What It’s Really Like to Work for Government

This week I came to the realization that the majority of people have a totally wrong view of what it’s like to work for government. I guess having worked in government for so long now, I take for granted all the rules, regulations, oversight, and general culture in the workplace. And I assumed with all the attention we get as government employees that citizens were also aware of our work environment. But now I know that people in general really have limited knowledge about how it is to work for government. Thinking back, I realized I was also not aware of all this when I first started in the public sector. So I figured I would try to do my best to open a little window in the world of government workers. Most of these lessons I am sharing have developed over the course of my 30-year career, and as you will see, many of these lessons were learned the hard way.

Copies of all of our correspondence including emails can be requested by the public
With all the talk of FOIA and transparency, I figured everyone knew this. But now I know that there are people who believe government employees still have some degree of privacy. We do not. We work as if everything we write could end up on the front page of the newspaper because it can. And those employees who do not figure that out risk finding out the hard way.

How we write those emails is subject to public criticism and reprimand
Because our correspondence is open to public scrutiny, it only makes sense that what we write can end up critiqued by anyone. Therefore, we learn to be very careful in how we phrase things. I learned this the hard way many years ago by responding to someone I knew well who emailed me about a work-related issue. Because we knew each other well, I responded in an informal, yet still appropriate, manner. An alderman ended up seeing my response, and at a council meeting he publicly reprimanded me for my casual language.

Which brings up the fact that we can be publicly ridiculed and reprimanded at whim
As my example above shows, particularly those of us who are appointed, are subject to public criticism at the whim of elected officials. I also found this out the hard way, again many years ago, after requiring a contractor to submit a bond in order to drive multiple heavy loads on a rural road that was definitely not designed for it. That contractor  refused and complained about my requirement to the local developer to whom he was hauling the material. That developer complained to an alderman. Next thing I know, I am publicly reprimanded by an official council vote at a meeting. And all that for doing my job and looking out for the best interests of the public.

People take pictures of us during the day
Most of us are aware that this can happen, but even so, many times we end up in trouble because of it even though we have done nothing wrong. I once saw a photo online of a city van (can’t remember the city) parked at a retail store on a weekend. Based on the comments, it was obvious the public’s first thought was that the city employee was using the city van to shop at a store on the weekend. As a city employee, my first thought was the city had to have someone go out on overtime to answer a service call at that store for something like a sewer backup or water problem. The lesson here is that even though we are working somewhere legitimately, a picture can certainly be taken the wrong way.

We are never off the clock
My dad was a service manager at a Buick garage, so I know from his experience this is common to more than just government workers. But I think the difference is that my dad had a better chance convincing someone to contact him during working hours. Government workers are perceived many times as always being on the clock. And what I have found is that most of us also perceive ourselves in this way. Whether it is responding to a problem someone brings up at the grocery store or taking the time to stop and check out a problem we see on the road over the weekend, we have a hard time taking off our “city hat.”

The other problem with this is that while many people can take a 10 minute break during the day, if we stop somewhere for a few minutes to get a water or soda or use the restroom, we are perceived as lazy and not working. And someone might take our picture!

People yell at us and expect us to be silent and respectful in return
People working in government hear complaints on a regular basis, and we view this as a normal part of our job. Much like others working in the service industry, we are here to help and serve people in our community who have problems so complaints or questions or concerns are expected. We would rather have people call with a complaint than be worried and not call. However, there are people who feel because their taxes pay a portion of our salary that they can be totally abusive, and we are out of line if we do not quietly sit and listen.  And everyone working in local government has heard the “You have to do what I say because I pay your salary.”

We have to be ready to justify everything we do in a deposition
Cities get sued a lot. After sitting through several depositions for lawsuits – fortunately for issues not related to work for which I was responsible – I have gotten to the point that each time I make a decision, I imagine myself justifying it to a room of attorneys. I try to imagine every angle they could take with my decision. And only after I feel I have carefully considered every angle and still believe it is in the public’s best interest and meets the law, do I proceed.

We work in conservative surroundings with few special amenities
The public does usually support and take pride in a nice city hall, but there is still a limit on the amenities allowed in our work environment. Government work places could never have the same type of benefits enjoyed by private business such as work-out rooms, saunas, special coffee and beverage machines, lunch and break areas, sports facilities, etc. It would be considered completely unacceptable.

Where we shop is subject to review and criticism
This condition under which some of us work might not be true for everyone. From my experience it is more likely to be found in a smaller community. The reason this happens is because people feel they pay our salaries. So in return, we should only buy from businesses in our community, even for our personal purchases, regardless of cost. Knowing this, I did try at my last job to buy as much as possible from businesses in our city.

But when we built our own house, we bought from businesses in our city and also from those in neighboring cities. We just could not afford to do otherwise, and not all the items we needed or wanted were sold in our city. The home improvement store owner/employees in our city complained to the mayor and felt we were wrong to give the sales tax to other cities. What they did not realize was because of where our home was built, we were not paying sales tax anyway. But had they figured this out, I am not sure it would have lessened their frustration that we purchased outside the city nor stopped them from complaining about me to my supervisor.

All of our income and other benefits are subject to public scrutiny and criticism
Because we are paid by public funds, the amount of our income, terms of our benefits, and pensions amounts can be obtained by the public. And as many have recently witnessed, this information can often end up the subject of lengthy and very public discussions or become a pawn in the political arena.

Everything we do has to be done within the constraints of numerous rules, policies, regulations, and laws
So many times people contact us wanting us to do something that they perceive is a simple task. And many times it does appear to be so. But what people do not realize is that we now operate under a load of regulations, rules, policies, and laws all passed by elected officials to protect the public interest. So tasks that appear to be simple usually end up complicated and take a long time as we ensure we are not violating any of these conditions.

There are many other conditions under which we work, but I will stop there with the thought that those are probably the most obvious ones people might not have known about. Certainly, I do not intend to give the impression these conditions are negative, wrong, or should be changed – they just are part of the job. If someone cannot accept working within this environment, then they do not stay in government. For those of us who do stay, we do accept and understand the environment and are thankful we have been given an opportunity to work building and maintaining our communities. If you’re a government worker, feel free to share work conditions you think might not be obvious to those working in the private sector.