should I work for the government?

I’m throwing this one out to readers to weigh in on. A reader writes:

I got an offer from a state government office in the South for a role that makes about as excited as it does nervous.

Pros: the work sounds like it’s right in my wheelhouse but with opportunities to apply my skills in new environments and work with lots of different organizations and people. I’m excited about the work and everyone I’ve met in my interviews seems bright and kind. The salary increase is substantial, too, more than 25%+ than I earn now.

Concerns: I worked for the government a few years ago and found the strict protocols and inflexibility frustrating as I felt they were barriers to my team (and myself) operating well. I left for a private sector job that is exciting and fast-paced and have since “settled down” a bit, both in my personal and professional lives, so I chock some of my frustrations with the government job up to unrealistic idealism of my 20’s and adjustment to my first office job. Throughout this recent application process, little reminders of the joys of government work keep popping up: having to recopy my resume by hand into an official application, inflexibility in changing my start date to a week later due to an inability to stop the process once it starts, and an inability to call two of my references who can only be reached at international phone numbers.

My manager, who is new herself, has helped me circumvent some of the bureaucracy and has apologetically informed me when her hands are tied, so I think she’ll be an ally – or at least empathetic – if I get held back by red tape in my new role. For your readers who have worked for the government, how do they manage the rigidity of systems? Why did they chose government work? What should I be looking for from my boss to know she’ll have my back if I need it? What questions might I ask myself to know if I’m up to this big cultural shift?

Readers, what do you say?

{ 188 comments… read them below }

  1. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor*

    So I work for a large federal contractor, so a lot of what is found in government is found in my work environment as well.

    I was a little leery going into government work, but I’ve found that I really like a lot of the rigidity that comes with working for the federal government. But as a note, I am someone who very much thrives on rules and regulations (I chock it up to growing up in a military family.). I hate having to guess what is expected of me. I’ve never had to do that at my job so far. I know what is expected of me because everything has to be established before work can begin.

    At times it can be frustrating, mainly the waiting game i.e. waiting for contracts to start, but I don’t mind. I don’t have experience with state government, which I’m sure has different nuances than the federal government, but so far working for the federal government is much better than where I was before (higher ed).

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      I wouldn’t even call it rigidity, I’d just call it much higher standards. Private companies are allowed to discriminate if it’s not WRT a protected class, they’re allowed to lavish perks on employees, operate inefficiently, exclude certain people, operate without oversight…none of that is OK in government work. I find that the requirements for my little corner of expertise are pretty interesting, and a lot of people are coming to me because they don’t really understand the reasoning behind the requirements or how to meet them, and I find it pretty interesting to have to constantly research and test and keep up with the way the standards are enforced and implemented.

        1. maggie*

          Not necessarily. If it’s a company that makes a ton of money, employees are just expected to work around the inefficiencies. So, I would say that private companies can breed inefficiencies…and high turnover.

          1. MT*

            The issue is that people choose to do business with certain companies, because no matter inefficient that company is, that company still brings value to the product they are selling. When the govt is inefficient people don’t have a choice to stop doing business with them.

            1. Natalie*

              Well, there are plenty of private businesses one can’t functionally stop doing business with, particularly if they’re an intermediate producer. If the company that produces my bank’s blank credit cards sucks, it’s not like I can ask my bank to get my card from another source.

            2. Marcy*

              Sure you can- move to another city if it is city government you have a problem with, state if it is state government or country if it is federal. It might be a tough choice, but there is always a choice nonetheless.

              1. Nashira*

                It’s a difficult enough choice that you might as well tell a lot of us “you want to fly? Okay, grow wings!”

        2. Cass*

          Lol, I work for a private company that is horrible inefficient! (The execs are 3 brothers who founded the company 50 years ago and don’t adapt well to spending more money/changing with the times.)

        3. jcsgo*

          I repeated that phrase aloud too. I don’t usually perceive private companies as being the ones that are “allowed” to be inefficient and have a lot of hoops to jump through to fire people. My understanding was that government’s many rules and regulations can complicate the process of firing someone (when there are more than legitimate reasons to do so).

          1. Marcy*

            Not necessarily. I have had no problem terminating employees, even without a PIP. You just have to document so HR knows you tried to make it work.

            1. De Minimis*

              Same goes for where I work, people are fired when they need to be, and if it’s bad enough it can be done quickly.

      1. MT*

        they’re allowed to lavish perks on employees

        That is funny, lots of posters are saying that the govt job have much better benefits/perks than private businesses.

        1. Xay*

          I think it depends on the private business and the nature of the perks. I’ve worked for state government, a small federal government contractor and now I work for a large consulting firm as a federal government consultant. The small government contractor offered a higher salary but worse benefits and perks than state government and comparable salary, benefits and perks to federal government. The large consulting firm offers higher salary and much better benefits and perks than state or federal government, but with higher work expectations (not in terms of quality of work, but in terms of hours dedicated to bringing in business and profit based metrics in addition to my client work).

        2. KJR*

          I thought it was funnier to imply that the government is efficient! I had a good chuckle at that one.

        3. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Not always. A lot of state government jobs in my state (Massachusetts) have no benefits, including the one I just wrapped up (it was long-term temporary).

        4. doreen*

          Government jobs often (but not always) have more of the bigger perks – paid time off, inexpensive health insurance, pensions etc. But they often don’t have a lot of the smaller ones like allowing personal use of cellphones ( I had to review my bill and pay 12 cents a minute for personal calls, even if I didn’t go over the allotted minutes) , unpaid time off ( I can have unpaid leave if it qualifies for FMLA or if I’m sick but that’s pretty much it- I wouldn’t be able to take unpaid days off in my second month because I had a pre-scheduled vacation) , employer-provided refreshments for meetings ( if I provide coffee and donuts at a meeting, I paid for it not the state) or even just providing coffee and/or a water cooler ( if you see a coffee pot or a water cooler in a state office in my state, it’s operated by a “club”)

          1. Person of Interest*

            +1. The gov’t agency I worked for could not provide coffee or water, which meant I spent a LOT more money at the Starbucks across the street! The little restrictions add up, you have to know how much they matter to you.

      2. Graciosa*

        I don’t think of the standards as higher. Perhaps a more neutral assessment would be that government standards tend to be well documented.

        My only experience in government work is that there is an odd dichotomy between the written requirements and the real way to get things done. For example, I was once hired for a position because of a political connection. Yes, I applied and followed the official procedure, but the idea that there was a perfectly level playing field in the hiring decision was an illusion. Every person who actually worked in that role knew somebody.

        For a second example, I have a relative who was recruited to a certain area of federal government work because of his unusually good qualifications rather than his connections (just to toss in a non-political example). The team that brought him in had him submit an official application through channels but got him on the payroll immediately because his skill and expertise was needed immediately.

        He received a form letter rejection saying he was not qualified for the position (???) after he had been on the job for the better part of a year. His boss fixed it, but it was pretty funny.

        In both cases, there was a secondary process behind the scenes used to actually get things done separate from the publicly documented one that most people think of – even though the official process appeared to have been followed.

      3. Coach*

        What alternate universe have I entered?

        “Private companies are allowed to discriminate if it’s not WRT a protected class, they’re allowed to lavish perks on employees, operate inefficiently, exclude certain people, operate without oversight…none of that is OK in government work”

        Your Kidding right? Federal Government operates efficiently with proper oversight…. LOL – Made my day.

    2. Beth NYPL*

      I agree with this comment! (Having cousins who are fed-gov contractors who seem to have simialr feelings.) FYI, that’s “chalk it up”, not “chock”. Chalk it up, like on a chalkboard.

  2. Bill*

    One topic I regret ignoring was the influence of politicians. I should have asked: will my role be shielded from the whims of elected folks who serve on committees that oversee the department where I work, despite publicly celebrating a deep and profound ignorance of the topics they are meant to oversee? If I had known then what I know now, I would have run the other way for exactly this reason. My day-to-day now consists of struggling with new bureaucratic processes and policies that are intended to undermine my work at best, and at worst destroy it or exploit its manipulated and orchestrated failures for further proof of a misguided partisan agenda.

    1. Phyllis*

      This is something to consider. In South Carolina, almost all the agencies are considered ‘Governor Cabinet Agencies’. New Governor, new appointed agency leader, new agency focus/alignment/direction.

      When I worked for social services, we went from regions, to areas, to zones, and back to regions in the span of six years. Stuff like that you can learn to roll with for the most part.

    2. ali*

      Yes, this is a good thing to consider. My own former job in state government was changed multiple times due to changes in presidential administration – you wouldn’t think something that high level could affect you, but it sure did, especially when it came to what programs got money and what didn’t.

    3. Ann Furthermore*

      Oh, very good point! When I hear an announcement about a politician being appointed to chairperson of a committee for something they clearly know nothing about, or even worse, something their party doesn’t see the need for, it makes me cringe. It’s like making Lindsay Lohan the spokesperson for a sobriety.

    4. kozinskey*

      This is very true. Even if your office isn’t one that changes staff with new people coming into elected roles, the goals of the office and the steps to getting work done can shift dramatically. It’s not always a bad thing but it’s something to consider.

    5. LW*

      This is a great point. Bill, thanks. I asked about how the department would be affected by recently-announced budget cuts. I was assured that this department was the governer’s pet project, but I realize now how short-sited that response was as the governer’s term ends soon.

      1. Bill*

        I don’t mean to be pessimistic, because its possible that your potential opportunity will not be as politicized as mine. But it is worth considering.

    6. Gene*

      I have the advantage of being in a program that both Federal and State law say is mandatory. Federal law also requires that we be adequately funded and have adequate resources. So we are shielded somewhat from the politics; but since my work includes making the local employers spend money, politics does get involved. Yeah, if I really wanted to, I could have hit Large Multinational Soup Company that Andy Warhol liked with a $10,000 per day penalty with the stroke of a pen, but I guarantee I would have been up on the 11th Floor of the Glass Tower justifying myself.

    7. Xay*

      This is very important to consider. Depending on the government structure and the source of funding for a given office or positions, government can be very insecure and extremely politically challenging work for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the kind of work you do, the quality of your work or the community need for that work to be done.

  3. Former Fed*

    This is a tough one. I used to work for the federal government, and left for a job that was similar at a much more nimble non-profit. The red tape really did drag me down, and I don’t know if I could work a government job again because of that.

    What about the new job attracts you, and how much of that do you get to do at your current job? What percentage of your time will be spent doing that in the new job? I’m a researcher, and my former government job involved a lot of managing of outside contractors, while my current job involves doing more research tasks myself. I like doing the research tasks myself and like project management less, which is why the non-government version of my job suits me better. But in the government, I also had more of a chance to work on research that directly affected federal rulemaking (policy). So if I did prefer project management and having a more direct effect on policy, than I would consider going back to doing the kind of work I do for the government, even though the red tape problem would still be there.

  4. Sandy*

    I think one thing to keep in mind is that “governments” are not monolithic. Stringent rules in one state system (like no international dialling- huh?) are not necessarily going to be the same in another state government, the federal government, or in municipal government.

