have been in that situation. It is heady to feel the power of a government agency behind your efforts to make the world better. Just don’t expect the sweet spot to last forever. Political power shifts. Policies, budgets and personnel change. Maybe your view of the public interest evolves so that work you used to be enthusiastic about seems hollow.

Even when you do not agree with your agency’s officials, you might still take satisfaction in serving the public interest. The purpose of civil service is for employees to do their jobs in accordance with law despite shifts in political power. Whether you quietly continue to do your job properly even though the officials are not supportive, or openly dissent within your agency, you are part of the checks and balances that keep government from decaying into mere patronage and spoils.

Government jobs provide a combination of job security, quality health insurance and benefits that have become rare in private and nonprofit jobs. Few private or nonprofit employers still offer defined benefit pensions, where you get predictable payments throughout retirement rather than relying on investments in your 401(k). But federal and many state and local government jobs still provide them.

Even a government job that you do not want to stay in can be hugely valuable on your resume. Organizations that deal with government as a customer or regulator want to hire people who have worked inside government, know how particular programs work, and can deal effectively with government officials. If you have a security clearance from your government job, you will be a prime candidate for many contractors that work on classified projects.

So yes, it is still worth getting a government job. Just don’t expect it to lock in a clear path to a satisfying career. You will have to adapt as power shifts, opportunities open and close, and your public interest objectives and private objectives may change.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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