Federal Employees: Underworked Or Underappreciated?

One new survey portrays the federal workforce as being overpaid and less qualified than private sector employees, while a second survey finds that government workers waste hours looking for files in internal databases.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

October 19, 2010

4 Min Read

Federal workers are overpaid, underworked, and less qualified than private sector employees, if you believe a new public-opinion poll by the Washington Post. As if that's not bad enough, federal employees waste on average a month -- a month! -- each year on inefficient information searches, according to a new survey that was underwritten by Google.

That's a scathing characterization of the government workforce. It's also an inaccurate one for hundreds of thousands of hard-working, talented government employees who excel in their jobs. Yet, if perception is reality, the feds have a problem. The general public views government employees in this unfavorable light, and there are undoubtedly elements of truth in the sweeping generalizations.

The Washington Post surveyed 1,002 people by phone a few weeks ago. Overall, 52% were of the opinion that federal workers get paid too much, while a third responded that federal employees are less qualified than private sector workers. The results differ by demographic (age, political party, race), with almost six in 10 Republicans holding the view that federal employees don't work as hard as those in the private sector.

The issue of federal pay came up earlier this year when USA Today reported that U.S. government employees earned more than private sector workers in 180 of 216 job categories. InformationWeek's 2010 Salary Survey supported that finding in regard to federal IT pros. According to our research, federal IT managers and staff make about 10% more than their counterparts in the private sector.

Of course, there's a difference between being paid more (a quantitative measure) and being overpaid (qualitative). Negative perceptions of federal workers reflect an anti-Washington sentiment, according to the Post. On the other hand, some argue that federal employees are paid more because they have higher job qualifications than private sector workers. As mentioned, a third of respondents to the Post survey say the opposite is true. The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, is looking on the bright side of the Post survey. The AFGE points out that three quarters of respondents to the Post survey who have interacted with federal workers in the past year say government employees are doing their jobs well.

Hold on a minute, though. MeriTalk, a Web site geared to the federal IT community, just released the results of its own survey, which may cause anyone with a positive impression of federal workers to rethink things. According to the Meritalk survey, which was underwritten by DLT Solutions and Google, federal employees lose on average "more than a month of work time each year" due to inefficient searches for documents in government databases. That gross inefficiency translates into $15.4 billion annually in lost productivity, according to MeriTalk.

How did the report's authors arrive at those startling -- and, frankly, hard to believe -- stats? They calculated that 87% of federal employees spend about 1.5 hours per day looking for information in internal databases and that those employees could save an hour of that time if internal searches were as easy and efficient as online searches. (Not surprisingly, DLT Solutions and Google have some products and services aimed at fixing this problem.)

What conclusions can government IT pros draw from the Post and MeriTalk surveys? For one thing, effective execution of the Obama administration's Open Government Directive -- with its emphasis on transparent, collaborative, participatory government -- could lead to improved public perceptions of government services and the people who provide those services.

The problem of locating data and documents in government repositories -- whether that takes a month or an hour more than necessary -- is something that can be facilitated by newer, better search tools. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has lamented the "technology gap" that separates the public and private sectors, putting government employees at a disadvantage. Ultimately, however, upgrading technology will be easier than changing public opinion.

The latest issue of InformationWeek Healthcare shows how four health information exchanges are getting doctors to finally share information. Also in this issue: Eight often overlooked data protection pitfalls and how you can prevent problems. Download it now (registration required).

About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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