    How do I manage the rigidity of the system where I work? Part of it is attitude. As frustrating as it can often be, I remind myself that if I can make something happen within this system, then I can likely make it work anywhere.

    Closely related to that is the idea that navigating bureaucracy (whether from inside it or outside it) is a skill in itself. You will become a very, very valuable employee if you can figure out how to make those stringent rules work for you instead of against you.

    1. A Non*

      This is what I was thinking. If the LW has a good rapport with the potential new manager, perhaps they can ask how red-tape laden their position is likely to be.

  5. Episkey*

    I worked for a year in an office for state government and I HATED the inflexibility with a passion — and it wasn’t my first job, either. So I don’t know what to tell you there, if that is a real issue for you, I’d think twice.

    1. Windchime*

      My son works for a state government office (DSHS) and gets exasperated by the rigidity. He received his training in one office and recently transferred (same role) to a different office. Half of the people in his role aren’t fully trained on the work, even though they have more seniority. They have begged for training on certain functions, but their supervisor won’t (or can’t) provide it. So for three hours each afternoon, they sit and wait for 5 PM to come because they have been ordered to stay off the phones and work backlog (but they haven’t been trained for backlog, so they aren’t authorized to work it yet). It’s insane. Son has offered to train them, but he is lower in seniority so is not authorized to do so.

      Oh, and they do really complicated work for very little pay. So yeah. Not a great example of good government at work.

  6. Stephanie*

    My first job was at the government. I found it kind of soul-crushing, but I was like you and 22, sort of idealistic, and had this shiny degree with fresh memories of a commencement speaker telling me to do big things. It was weird going to to a workplace where people were like “Well…the check clears.”

    I just accepted the rigidity and the weird rules (like buying my own pens and Kleenex).

    How much would lack of perks bother you? Sounds minor, but I know some people like having holiday parties and pens paid for. Is stability super important? Government jobs can be pretty stable.

    Is there the ability to do things that you wouldn’t be able to in the private sector? My friend is an engineer at the DoD and can do some nifty stuff (from what she can tell me, that is), because there’s not the “This must be profitable!” pressure there would be in the private sector.

    1. Sandy*

      +1 I stay where I am in no small part because there’s no private sector equivalent to what I do (it’s either non-profit, government or the UN), and I get to do cool stuff that I wouldn’t get a chance to otherwise.

    2. State government employee*

      I think the perks can be more of a trade-off. Sure, our “holiday parties” tend to be potlucks or lunches out, and we buy our own Kleenex, but we can rely on raises every year and the vacation/sick time policy is fantastic. Also, a major perk of my position is that I know on the side of the good guys. YMMV, but I know that if I had gone into the private sector that would be a much hazier area for me.

    3. JB*

      It’s *usually* stable, but it would be worth looking into where that department or agency gets its funding from and how stable that source is. The agency of the state government I worked for served a vital, required role, but the legislature didn’t like giving it much money. Almost all of our budget went to salaries–not because they were exorbitant, they weren’t, but because we didn’t get enough money to spend on almost anything else. (For example, we had to twist some arms to persuade the powers that be that if they wanted us to do more electronic records, they’d have to give us money for computers that could actually handle that.) Whenever there was a big cut to our budget, there wasn’t really anything to cut but staff.

      Plus, there’s the joy of knowing that, depending on where you work, you may not get a raise for a long time, and if you do, it may not be much. Cost of living increases are not universal.

      1. LW*

        The hiring manager touched on this in the interview, JB. She emphasized that she was trying to get me in with as high a salary as possible b/c they were known to go through stretches of a few years at a time with no COL or merit increases.

        1. De Minimis*

          Yeah, that is one huge drawback, you have to be okay with the possibility that you might be looking at the same general salary range for the entirety of your career. I think a lot of people start out thinking they’re going to eventually climb the ladder, but it seems like it can be hard to find those promotion opportunities. And that might be even more difficult in a state government setting unless it is one of the larger states.

          1. Xay*

            Even in a large state it can be difficult because fewer people are retiring and more retirees are returning to high level positions as full time employees or as contractors. Also, some states aren’t filling positions as people retire.

            1. MT*

              This is big where I am living. There are lots of local leaders retiring and starting back the next day with a new title.

              1. Nashira*

                This is a really common thing in the Missouri state government. People hit retirement, then swap to a contracting role for 2-3 days a week. It’s good for preserving (and hopefully conveying) institutional memory, but I can see where it might be awkward as heck.

        2. JB*

          At least the hiring manager is aware that it’s an issue and warned you of it? That’s a good sign.

    4. AcademiaNut*

      That’s my general experience of government jobs – they’re generally quite stable, unless it’s a job strongly tied to a particular administration, the basic benefits like health insurance, vacation and sick leave and pension plans tend to be strong. The rules, while complex, are usually clearly spelled out and apply to everyone, and there are protections in place for things like suddenly getting fired because your boss doesn’t like your shoe colour.

      However, government jobs tend to be barred from offering the kind of perks private industry can. You will have to pay for your own coffee and soft drinks, and may well need to bring your own pens and tissues. Office parties will be strictly pay your own way, and if you travel for business, it will always be economy, even if you’re 6’5″ and 350 pounds. There are no bonuses, and pay increases are strictly by formula rather than performance. And if the current government is pushing economy in a recession, you can go years without even a cost-of-living pay increase.

      1. Nashira*

        Although sometimes a functional CoL increase gets snuck in via no increase/a decrease in your health insurance fees. However, if you aren’t a winner of the chronic condition jackpot like me (five before thirty wooooot), that’s probably not that exciting. We’d still prefer CoL.

  7. Malissa*

    Not all governments are created equal. Some do eventually embrace change and the ability to be nimble.
    I enjoyed my time working for a county government. The job security is awesome. Knowing what’s right and what will get you into trouble is also a good thing. Nothing like having written down laws to back you when you have an arguement with a coworker. The benefits are very generous. While the pay bump seems nice now, you’ll come to find that you may be paid way below market before long.
    The bad side to government work is that everything can change every election. Also you have to navigate office politics on top of real politics….which can be very challenging.

    I left government work a year and a half ago. I would go back into it again, if the right opportunity came up.

      1. CheeryO*

        Office politics are almost non-existent at my state agency, partially because of the rigidity when it comes to promotions/salary grades, and partially because everyone has extremely specific, individual job duties, so there’s no internal competition.

      2. Windchime*

        Yes. I used to live in a county where it was well known that it was impossible to get a job at the public utility district unless you had a relative already working there. Simply impossible. A relative of mine recently went through a six-months long application and interview process, and the net result was that the six open positions were all filled by the sons, nephews and brothers of current employees. (No nieces and daughters in that list, incidentally).

  8. Gene*

    As someone who has pretty much worked for the government since I graduated high school during the Nixon Administration, it’s the norm for me. Seven years in the Navy knocked any unrealistic idealism right out of me, then after a year of job hunting and fill-in jobs, I got on with my first city. Been doing essentially the same job since ’82, three different cities with one county sandwiched in there between cities 2 and 3. I’ve been at city #3 since ’91 and will retire from here.

    It does indeed take a certain ability to say to one’s self, “That’s something I can’t do anything about, so I’ll do what I can with what I’ve got.” We have one person in our office who has trouble with that, too much of his life is anger and frustration with the “That’s not the way things should be!!!” mindset, and it’s cost him. At one point he was the Chief Operator, now he’s not even in management.

    1. Future Analyst*

      “That’s something I can’t do anything about, so I’ll do what I can with what I’ve got.”

      THIS. That’s simply just not my personality, so I’m struggling immensely, but you can spare yourself a lot of trouble if you’re honest with yourself from the beginning. You have to assess whether or not you can stand to work in an environment where everyone has this attitude (or “it’s always been this way, why would we change?”). If you can honestly see yourself ultimately adopting this mindset, you’ll survive. To prep, have your spouse/partner/kid/sibling/parent respond to any and all complaints from you in the next week with “That’s something you can’t do anything about, so you’ll just have to do what you can with what you’ve got.” If you’re not driven crazy by it within that week, you’ll be just fine.

      1. Gene*

        But in the same vein, there are many things that I can do something about. Though I’m not the program manager, I have been able to steer and shape our program into what my idea of what it should be. It helps that the PM thinks much as I do about what we should be doing and how we should be doing them. We are now considered a model program by our state; when new small to mid-size programs start up, the state coordinators say, “Talk to Gene.” Large programs are a different kettle of fish and they get referred to someone else.

        Much depends on the particular area in which you’ll be working, there are areas that benefit from, and welcome innovation. There are others that are more ossified.

  9. Clever Name*

    My first job out of grad school was working for a major US city government. I really did love that job, as the location was exciting, the work was varied, and my boss was amazing. The downsides for me was it was slow-paced and not especially deadline driven, so if you’re the type who needs a deadline staring them down to be their most productive, it can be frustrating. Also the politics. Ugh. 99% of my coworkers were great, but there was a director of another department who apparently had my boss in her sights, and it got unpleasant. The rigid nature of government makes it such that there are strict rules in place for what happens when certain allegations are made, and once the process begins, it can’t be stopped. I guess another negative was the way to procure items seemed to change every 6 months. Not a huge deal- mostly a minor annoyance.

    1. State government employee*

      The deadline thing is pretty true for me at my job. I tend to prefer having 2-3 projects to split my time between, but I’ve spent a lot of time just working on one project with no definite deadline. It can make it hard to focus and bring out my least productive perfectionist tendencies.

  10. AnotherFed*

    I work for the federal government, but expect the bureaucracy is similarly bad. The bottom line for me is that I get to do very, very cool stuff that I wouldn’t be allowed to or able to do anywhere else. Because I love the work so much, I can live with the painful bits of bureaucracy, and I’ve found that high performing teams are willing to work with the folks making or enforcing the rules to figure out how to meet the intent without unnecessary delays. it doesn’t make things perfect, but many times the weird policies turn out to be based on something rigid that could be worked around in a different fashion. It’s like the people making the policies think we’re going to use a tool as a hammer, when we need a saw, and when we start talking to them, suddenly some potential cutting tools are options that no one realized were needed.

    I also have a fair amount of flexibility thanks to good top cover from my boss and a good reputation. It will take you some time to build the reputation, so it’s really worth feeling out your new boss on this. Some things just won’t be changeable, but if she is willing to help you work with people who implement the inflexible policies to develop ways to comply with the policy that have minimal impact to work, she’s a keeper.

  11. Nerdling*

    I started my career by doing an internship. I did it because I wanted to guarantee to myself that I didn’t want to work for the government.

    Then it turned out that I really liked the work, and I ended up applying for a full-time job after I graduated. There’s not a good private sector equivalent to what I do, and it gives me immense personal satisfaction to be doing something that helps people. That’s what keeps me going when I get down from reading the comments on news articles or being told that I’m just another leech on society’s teat.

    There’s absolutely a great deal of bureaucratic frustration. There are things I’d like to see changed, and there are things that have changed too many times in recent years for any of the change to have been beneficial or lasting. I’m working with some coworkers to explain a major cultural issue that we would like to see addressed and how we would like to see the organization change to address it. I don’t know that that will go anywhere, but at least we will have tried — and there’s a mechanism for us to do so.

    Downsides: State government jobs, in my experience, are more prone to effects from the whims of elected officials than federal civil service jobs (non-appointed positions). Your pension and other benefits are tied to a much smaller and more fragile budget. And the pay tends to be low until you get pretty far up in the hierarchy. To me, all of that means that this should be something you *want* to do, something you’re passionate about, rather than just another job to pay the bills.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      Comments on news articles are the armpit of the Internet. I’m not sure why.

      There’s a lot of unjustified resentment (or outright hatred) directed at people who work for the government, and it rather baffles me. My state government office was one of the least dysfunctional work environments I’ve ever seen (except for HR, which had issues). But for some reason there’s this bizarre idea that we all sat around doing nothing but playing scratch tickets and awarding state contracts to our brothers’ companies. Which isn’t to say there’s not corruption – there certainly have been some high-profile shenanigans in my state and undoubtedly in any other – but it’s far from universal.

      1. Windchime*

        Wow, you must be reading different comments than I am. I don’t see any resentment or outright hatred here; just people writing about their experiences.

        1. Natalie*

          I think they were referring to comments on general news sites, a la Yahoo, which do tend to be the armpit of the Internet. It’s different here. :)

  12. fposte*

    It really is a YMMV situation. I’m at a highly bureaucratic state university, and I have to fill out a lot of forms, but the organization treats them with a certain wry resignation rather than making them personal. That makes quite a lot of difference to me, in that nobody treats me as if I’m a disruption agent for being late or inept at putting stuff in the right boxes.

    Bill had a good point upthread about possible political effects. I’d expand that also to things like government budgets and funding–be aware that money comes and goes. On the other hand, benefits might be quite good, and you may even have access to a 457b as well as a 403b, which doubles the amount you can save in tax-deferred space.

    1. Jen*

      “Bill had a good point upthread about possible political effects. I’d expand that also to things like government budgets and funding–be aware that money comes and goes.”

      +1 Where I’m at is heavily influenced by both politics and funding, which makes for shaky ground for many departments (Are you taking a position that could very well be cut due to funding/politics? Can you adjust to that if it were to happen? Something to consider). This type of cyclical funding/politicking also affects how work gets (or doesn’t get) done. Add the bureaucracy and red tape, it can make for a very frustrating and sometimes draining work environment. So you have to be able to get past that and continue on, otherwise it can drive you crazy.

  13. shep*

    I’ve worked for two state agencies (the second of which still work for) and love it, but even within the state, not all agencies are created equally. I’ve heard horror stories about some agencies that are literally right up the road from my office.

    To wit: I feel like government jobs are a mixed bag. But I’ve had nothing but pleasant experiences, and I can’t beat the state benefits.

  14. JMegan*

    In fifteen years, I have worked for a provincial government, a municipal government, and a large NFP which is funded by the federal government. Honestly, I love it. The bureaucracy and red tape can be frustrating, of course, but I remind myself that any organization is likely to have some ridiculous policy or other that hinders more than it helps. Bureaucracies and bad bosses are everywhere, they’re certainly not limited to the public sector!

    The big reason I want to work for the government is the “mission” of the organization. Public service is important to me, and I’d rather my work go to helping people (however indirectly), than to increasing profits for an organization.

    Stability is also important to me, as is a 40-hour work week, and I have an amazing pension and benefits package. As Stephanie mentions above, I do have to pay for holiday parties, and my own pens and kleenex, but honestly this is so normal to me by now that it doesn’t really occur to me that other people don’t.

    As for your manager, it sounds like she does have your back when it comes to dealing with the bureaucracy. That comes down to personality as much as anything else. And first impressions are important. If you think she’ll be empathetic in this area, you’re probably right. When I went to the interview for my last job, the hiring manager explained the interview process (we ask everybody the exact same questions, take a lot of notes, don’t make a lot of eye contact, etc), and told me it was a “very fair” process. I suppressed an eye roll, as I think the process is ridiculous – but it was a good data point for that manager, who turned out to be as bureaucratic as they come.

    In contrast, when my manager at my current job explained the interview process, she did *not* suppress her own eye roll, and said that she knew the process was very rigid, but she was required to follow it. Again, a good data point, and one that has been a good indicator of how she behaves on the job.

    I can’t tell you what to do, of course. But I can tell you that working for the government is not necessarily a bad thing, and lots of people are really happy doing it for their entire careers. Good luck, whatever you decide!

  15. littlemoose*

    I think it really is YMMV, and unfortunately some of it depends on things that are difficult to know from the outside. How secure is the agency or entity’s funding – is it likely to vary depending on political change? Is there limited possibility for advancement because of super-low turnover and you’re just waiting for people to retire? Are low performers rarely or never terminated after PIPs and the like? Are you okay with a rigid pay structure rather than purely merit-based and/or negotiable increases?

    For reference, I’ve been with the federal government for five years. On the whole, I love what I do and feel very fortunate to have my position. The job security and benefits are excellent, the pay is decent and the work-life balance rules. If you’re at a place where the work-life balance is a primary consideration, I think the government can be good for that. (I would like to work later sometimes but am literally not allowed, which I know is an excellent problem to have.)

      1. Well*

        Thanks for sharing your experience. Out of curiosity, is there anything you find rewarding about the work itself (e.g. not the pay, benefits, work/life balance, etc) that you don’t think you could find in the private sector?

        1. littlemoose*

          I know it sounds corny, but I really do like that I’m working for the people. I try to make sure the things I do are done right and fairly, because our work directly affects people’s lives. You can’t always say that with private sector work.

          I also really love the substantive work that I do, and I think I get to do more and deal with more complex issues than I would if I did this work in the private sector.

  16. Well*

    Thanks for posting this, Alison. I’ve considered gov’t work at a few different points in my career but always taken another path, just based on which opportunities presented themselves, so even just the responses so far have been interesting. :)

    To the folks who work in government, I’d love to hear what you’ve found to be uniquely *rewarding* about government work. I think it’s easy to focus on the red tape, bureaucracy, the impact of politics, etc. as unique challenges, but I suspect there must be unique rewards (or people wouldn’t do it at all!)

    1. Sandy*

      I’m going to sound all gushy on this one, but bear with me.

      Some of the coolest projects and toughest problems are handled by governments rather than private companies. The Avro Arrow (both created and killed off by government), space exploration, refugee crises, epidemic containment, nuclear non-proliferation…

      I find it incredibly rewarding to be spending my working life chipping away at some these confounding and seemingly intractable problems.

    2. AKB*

      One of the things I really like is that, despite the messiness of politics, we can have a positive impact on the public. I work at an independent regulatory agency and we just completed a big overhaul of one of our subsidy programs and I really enjoyed seeing how the work that I did (data analysis) helped shape the policy direction. Obviously, it was one of MANY factors — but it did play a role.

      I’ve also found that, contrary to popular belief, most bureaucrats are incredibly hard working and genuinely care about making the country a better place (although I can only speak to my experiences in the federal government).

      1. Gene*

        I am Making A Difference in the environment. Look at the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, that wouldn’t happen in the US today, barring a huge accidental release of something. I do something that just doesn’t exist in private industry.

    3. Stephanie*

      Hmm, my career interests have dramatically shifted since my fed job, but there was no private sector counterpart to what I did at the federal agency. I’d say as well, had I stayed in my industry, it was a big plus that I knew how the sausage was made (to use that cliche :) ). People definitely wanted to pick my brain to learn how my job actually worked and how they could expedite the approval process.

    4. Corrupted by Coffee*

      As someone who works for county government who works directly with the public, I really appreciate the opportunity to focus on helping people without worrying about profit or donations. Even the non profits I’ve worked at in the past had some very aggressive fundraising aspects. It’s nice to be able to focus more on what I can do for someone than upselling them a membership or calling them for donations. I also find it cool that all our customers get the same treatment. A rich CEO and that homeless lady down the street get the same service. I’m here to help everyone, not just people who can pay or who are important. That can be a positive or negative depending on your viewpoint.

      As for the bureaucracy, that can be really frustrating at times. However, I also understand why it is the way it is, and I’m thankful for the stability of the system. We have ways to address concerns, col increases and nice sick leave and vacation. That said, I would suggest that if red tape frustrates you, government work may not be the job for you.

  17. Mallory Janis Ian*

    I recently left my state government (higher ed) job after 8 years to go work for my department head at his private firm, and after only three months, I’m starting to have serious reservations and have started to think about going back into the temp pool at the university with the goal of landing back in an academic department. My move to the private sector was lateral in a sense (higher salary and more responsibility/room for growth, but with fewer benefits and way less time off). I undervalued the time off and thought the opportunity for growth would be worth giving it up, but I realize now that I don’t feel that way. Plus my boss’s wife is hard to deal with, and lacks the basic respect when talking to others that, were it not absent, would motivate me to put in more effort with her. I’m not sure how to quit a job after three months, though; it seems like a thing that Just Isn’t Done, but I’m kind of miserable, so I don’t know. :(

  18. De Minimis*

    I generally like working for the federal government. I think with state government it would really depend on the state, and I would be leery of many of them. I think it’s definitely true that state employees are far more vulnerable to changing political winds than their federal counterparts.

    As far as bureaucracy, I think a lot depends on the agency. Some are not any worse than any other big organization in the private sector. I’ve never worked for state government, though, so those jobs may have more “red tape” than I’ve seen in my experience. I do wish that some things would be made less complicated, but from what I see there’s usually a good reason for a lot of the rules at my job.

    It seems like a lot of the LW’s frustrations at this point are more about the application process, and those things may not carry over into the job itself…and again, I’ve seen and been involved with private sector application processes [or even on-boarding processes after starting work] that were equally bad, if not worse.

    1. LW*

      “It seems like a lot of the LW’s frustrations at this point are more about the application process, and those things may not carry over into the job itself”

      This is a good point, De Minimis, and I’ve wondered the same thing myself. Unfortunately, I’m not being given much time to collect more data as they are in a hurry to move this hiring along. But I do wonder if I’m extrapolating in ways that aren’t accurate.

  19. LQ*

    I work for a state government. I love that my job keeps people fed, in homes, helps them find work, and really makes a difference in the lives of people every single day. This is super important to me.

    But I also get to do really cool work (I really like the day to day stuff I get to do) and my boss is pretty good at being as flexible as he can in the environment as well. Things like promotions and raises are restricted (though for some areas in the state some people have much less trouble with that), as well as time off or bonuses etc.

    Not all governments are the same, just like not all private industries are the same and not all nonprofits are the same.

  20. Ann Furthermore*

    The closest I’ve come to working in government is doing some IT consulting for some very large federal agencies. That experience taught me that working for the government would not be for me. The red tape and bureaucracy would drive me insane.

  21. Michele*

    I used to work for the federal government, and I hated it. I was a good opportunity and the benefits were good, but when I left and they tried to get me to stay, nothing could make that happen. A big part of the issue was my boss. He was incompetent, irresponsible, short tempered, and arrogant. He was also thoroughly entrenched and would destroy the careers of anyone who stood up to him. I know that sort of thing can happen in any environment, but it completely soured me on government work.

    Another thing to consider is your comment about the South. That implies relocation. Have you ever lived in the South? There can be some huge culture shocks going from the North or West to the South. I was completely stunned (different situation than the government job which was in a region with some very nice people) by the racism, sexism, and rudeness when I lived there. Southern hospitality is a myth. There are rigid social rules that are met with open hostility when defied. I have lived all over the country, and the one area that I will never move back to is the South.

    1. ZSD*

      I lived in the South (north central Florida) for about five years, and when I moved there, I was really struck by how friendly everyone was! So YMMV in terms of experiencing the South, as well.

      1. Michele*

        Is anyone in Florida from Florida? It really depends on the part of the state. When my in-laws lived in Orlando, people seemed OK, but then they moved to Tampa. That place is a hell-hole of old, racist Southern money.

        1. Currently ready to retire from Gov*

          I’m from Central Florida and normally the only racism we typically encounter is from transplants and Winter Visitors. Orlando is VERY diverse (a lot of International families) and most of the northern families send their children to the University of Central Florida, which is a very liberal college. While Tampa is military and sports oriented. So the culture in Tampa is made up of military families; Hockey, Baseball and Football players who are not true Floridian’s.

          Recently, while it was actually cold; someone from the north turned to me at a restaurant and stated “I came down here for the warm weather where is It?”, like I had any control and they actually angry. So being the southern lady I am; I stated “you must have brought it with you”. With that being said people are people and some are just racist; rude and totally have had no home training. I prefer to just ignore these types of miserable people.

    2. Clever Name*

      Yes. Be aware of culture shock. I lived in a southern state for 7 years, and I was a Yankee outsider the entire time. I was never allowed to forget that. Having doors held open for me all the time sure was nice, though. ;) I’m not sure I’d go to say that Southern hospitality is a myth, but I will say that it doesn’t necessarily mean what people think it means. People are outwardly very friendly. Strangers smile at you, and you can have entire conversations with complete strangers, which if you’re from a big city in the northeast, I understand this can be jarring. However, none of this means that people genuinely care about you or want to help you. On the bright side, the city shuts down and everyone gets a snow day (or three) when it snows one inch.

      1. AnonPi*

        Yeah, I can second most of this. I was probably called ‘damn yankee’ at least once a week for the first year I was here. Hell I know someone who grew up here and has lived in the same region for like, 40 years, but because she wasn’t born here, she’s not a true southerner! Ironically the most racist/sexist/other-ist comments I’ve encountered has been at work or training for work, only a handful outside of work for the last 7 years. But you’re told not to ‘rock the boat’ or they’ll throw you off it (i.e. unless its something that can’t be completely ignored, like physical harassment, they don’t want to deal with it so don’t bother reporting it). I’ve tried not to let my experience at work influence my overall perspective of living here, but its really trying not to. If you aren’t used to it, decide if you can deal with that type of thing.

        1. LW*

          This came up when the hiring manager introduced me to a man in another department who holds the same role for which I was interviewing. He looked me up and down and made a comment about “hiring movie stars.” The hiring manager shook her head and laughed politely, changing the topic. The move to the South from the Northeast is happening (partner’s job), but this particular job offer has been an exercise in untangling the different cultures – regional, local, State government, particular department – and recalibrating my expectations and threshold for red flags.

    3. Samantha*

      That’s a bit of a generalization. “The South” includes many different states, thousands of cities and millions of people and I certainly don’t think that applies to them all. In my experience, the size of the city you’re in is a pretty big factor. Small towns can be quite a bit more behind the times than larger cities.

      1. Michele*

        Although New Orleans is not as big as many people think it is, it is also not a small town. I have lived in other areas that were racially integrated but weren’t as bad, and I have never lived in any place that was as sexist or rigidly classist.

        One of those “I told you so” things in our marriage, my husband is from there, and he thought I was being overly sensitive. I have dragged him around the country a bit (he’s a good guy that way) and now when he goes back to visit, he is appalled at how bad it is.

    4. Kate M*

      Not to derail, but as a liberal coming from the South, sure there is racism and sexism there. And I’m definitely not trying to downplay that. But I feel like you find that in any area of the US you move to, it just might present itself differently. Where I’m from, at least, different races are integrated in ways they aren’t other areas, especially like the Midwest. I feel like we don’t have towns made up completely from “white flight” like other places. So I’m surprised when people from other areas of the US come to the South (from maybe a town in the Midwest or other area that was 90% white), and then all of a sudden see racial tension or racism in more of a blatant way than they had before, but they just attribute it to the South being the most racist place in the US. But they won’t think the same thing about living in an area that they never see a person of color. Just saying, bigotry and institutionalized racism and sexism is everywhere, but just because it presents differently in the South than where you come from, doesn’t mean the South is the only place that has it.

      1. My Fake Name is Laura*

        True. Seattle is pretty racist but because it’s not a form of racism most people would immediately recognize, few think of it that way. See also: Oregon, which was literally founded as a white supremacist paradise and didn’t allow black people to move there until 1927.

      2. Xay*

        Thank you. I’m black, from the South, and I have lived in/traveled all over the country. Racism and sexism definitely present differently in the South, but no city is free of it. In fact, some of the most blatant and threatening racism that I have personally encountered was in the Midwest and Northeast.

        1. Stephanie*

          Yeah, Indiana was where my friend’s mom’s dog almost attacked me because it just had no exposure to black people and viewed me as some strange threat. There was a lot of white flight in their metro area and her particular town just had no black people (and even more affluent blacks just lived elsewhere).

          I think a lot of it is how Southern history it taught and stereotypes about southerners being slower and less progressive. Civil Rights events are taught in these oversimplified, easily digestible narratives and it’s easy to think the South hasn’t progressed much past bus boycotts and fire hoses and dogs on protesters. It’s also a lot more complicated to explain the more subtle and insidious ways racism presents itself in non-southern cities (like redlining, for example).

        2. Not So NewReader*

          NE person here. I have always heard that some areas here are even worse than the south. I think it has become less than it was, say, twenty years ago. But how much less and when will we reach zero? I don’t know. [shaking my head…] Ignorance/hate has no geographical preference.

          1. Stephanie*

            My parents are both from the Deep South. They met in Boston (in the early 80s) and maintain that that was the most racist place they ever lived.

            1. I'm a Little Teapot*

              I’ve lived in Boston for the last few years, and I’ve noticed little outright hostility (I’m white, so I may be missing a lot) but a fair bit of residential and economic segregation. There’s been a lot of immigration from all over the world since Boston’s IT and biotech boom started in the 80s, and the immigration has generally been welcomed rather than met with an attitude of “weirdo forners are taking our jerbs,” so Boston is a lot less white than it used to be. But Boston’s native-born African-American population hasn’t done as well, and I remember uncomfortably realizing in grad school that most of the cafeteria workers at my college were black while most of the students were white. It doesn’t help that the historically black neighborhoods mostly have slower and more unreliable public transit than the rest of the city.

              Interestingly, my government workplaces in the Boston area have been more integrated than my private-sector ones. I’m not sure whether this says good things about state and city governments, bad things about business, academia, and nonprofits in the area, or both.

              1. Stephanie*

                Ah, interesting. I bet it has changed. They just told me they’d hear worse stuff than they’d hear in AR or MO.

                From my understanding, the federal government has actually had a higher rate of success of integration. And for a lot of blacks, getting government jobs was a way to attain a middle-class (or better) lifestyle.

      3. AnotherFed*

        +1. It’s easy to claim not to have racism when you live in a place where you only see white people. But when you go to schools with no minorities, play sports with few minorities, go to religious services with no minorities, etc., you don’t have much of a leg to stand on.

      4. Nerdling*

        I think people down here tend to be more open about it, but my friends from other parts of the country make no bones about the fact that there’s just as much, if not more, racism where they live. It’s just expressed differently.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I am glad to hear that your friends talk about racism openly. Growing up that was not a conversation that happened, ever. My cousin and I were just discussing this about our childhoods. We were commenting on the openness to speak up there is now that did not exist before. It’s been one of the good changes we have seen, but there is a long way to go yet. I feel that change starts with one-on-one or small group conversations.

      5. SR*

        Agreed. Total anecdata here, but just my experience – half my family’s from the South (but a relatively large city), half is from the Midwest (in a tiny town). I’ve never heard any of the Southern half of my family say anything remotely racist, while I’ve heard several members of my Midwestern family say things that were at various points on the spectrum between “comes across as racist because they just don’t get that things like nomenclature change” and “holy EFF you did NOT just say that.”

    5. Stephanie*

      Ehhhhh, as a counterpoint, my family moved from a suburb of Philadelphia to a suburb of Dallas. I heard way more openly racist things in the former than the latter.

      I think it depends what you mean by the “South” and how big of a city we’re talking about. The DFW Metroplex is sort of Relo-ville thanks to all the corporate headquarters there, so you get all different types moving in and out. I’m unsure if Texas is really the South either (it seems to be a hybrid of the West and the South). If OP’s talking about one of the big cities, she’ll probably be fine. One big adjustment was that religiosity is way more pronounced there.

        1. Stephanie*

          Yeah, I’d argue Dallas is like the buffer between Southern Texas and Western Texas (or perhaps just the whole I-35 corridor). Didn’t Fort Worth say it was the “Gateway to the West” as part of its tourism campaign or something? I’d agree that east of Dallas (and just East Texas overall) has more in common culturally and geographically with Louisiana while El Paso seems to be more like the Southwest.

          1. JB*

            “Where the West begins.” This is way off topic, but it wasn’t created for an ad campaign. It was from yet another unfortunate episode in our history, and then with time, it kind of became more of a reflection of the fact that Dallas is more Southern/snobby [according to people from FW, I wasn’t raised here so I have no dog in this fight] and FW was more Western/friendly small town like.

            From the city’s website:
            A settlement had been established by Jonathon Bird in the winter of 1840, three miles east of where Birdville is today. In 1843, Sam Houston came to what was then called Fort Bird or Bird’s Fort and remained more than a month, awaiting chiefs from different tribes to discuss a peace parley. Houston departed, leaving Gen. Edward H. Tarrant and George W. Terrell to meet with the chiefs. When the tribes came to the negotiating table, a treaty was made under which the Native Americans were to remain to the west of a line traced passing through the future site of Fort Worth. The line marked “Where the West Begins” — giving Fort Worth its famous slogan.

            1. Stephanie*

              Interesting! I didn’t know this. And yeah, Dallas can feel like LA with some Stetsons and worse weather in parts.

      1. I'm a Little Teapot*

        Some of my extended family and their social circle in the New York metro area say blatantly racist things which would have made them social pariahs in the small, mostly white western Massachusetts towns where I grew up. It’s weird; in my experience, mostly white areas in the North tend to be divided into regions where white people really strive to be antiracist and regions where white people proudly flaunt their prejudices.

      2. Paula*

        Also Dallas area resident and life long Texan. I can just give my anecdotal evidence – all the racists I’ve every known here were transplants, mostly from Michigan. Part of the polarization of this nation – people move to areas that they think reflect their attitudes and political values.

    6. Anonsie*

      Eh. I have lived all over the country, and I feel the cultural differences are wide between all places. Any relocation, even from city to city in the same state, is probably going to come with its share of cultural recalculating. Which is something to consider, but you should be considering it no matter where you’re going.

      And as a few people have mentioned already, I think the designation of the south as That Place Where Bigotry Happens is a dangerous mistake. I just haven’t ever been anywhere in America that wasn’t just as packed full of institutional racism and classism and sexism and xenophobia as every other part, and I really think the perspective that those issues are primarily Southern issues holds back a lot of well needed examination of what’s going on everywhere else.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Classism: I grew up in a New England state. And if you were not from one of the old-old-old families then there was something wrong with you. wth. With the exception of indigenous peoples, we are ALL imports. grrr.

  22. Ali*

    I’m considering applying with my county, so this is a timely topic for me! Granted, my situation is just lowering my standards a little to get out of my current position, but I’m still curious about a position opening. The only trouble is, some departments in the county have dealt with hiring freezes and whatnot, so am not sure if that would be applicable to the job I’m seeking. I could still use the benefits and survivable pay I can’t necessarily find in my current field though (so many internships and part-time temp jobs….)

  23. NutellaNut*

    I think your question as to why someone would choose to work for the government is most relevant. I work for the federal government, and having been in the military, perhaps I’m more used to the red tape and politics. For me, the mission of the agency I’m employed at is the main reason I chose to take the job. I feel strongly that I make a difference and I enjoy what I do; for the most part, that makes that day to day government shenanigans easier to deal with. So maybe ask yourself whether the results of your work, or your job satisfaction, would be worth the trade off of having less autonomy or wiggle room in your work.
    And I believe there is a cultural shift that many folks go through when moving into government positions. Like any job, there are new processes and policies, but like an earlier commenter stated, there is generally no guessing, you know what is expected -which is good. In the agency I work for there is also a strong culture based on its history and mission (e.g. get the job done, do more with less). Employees who, for whatever reason, don’t fit in with that culture can have a tough time – which is not so good. If you haven’t already, I would suggest finding out more about the philosophy of the department you would be working for to make sure it aligns with what you believe. Good luck!

  24. Rich*

    I’ve been a state employee in the Northeast for going on 9 years. There are days I absolutely love my job and there are days I wish I worked anywhere but here. There are a few things I can tell you from my State Govt. perspective:

    1) Policies and procedures vary between departments. Something as simple as requesting to stay overnight in one agency requires us to fill out a 2 page form and in another requires an email to your supervisor.

    2) General politics influence daily operations. My state is facing a huge budget gap now and everything is in flux. For example, all overtime is being scrutinized by senior leadership, out of state travel requires written approval 3 weeks prior, and people’s cell phone are being taken away to save costs. On the other hand, when budgets are good, well, none of that is a problem.

    3) A good boss makes all the difference. I used to work for an ogre, but now my boss is supportive, fights battles for us, and shields the political fallout. She also lets me tele-commute often, something other bosses don’t let their employees do. As long as my work gets done and done well, she can let me work how I need to.

    4) The benefits are good. For me, the private sector would pay more, however the benefits are far superior including a pension, good health care, and great time off policies. One of the reasons I’ve stayed is not the work, but the perks that come with it. Plus, for me, the private sector would require me to move and I love living where I do.

    All that said, the choice is yours. Sure there are some disavantages, but look at the people who would be your co-workers, do they seem happy? You said you feel like your boss would be an ally. That is awesome. If so, feel free to ask her directly about your concerns, something like “As you know, its been a while since I worked for state government, can you give me some insight to how the day-to-day office workings go? Are policies really driven from the top down or does this department tend to be more self-reliant?”

    I hope that helps.I have enjoyed my time in state government and if this is the best move for you, I hope you do too.

  25. Journalist Wife*

    I agree with fposte on this one. I’m also at a highly bureaucratic state university in the most broke state there is right now, with a brand new governor looking to make an example of our “overpaid government workers.” Luckily, I’ve worked my way up the entry/mid-level admin ladder into a job that has been created for me and isn’t likely to get the axe when pink slips start rolling out, so I don’t have to worry as much as many of my coworkers about budget and funding changes. And benefits can be great in other ways — I trade in my lunch hours to attend class for free so I’m finishing my degree for free. My degree path is what I’m already doing paid for the university, so I’ll just be more marketable by the time I get it, but I really don’t have any plans to leave the university or what I do even after I have my degree in hand. The HR parts of having a government job are the worst in terms of lag time and paperwork and way too many steps, and promotions routinely take 6 months to appear even after your bosses all agree on it, but you generally get backpay for it when they finally get it pushed through.

    1. fposte*

      Ah, yes, I’d forgotten we’re in the same state. Hello, fellow “overpaid government worker.”

  26. Joey*

    It’s like any other job- some are well run and some are not.

    Personally I didn’t really realize how important it is to believe in the leaders at the highest levels. I was lucky enough to have great org leaders who did a really good job of getting input and buy in from employees and stakeholders. It amazed me how much those things affected the work I was responsible for.

    But, some cons are generally consistent and you have to be willing to accept them:

    1. Bureaucracy in nearly everything you do
    2. that your org has probably been around a long time and will probably have a lot of folks who are used to doing things a certain way.
    3. That no matter how good you and your org are there will always be citizens that think you’re a bunch of lazy, wasteful and undeserving bureaucrats.
    4. That the 1% of bad apples that every company has will be out there for everyone to see and will make the employees of your org look bad.

    On the other hand, public service is super gratifying and learning how to navigate or work within bureaucracies is extremely valuable. Not to mention at least where I was the many of the highest performers regardless of field were sought after within the org for their critical thinking and ability to get shit done skills.

  27. HR Manager*

    I haven’t worked for the government, but my last two jobs are fields where government has their hands all over (highly regulated). Ugh – it can make a dysfunctional organization all that more depressing. I’m now 1 layer removed, but still regulated and its much more tolerable, and my organization generally has good people who understands that it is always a balance between the regulations and the flexibility and creativity of how to get a large volume of work done.

    I can definitely say that the minutiae of which many regulations and processes involve and how much of your time is spent to managing to that minutiae versus pushing along way more important work would make me cry. This comes from a person who really loves a well-defined (but not overly burdensome) process.

  28. Celeste*

    You already know there is a lot you will have to accept. I guess you really have to decide what your goals are. Do you really believe in the work you’ll be doing? That helps a lot. Is this the top of the food chain in your field? Will working here for a time make you more valuable in your field later? How high do you want to go?

    Another issue is that state jobs do tend to pigeonhole people with ultra-specific position descriptions. Try to understand what promotion is possible for you there. These jobs are famous for offering stability but not mobility.

    It’s not for everyone, and sometimes it comes down to your stage in life. For example, for a lawyer, it can be a way to get a 40 hour job instead of a 60+ hour job…invaluable during family-building years. If you get educational benefits and want to continue school, this might be a great way to get it done economically.

    Lots of excellent points were raised above regarding politics. It’s not until you get to the higher levels of management that you are affected by elections costing you your job, but should your state budget get hit really hard, everyone is affected in department budgets and sometimes even temporary or permanent pay cuts.

    I’m wishing you the best of luck with your decision and future!!!!

    1. Xay*

      Yeah, I have to disagree with that. It is completely possible to love your work and for every other aspect of your job to grind you into the ground. You have to decide what you can accept.

      1. BRR*

        I also disagree. I know and have read articles from a number of tenure or tenure-track professors who took any job because it was a tenured teaching job. They do love what they do but they hate where they do it and who they do it with. They are miserable. I’d almost say you can do something you hate but if you love where you live and your boss and coworkers are great you can enjoy life.

    2. Nerdling*

      I disagree. I love what I do, but the pure vitriol that was directed toward government workers generally and myself personally in the wake of the government shutdown had me seriously questioning whether putting up with all that was worth the rewards. Facing the reality of not knowing when I’d get paid again (and therefore how long we could pay the mortgage), coupled with being completely disrespected, following on the heels of additional internal bad news within the organization, my love of what I do was severely stressed. The thing that kept me hanging in there was not how much I love what I do but that I couldn’t do it anywhere else.

    3. JayDee*

      I don’t want to pile on, but I also disagree to some extent. Loving your work can make less than ideal work situations more tolerable. But loving your work doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t make up for lack of vacation days or terrible bosses. And it is often used to justify low wages in non-profits because the employees shouldn’t be worried about the money but should do the work for the love/reward of the job.

  29. Amanda*

    I work for a state government agency, and some of the red tape is annoying–there are rules that really slow things down in terms of procurement, hiring, and communications. But on the whole, the impact on day to day work is not significantly better or worse than my other jobs, which have all been in non-profits and/or universities. One of the worst things about my job in state government is that people in general (not everyone for sure, but I’ve encountered this more than I’d care to) assume state workers are inflexible, un-creative, lazy and and not worth using public money on to make their jobs easier and more humanized– e.g., “you are already overpaid at the taxpayers expense, you don’t deserve kleenex and pens!” I do very much enjoy the times when I am able to change those opinions by being great and my job and demonstrating the value of my agency. But that assumption of laziness/unworthiness can be a real downer at times.

  30. Dip-lo-mat*

    When discussing bad leadership in the government, colleagues were complaining that you can’t do anything about a toxic leader because of tenure (tenure is technically quite different in my little niche of the government than the typical can’t-fire-a-dud concerns, but not dissimilar in practice). My husband, who was leading the discussion in a fairly formal setting, pointed out that, a-ha!, tenure also meant *they* couldn’t get fired, so they didn’t have the best reason for not speaking up, if speaking up was the right thing to do.

    The hardest part for me is territoriality and stovepiping. Some folks who have been at the same role for decades and have no opportunities for growth beyond that role get complacent and cynical and–frustratingly–don’t like to share. They know their stuff extraordinarily well, usually, but seem so disheartened by the confines of government work that they turn into clock punchers, even on solid salaries. They lose the spark of someone who wants to think innovatively.

    That’s not everyone, though, and I also find that being a positive, creative, and persuasive influence gets stuff done. If you need everyone else to be excited abour your ideas to move forward, you may be disappointed, but if you can charge ahead a bit, you might win the cynics over.

    What’s great about the government? I *do* feel emboldened to speak my mind (provided I can back up the talk with logic and evidence) and take risks, because I know the hatchet isn’t falling (again, I’m tenured, so don’t assume it’s actually that secure for all other positions…that really depends). The issues we work on are current, evolving, and exciting. I love the travel opportunities and the chance to really help people.

    The downside of the lack of a hatchet means bad managers or cranky coworkers might resort to bullying and ostracizing to force someone out. Does the office culture tolerate putting the squeeze on individuals, making their lives miserable since they can’t be fired? I haven’t seen a lot of that, but it exists. I know that confidence, a firm handshake, and quality work product do loads to counteract that type of toxicity. Bullies don’t normally take down those who stand up for themselves or others.

    I’ve worked in the government for a decade, but I’ve only been a parent for about half of that time. Through that lens, I will say the job security and benefits are nothing to sneeze at, even if my peers from college are outearning me by miles.

    As for work-life balance, I work in an agency that isn’t great at it, but I picked a bureau that is. Makes a world of difference.

  31. maggie*

    Wow, this could be a letter that I wrote personally a few years ago, right down to the idealism in the 20’s turning a normal amount of frustration into a rant of epic proportions. I do think that time is on your side, however, as I am finding myself caring a little less about the annoyances and now look at them as quiet opportunities to really focus on my own skill set and development. I am concerned, however, at your new leadership. That is always a red flag for me. Do you have the patience of a saint? Are you willing to patiently teach this leader how to lead you correctly and fairly? If not, I would move on to the next gov’t job, if you can. Good luck!

    1. LW*

      Agreed, maggie. I came away from my last government job with a (possibly unfair) theory that there were two kinds of managers in a bureaucratic system: ones that used bureaucracy to make their work unnecessarily opaque and keep people off their back and those who sought to understand the system so they could facilitate the work of their team. The hiring manager seems empathetic, but not fluent enough in the systems or in her authority to really be the latter. Her manager, the department head, seems wonderful. If I were reporting to him, I’d take the job in a second.

  32. De Minimis*

    I think believing in the overall mission or goal of a particular agency is a huge factor too. I’m really lucky in that the work my agency does has a direct impact on family members and other people I know, so it’s not hard for me to be invested in making sure things continue to run smoothly. If we were a more typical “alphabet soup” type agency that didn’t really provide direct services and were more isolated from the public it might be tougher.

    One con for me is that it can be tough to move into a better job…you might have to be willing to relocate long distances [at least in the case of the federal government] and even then it could be a scenario where you’ve got to wait several years for the right person to retire at the right time. I’d say that is one complaint I have here, there really is not much advancement potential and there seems to be an overall expectation that people are going to remain in the same job for the vast majority of their career–and to be fair, that works great for a lot of people who just want to work in their community.

  33. OHCFO*

    I work in local government, but have worked in state and federal agencies also. Two points: #1)Government was intended to be slow. On purpose. That’s what the checks and balances are there for–to make sure that there isn’t a runaway train with your tax dollars or your civil rights. The job of government (in the US at least) is provide goods and services that the free market can’t or won’t support. That makes it hard to apply private-sector styles and processes to government work. Not that there isn’t room for improvement. But before you malign the entire sector, remember why it’s there in the first place.

    #2) Not all governments deserve to be painted with the same broad brush. The City I currently work for does truly innovative and extraordinary work–even by private sector standards. Just like it’s not fair to make generalizations about “all tech companies” or “all non-profits,” referring to all governments as if they are just one big pot of inefficiency and frustration is hardly productive. Do some real hard work researching the agency you’re contemplating. Where do they receive their funding? What is their history of budget growth/cuts? Are there unions/civil service rules/cultural norms associated with personnel practices? What is the executive leadership structure (elected, appointed, merit-hire)? Who are the ultimate decision-makers (Congress, Council members, commissioners, etc.)? The answers to these questions will start to tell you more about the organization and its limitations. And really think about which of those things matter to you. Sure, I’m annoyed that the personnel practices in my City are pretty slow (due to union and civil service entanglements), but I’m thrilled that our executive leadership team is empowered and respected by our Council and community–and that outweighs my frustrations.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Having worked on a board and in small town government- I cannot agree more about innovation. If you are with a group of people that are willing to try new ideas, willing to be transparent then you can actually have a great time at work.
      I have been very fortunate to find people that love new ideas, researching the new ideas and implementing what seems like a solid, well-thought out new ideas. It’s a privilege. I don’t know how else to describe it. And when the people, in the area that you serve stop and tell you that your group is doing a good job- it is such a wonderful feeling. Compliments do not come easily or frequently- so you know that they really mean it.

  34. Brett*

    I’m actually the opposite of what the OP is experiencing with my work in local government (large metro county level). Pay is the biggest issue, while operational bureaucracy is surprisingly flexible.

    All of the rigidity and drawbacks come on the pay side for me (and to some extent personnel). I am paid extremely low for my qualifications and position and no matter how many ways I push against this I always come up against rigid bureaucracy. This carries over into personnel, as we put up with some horrible coworkers just because filling empty positions is nearly impossible in our current pay structure.

    But operationally, I actually have much more flexibility in government to do creative projects (even if I don’t have the resources). One of the catches here is that you do have a certain level of rights to keep your job that are not present in the private sector. This only amounts to needing due process to be terminated, but that can be surprisingly a lot.
    This means that you can “beg forgiveness instead of ask permission” much more readily, especially if you have a good rapport with your immediate supervisor. If you are willing to take initiative without any resource support, this can lead you down paths where you can really push your industry and develop new skills.

    This is not every local government role though. In particular, the closer you get to federal and the closer you get to defense, the less your ability to move forward on your own to create changes. Even in my role, the bureaucracy is still there, it is just more present in resource allocation and pay than it is in operations and project management.

  35. Student*

    I’m a federal contractor. I work in a job with more red tape than some proper government jobs.

    Things that make it bearable:

    A manager who is on your side and will go to bat for you, especially over important things.

    A higher position of authority – the rules can be truly monstrous for low-level employees, but once you have some power and some recognized authority, you can get away with bending or breaking the dumb rules. You need to have a really good grasp of which rules are dumb, which rules are in place for a good but obscure reason, and which rules are really important to someone else.

    A really good cause. I feel mine is one of the most important jobs in the world. It’s a job worth doing, even with one hand tied behind my back.

    1. SerfinUSA*

      Good points!

      I finally have a decent manager, and have finally moved into a middle-level semi-autonomous position that is heavily into helping students. Very nice for morale.

  36. Xay*

    As I mentioned above, I have worked for a state agency and currently I work as a consultant to a federal agency.

    I genuinely enjoyed my work in state government. The bureaucratic process is slow but it is slow for a reason – there are set processes and built in accountability because ultimately you are accountable to the taxpayers. That said, I didn’t find a lack of innovative thinking – in fact, I learned more about innovation and partnerships while in state government because in a slow moving, resource challenged environment, I had to learn how to make the most out of what I had. I ultimately left state government because the state I worked for went from one administration to another with increasing hostility towards state employees to the point where it no longer made sense for my career or financial prospects to stay there. I transitioned to federal contracting with the intent to seek a federal FTE, but I’ve found that I like having the freedom to move from project to project and explore different aspects of my field in a way that I could not as a federal employee.

    I think the key to successful government employment is to really learn the system. There are always going to be some archaic practices (like never letting go of IE6), but eventually those things become habit and you can really focus on what is needed to move your projects along.

  37. HeyNonnyNonny*

    I’m a federal contractor. The one thing I haven’t seen anyone mention is how HARD it is for government to get rid of bad workers (part of those ‘higher standards’ the Cosmic Avenger mentions). If you have a good team/coworkers, lucky you– but you might also have people that are just passed around departments, or, worse, just allowed to gum up the works for decades. And in those cases, even the best managers might have theirs hands tied.

  38. Anon right now*

    I’ve worked for the Feds and for the State. I was not ready for my reaction to family and friends who had voted for people who then furloughed me or cut my pay.
    This just happened. We got a new governor and he is cutting our pay. My MIL is a wonderful person and I love her but when I told her about the pay cut she expressed frustration (thanks for the support) but fully fails to see the connection between the gov she voted for and the outcome, which she doesn’t like. This is VERY frustrating for me.
    I’m ok with you (member of X political party) but please don’t play dumb when fallout hits you. Oh you don’t think your elected reps should be supporting services, but it’s sure the government’s fault when there aren’t services for your family who need it. You don’t like it when your family members get pay cuts, furloughs, etc. but that rep was honest about it…he told you that’s what he would do. Your views don’t exist in a vacuum. When you elect people based on those views they affect real people.
    So be prepared for not only the effect of elected officials but the effect of knowing that your loved ones actively campaigned (this happened too) to get an official in that would torpedo your already below market pay.

    1. SerfinUSA*

      I hate the vitriolic opinion pieces about our outrageous pay, benefits & pensions, as if we are stealing from tax payers. Yo, all that is a negotiated part of our employment, part of our compensation package, and we pay into our pensions ourselves. When all y’all vote to cut from that, you are taking our paychecks, just the same as if people voted that your savings account was going to be commandeered for some public funding need :/ Makes me cranky!

      1. MT*

        The problem is that the negotiated pay. Unions help elect the people who they will be bargaining with. Happens both in the public and private sectors.

      2. Michele*

        The thing is, the pay isn’t exceptionally good. The benefits are good, but the government agency that I worked for didn’t give out bonuses like you would see in the private sector. It was also the only place I have ever worked that didn’t provide coffee and made us pay for our own holiday parties. Government jobs look high pay from the outside because so many private sector jobs have gone downhill; it is getting harder to find a job that pays a living wage and decent benefits. The problem isn’t the government compensation, it is the private sector compensation.

        1. SerfinUSA*

          That is so much the truth!
          My partner is looking to leave the monastery (we both work for the same institution) and looking at pay vs. expected duties/hours in private sector equivalents has been harrowing.
          Positions starting at $13/hr with fairly demanding educational requirements and about 3 persons worth of workload, often 20-30 hours per week with bennies at some distant time period, or worse – 40-60 hours per week with no bennies…no thanks!
          The last time I was really looking for work in a big city, corporate environment, maybe 2003, I saw pay about at current levels for the same job titles, but usually with better ‘fringe’ conditions. Private sector wages are definitely down, esp given today’s working conditions.

        2. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Yes – private sector pay has decreased relative to inflation. A lot of people whine about unions, but unions are a lot of the reason that public sector pay hasn’t plummeted in the same way.

    2. Celeste*

      Yes to this. I haven’t run into it from family, just from assorted friends. It’s always a horrible shock to find out that somebody voted specifically for someone so that they would cut down on state workers. But for every one who has said these things to my face, I’ve found two others who back up the work that I do and the way that I am paid.

    3. LQ*

      Yeah, this has been the most difficult thing for me too. Though for me family talked –at length–about how good it was to have cuts and shut downs and all the rest all the while I was out of work. Your votes, and your opinions have personal impact on those around you.

      (The best part? The family members saying this wanted to be a cop and a firefighter respectively.)

    4. I'm a Little Teapot*

      “Your views don’t exist in a vacuum. When you elect people based on those views they affect real people.”

      +255 to this. I frequently find it useful to remind people of this – and frequently see people reminded of this by changing circumstances for themselves or people they care about.

      It’s why I get frustrated when people tell me that people’s political views don’t matter or don’t reflect on them as human beings.

  39. KJ*

    Lots of great perspectives here.

    One thing I will add is that when I get frustrated with the bureaucracy, I remind myself that government (I’m a fed) is fundamentally different from the private sector. We have different stakeholders that we have to answer to in different ways. At my job we are accountable to Congress, to tax-payers generally, to the entities we regulate, to contractors and grantees, to our employees (who have a due process right to their government jobs, unlike the private sector) and more. It may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but this is just the nature of the beast. We will never be as efficient, nimble, and responsive to changing conditions as a private entity because we are fundamentally different from a private entity. This line of thinking helps me take a deep breath and deal with the ridiculous red tape sometimes.

    Also I remind myself that I get a paycheck every two weeks without fail, I can’t be fired without due process, and, unlike most Millennials, I have some pension benefits. Those things are nice.

  40. Southern*

    If you don’t already live in the south, research the city’s weather and politics. Those are the things that are hardest for people who are new to the area to handle IME.

  41. SerfinUSA*

    I enjoy the stability that comes with a (state) government job. As an older worker, I did enough time fretting about economic downturns that led to layoffs and other cuts. I also moved from a high-cost big city to a smaller college/ski/outdoors town, and there just aren’t many private sector jobs that pay enough to get out of bed, let along offer benefits.
    If you’re of the personality or stage in career where ‘exciting’ all-nighters and layoff roulette aren’t your thing, a government job can be reassuringly boring.

    I do find there can be some bad apples and badmin (i.e. upper level management) because it can be really tough to rouse the will to fire someone and there are some good ol’ boy networks. But overall I would much rather have a steady paycheck, reliable benefits, plenty of notice (and hiring preference) if the budget tanks to the point of layoffs, no problem actually using my sick/vacation leave…things like that.

    1. Celeste*

      Yup, all of this. It gets to a point where you have the golden handcuffs. You learn to rationalize that not every employer gives you jewelry, and that things could be much worse.

      1. SerfinUSA*

        Eh, I just like knowing how much time & money I have to spend on my non-work life, and having fairly predictable variables to plug into my household’s plan for our post-50 lives. But I’ve never been the kind of person who gets identity or validation from a job, so being relatively unfettered for most of my waking hours has been my career priority over my few decades of workerdom.

        Having to earn a paycheck in the first place is where the handcuffs come in.

  42. Rachael*

    As someone who has worked for government two different times, one for city government, and one for state government. I would really think carefully about what you value in a job before you take the position. In both jobs I have had, there has been no workplace flexibility, so if you need to work from home, or there is inclement weather, there is nothing you can do. Also, unfortunately, most of the government workers I have been with are not very excited about coming to work. Where I am, it is very much you arrive at 9:00, and everyone leaves right at 5:00, and there is a lot of complaining.

    It can be a big benefit for people who want to pay off student loans, who want a pension after ten years (how long it takes to be vested in my department) and is very 9-5.

    However, for me, it has been a mistake to come back. I crave more flexibility and autonomy and am looking for a position that allows that.

  43. IT Kat*

    I’ve worked for local, city-level governments, plenty of private sector businesses, and currently am on a Federal contract.

    A few things to note for any government job:
    – If the rigidness and red tape get to you in a big way, take heed to red flags you’ve already seen in the hiring process. Those things WILL NOT change and even if you have an ally in your manager, he or she cannot change most of them either. There is unfortunately a lot less flexibility in most government jobs than private sector (most, not all).
    – The fact that government employees generally cannot be fired without due process is a perk – and also a downside because that means people who SHOULD be let go oftentimes are NOT because it’s too hard to gather evidence for the due process (or at the very least it takes way longer than it should).
    – To the above point: Even if you cannot be let go without due process, that due process can change. Most common is a change in the person running the government entity (Mayor, Executive Director, Commander, etc. etc. depending on what level of government you are at). Also, there can be government mandated furloughs in which you are on leave sans pay (which eats up your vacation time – Federal is notorious for this).
    – Would you actually be employed by the government, or by a Prime Contractor to work at the government office? There are HUGE differences between the two and you will want to be aware of them.

    Good luck, hope you make the right choice for you!

    1. IT Kat*

      Oh, and the biggest thing that has frustrated me – I’m IT and very used to adapting quickly to new technologies, new and better ways of doing things, and working on multiple big projects at once.

      Every government agency is different, of course, but I’ve found government work (again, just speaking for me, and from my experience) is MUCH slower paced than I care for, and I have a really hard time getting out of bed and coming to work when I know it will be days before I am able to move forward on my single project…. All the while I’m doing the best I can on outdated hardware and software that is 3+ versions behind.

      1. De Minimis*

        I’ve seen firsthand that I.T. processes are very slow to change, and there always seem to be huge issues in moving to new platforms. We were supposed to move to a new platform nearly three years ago to handle our budgetary planning and reporting, to replace the Excel spreadsheets we’d been using. We’re still using the spreadsheets, and have replaced the original consulting firm that was supposed to help us handle the changeover–we were supposed to re-start the process this year, but there’s already been one delay and I would be surprised if anything happens with it this fiscal year.
        However, the blame seems to be more with the consultants, who are private sector.

        When we had the shutdown, we still had to come to work since we were all deemed essential. Even though you knew you were eventually going to be paid, it was still a little disheartening to know that technically you were working for free since there was no authority to pay you until a budget or CR was passed.

      2. Noelle*

        I actually do IT policy for Congress, and it is laughable how slow IT developments happen in government. You want to record information in an interoperable format? It can’t be done!!!

    2. Government Minion*

      I’ve worked for state government and now I work for local government. I’ve been with this agency for 8 years and the biggest downside I see is your second point. The firing process is *extremely* cumbersome. It can take YEARS to let go of people, not only because it takes tons and tons of documentation, but the grievance process can take forever. And every little discipline action can be grieved. In my previous position, due to the nature of our work, this really affected me because my coworkers work, or lack thereof, literally impacted my day to day functioning and job. My supervisor didn’t have a spine and stopped caring because everything was fought. That was the sole reason I left that job.

      In my current position, I have a lot of autonomy so my coworker’s work doesn’t impact me nearly as much, and I’m much happier. My hours are very flexible and it’s nice having all holidays off. Our pay is also much higher than private sector in this field.

      I have worked in the private sector as well, and both businesses went under because of poor money management. There’s much less risk of that happening in government, but you are still at risk of RIFs.

  44. Noelle*

    I’d ask a lot of questions about performance metrics. What would qualify as “success” in your role, and especially, in the projects you’d be managing? What happens if those goals aren’t met? A lot of government agencies just haven’t thought these out. It’s frustrating on an employee level (my boss has no idea whether I’m doing a good job, so he bases evaluations on how much time I spend planted at my desk, even though I might be MORE effective if I were at meetings, briefings, etc.). It’s even worse on a program level, where you probably have a lot of things you have to do, but what happens if they don’t get done? You need consequences to motivate people, and that’s hard in a setting where most government employees are isolated from failures (and successes).

    1. LW*

      That was another concern: when I asked about metrics for the role, the hiring manager said she was hoping to get a performance review system up and running to define just that. She was eager to discuss the schedule I wanted for clocking in and out, but unable to articulate clearly what success would look like. And when I brought up previously scheduled obligations for my first six months on the job (about 10 days in total) she said that while unpaid leave is something they can do, she wouldn’t feel comfortable granting me unpaid leave for the two days (above what I would earn in leave those six months) for fear it would look like she was showing me favoritism due to my relocation. I understood that she might not be able to grant me all of the leave I was asking for, but wish her reasoning had been grounded in an inability to do the work effectively rather than maintaining appearances.

      1. Noelle*

        Yeah, many government offices are sticklers about rules and leave and keeping up appearances. My current office has a lot of rules that are designed more so we can tell outside interests how strict we are and what long hours we work and how few vacation days we have (5. We have FIVE vacation days). It doesn’t matter how efficient we are, apparently they think people really want to know that we aren’t on vacation. Ever.

      2. LCL*

        Her reasoning was grounded in an inability to do the work effectively. Her work. If it appears that she is showing favoritism with regards to leave, that toxic person in her group will cause a lot of trouble.

        My experience has been that government jobs vs for profit companies have the same percent of flakes/malcontents/psychos. But in for profit companies, the cast is always changing; the toxic person is fired but a new one will be hired. It’s like nature abhors a vacuum. In government jobs the toxic person is just moved from group to group, or isolated. I feel safer working for the government because the toxic people are a known quantity. I have had jobs with two different for profit companies where another employee was arrested on site for serious criminal behavior.

  45. State Budget Analyst*

    I love working for the government. I am a budget forecaster for a mid-sized state agency in the South. I haven’t found the bureaucracy much more limiting than I did at large (and even very small) private companies. When I left my first “real” job (I worked all through undergrad in consumer analytics/utility compliance) in mgmt consulting, the CEO tried to entice me to stay with horror stories of bureaucracy and not having an impact. I didn’t tell him that the Kafka-esque bureaucracy in our marketing team was the main reason for my job search (in a company of 15 people).

    There is some bureaucracy. It’ll have taken roughly a month and a half for me to get access to our database since the process began. At any other job I’d have data access on the first day. But I wasn’t working with complex, sensitive information either. This is data you can really do some cool stuff with, and our analytics dept. is very excited for me to start playing around as they don’t have the capacity to do anything beyond ETL right now. Because of this wrinkle, I’m getting some free training in hard skills like stat programming and SQL queries, so for me that’s a huge plus.

    The agency I work for was also completely restructured by consultants in the last 6 months, however. We’re hiring lots of private sector people, trying to develop private-sector standards/expectations around reporting, accountability, etc. I was told by HR that it would take a few weeks to process my offer, but the next day got a call saying that the process had been fast tracked in order to get me on board. And as the designated “Excel person” on the finance side, I get to touch a lot of projects that I otherwise wouldn’t.

    My biggest complaints is that no one in my department keeps Western hours. Flex schedules, 7-3 to avoid traffic, etc. That’s great if you have kids/family, but I don’t, and frequently work til 7 or 8:30 with our consultants to meet legislative deadlines. In any event, most of them are not especially useful as 99% of institutional knowledge lies with The Wizard, a legendary accountant who is completely inaccessible due to having 99% of the institutional knowledge.

  46. John R*

    I worked for government before returning to the private sector because government work has a perverse incentive to do poorly rather than well.

    Let me explain:

    Where I worked, those of us who plowed through and did a good job were penalized in many ways. Those who slacked off got to put in a lot of overtime to finish their work, while those of us who worked hard lost out on that money. Also, the slackers were able to take long vacation breaks, sometimes up to five weeks, while the hard workers were lucky to get a week off because they were needed.

    You’ll probably also have to join a Union which means EVERYONE gets paid the same whether you work your a** off or are a slacker. Your salary will also be published online and in the newspaper for all your friends and relatives to see. In addition, you’ll get no morale building perks: no parties (unless you pay for them yourselves), no company picnics, no free food, not even free coffee. And for that privilege you’ll have to listen to everyone railing against “lazy government workers” even though the vast majority of people with whom I worked weren’t lazy.

    There were some plus sides to the job, though. 13 holidays and 12 sicks days, plus I was up to four weeks of vacation after five years.

    Still, if I had to do it again, I would pass.

  47. StateRegulator*

    You have already received a wealth of information about working in state government and as you can tell, not every government office, agency or unit is operated the same way. I was a college student about to graduate when I accepted my state job and there were a lot of questions I wish I had known to ask.

    Pay rate
    This is a big area to be concerned with because once you hire on at a rate of $X you will likely only see small incremental annual raises that will not keep up with increases in health benefits or other graduated payments, such as student loans or the house payment you hope to have in a few years. Do your research. Government pay rates are public information. You may be able to easily google the state pay rates for all positions by title. At the minimum, you might be able to find a pay range. If you cannot find it online, call HR and ask. While the amount being offered is more than your current pay, make sure you are being offered a good rate for that position.

    Negotiate the pay before accepting
    If you are being offered the lowest amount within the range, figure out what you bring to the position above the minimum requirements, i.e., more education, more training, great accomplishments in the area they are most in need of, whatever. Don’t try to use student loans or other financial “needs” as part of the argument.

    Look at the job in terms of a long-term state career
    In the agency/division, is there any room to grow upwards from this job? If you were to be promoted, would there be a more senior position within this agency or would you have to apply to another agency within the state in order to grow/advance your career? Do you want to live in this state/location for the next 10-15 years? Does this first position work with your goals for the next decade?

    Pay compared to cost of living
    Will the pay be a true increase or is the cost of living 25 % higher than your current home?

    Days off you asked for (whether paid or unpaid)
    Whatever you determine for this time off, get it in writing.

    Written offer
    See what your state requires for a written offer. For example, if you are promised an increase in six months, make sure this is included in the written offer and the percentage of the increase too.

    Of course you will want to know if you are paid OT for hours worked in excess of 40 each week. What I wish I had asked was whether there would be weeks were OT was expected, or how OT was handled whether as OT pay or comp time for a later date. In hindsight, it would have been great to see the reactions. But make sure your offer letter clearly states your exempt from OT or non-exempt status.

    Working a government job is tough, thankless (mostly), and challenging. The point of having a bureaucracy is that it gives everyone a fair process for transacting their affairs with the state. It isn’t perfect and not at all glamorous. You have to believe in it and then fight every day to ensure that everyone seeking service with the government is treated fairly and equitably. If you’re all in like me, you sleep well at night.

  48. Zephyr*

    I read about 75% of the way down, so I apologize if this is repeating what one of us already said.

    My two cents is that I wouldn’t want to work for the government. My nonprofit employer is heavily funded by the state, mostly with pass-through money from the feds. My job is to work with our funders, so I get to see all the ways the government employees make our work difficult. It can be anything from neglecting to look at our proposed budget until 1 month (!!!) before the grant was supposed to be completed, to deciding on a whim to cancel an entire statewide program because that seemed easier than enforcing the project requirements. I work with career employees who don’t seem to have any fire left in them, who skirt around questions that should have simple, standard answers, and who are generally difficult to communicate with. Some people get ego trips: I’ve been threatened by a state employee that our grants were “his” money and he’d take them back if he felt like it. Another calls up my co-workers out of the blue to ask them to send her their schedules for the coming week (which is completely out of line with her department’s policy).

    Sorry, that turned into a rant. But my takeaway has been that I don’t want to spend my career banging my head against a wall or turning into a dull, get-the-paycheck 9-5. I really like what I do, and I see only unhappy alternatives when I interact with state employees.

  49. Lipton Tea For Me*

    I have been working for the Internal Revenue Service for just a tad bit under 15 years now. I work in a call center environment which is something I have done most of my life; so had the skills to jump right in once the training was over. When I applied for the job, I was told government jobs are stable with good benefits, room to grow and COL increases each year and unless I did something incredibly stupid, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the loyalty to me from the “company”.
    I had worked in telecommunications for several years with various companies so kind of knew what to expect per the call center environment. I felt that working for the federal government would be a lot better as I had the law to back me up and would no longer feel like I was “thrown under the bus” when I enforced the rules. I actually felt empowered to do my job. And for the most part I enjoy what I do. I don’t look at my job as being a part of the all powerful IRS, I look at it more as a means to educate and help folks pay their taxes. I enjoy teaching, I like hearing folks finally understand what they need to do to fix whatever got them into the mess they are in. As I am a part of the “working poor”, I already understand that the folks that are hurt the most by the budget constraints are the very ones that cannot afford to go elsewhere. So it makes me feel valued when I am able to resolve something and help take the load off.
    I think this is where you have to know yourself well and decide if the instability of a governemnt job is something you can swing with. It used to be that when one political party was in the majority, you could still expect to have the budget and ability to hire when needed. The priorities usually changed with the regime of the political party in control, but it wasnt that big of a deal, it was still business as usual.
    In the last 4 to 5 years, I have felt increasingly like I was in the crosshairs of Congress due to the actions of others that I have no control over. The Lois Lerner controversy soured my life considerably with the actions or lack thereof from Congress, the IRS and all parties involved. Regardless of what she was perceived to have done, whether she did it or not, I and many others in my shoes have paid for it. A 2% COL raise for the last 5 years doesnt even begin to touch the costs of actual survival. Health insurance alone that everyone swears is so much better for government employees went up this year by 3.8%. Then there are the many changes Congress had on the table for reducing the budget through my wallet: The Mass Transit Benefit, FERS or CSRS are the two retirement systems, signing up new hires for automatic TSP deductions, Congress looking at unilaterally increasing the automatic deduction for retirement, etc.

    Like many others, I determine my budget at the beginning of the year and figure out how I am going to pay for say a new truck or home improvement, etc. But just the means to survive have become more and more difficult as my take home pay has dwindled significantly.
    My opinion on whether you should work for the state government is to take a look at the political party in control now and determine whether you can handle their priorities as they literally can make or break you. Also if you are someone that prides yourself on doing a great job, but the job does not support that, then stay in the private sector. My job has pretty much chewed me up and spit me out!

  50. Scott*

    I read through these comments and a lot of people refer to “stability” but I wanted to share the experience with what happened to my mom as an example that stability isn’t always what it seems at the time.

    My dad was a police officer. He would much rather have been a carpenter, and was very good at it, but he wanted the stability that if something happened to him my mom (and us kids when we were young) would be taken care of.

    Fast forward 50 years. My dad passed away and my mom received notice that spouses of government employees would no longer be covered on the health plan. One of the perks was that spouses and employees were covered on the health plan even after they retired, so neither my mom or dad paid into Medicare–they paid into the State healthcare system instead.

    So now there’s an 80 year old woman who has to scramble to find health care when her COBRA runs out. Fortunately, Obamacare has come along and they won’t be allowed to not insure her. Before that, I called several insurance companies who wanted nothing to do with her because of her age.

    Be REALLY careful in your decision when you consider future promises of pensions, health care, etc. They can very easily be taken away by politicians whose word means nothing.

      1. De Minimis*

        We ran into those issues with my father-in-law, he was a state employee and paid into that system instead of the regular social security system, so we had a tough time figuring out options when it looked as if we were going to need some kind of assisted living for him [thankfully we ended up not needing it.]

        Some of this was due to his personal situation, though, which was unusual.

  51. Snork Maiden*

    Wow, so many thoughtful responses on here. I was not considering a job with government before but now I would be interested if a position came up.

  52. brownblack*

    For about four years, I worked for the state government, but very indirectly.

    I worked for a public arts program which was actually a program of the local state university, a fact many people didn’t really understand. This meant that we had all the challenges of a public facing nonprofit organization, but wrapped within the challenges of a state government (which gave us an office and very modest overhead funding but nothing else). Grant proposals had to be routed through the university’s grants office; simple contracts with artists had to be routed through the university’s contracts office; and so on. It was an enormous, enormous amount of extra work, hassle, political intrigue, and public scrutiny.

    That scrutiny included a humiliating front-page article in the local newspaper about a difficult staff transition at my organization, which was written in a tone as though the US President himself had done something illegal. The local newspaper gleefully wrote in-depth investigative articles about everything the university did, and my little arts organization was constantly bombarded with public records requests. Every email we wrote, every little presentation we pieced together in a ppt deck, was subject to these requests.

    I could go on and on. An already difficult job – running a small arts nonprofit – was made orders of magnitude more difficult by the structure and processes of state government.

  53. Currently ready to retire from Gov*

    I have worked in private industry prior to my almost 30 years in my government position (I won’t be in my 60’s when I am able to retire). There is a difference due to the laws we have to follow that are not required of the private industry; which can be a cultural shock. All of our deadlines are driven by Statutes along with the requirements of the specific task at hand. The pro’s; during bad times you are almost guaranteed a job with great benefits and a great retirement package. The con’s you may not receive a pay increase each year and typically the pay is not in line with private industry; however, the benefits are usually better. It is all a matter of priorities and the ability to adjust.

  54. MommaTRex*

    Different types of governments can have very different environments. I am lucky to work in a local transit district, so we don’t have as much bureaucracy as state or federal governments, but there are still a lot of regulations and rules (especially in the purchasing/procurement arena).

    On the flip side, I like the openness of cooperation between governments. There aren’t “proprietary secrets” and competition to worry about. So we share policies, documents, solutions, (etc). I work with our financial systems quite a bit, and I love sharing reports and queries with others. The work I’ve done doesn’t belong to me or the government as much as it belongs to the taxpayers. I guess I like serving my community, too. (Also, the benefits are great and I have some great coworkers and bosses.)

    So I say, don’t exclude government work just because it is government work. Most of my colleagues have high standards and the old phrase “close enough for government work” need not apply!

  55. OriginalEmma*

    Another federale here.

    I love my job because I work for an agency whose mission I believe in. My work has the right balance of people-facing and back-end – a mix that I need, because 100% customer-facing roles ultimately wear me out no matter how pleasant it is working with people. It has its general, daily tasks for me to do but beyond that, can vary wildly depending on what the day’s adventures bring. I get to work with a variety of different people and agencies, from private sector and healthcare to other federal, state and local agencies and in general, all these folks have a mission to preserve the public good in some way or another. I have a great boss who is transparent and welcomes my questions, who values integrity, and supports my professional goals (by nudging “when are you going to become a nurse, OriginalEmma?”, asking me questions on medical topics we previously discussed and regaling me with tales from his MPH/PhD studies).

    I’m still in my probation period but I anticipate having stability in this job. I’ll be able to go back to school (which I didn’t feel I could do in my temporary employment) and set down roots in a location for at least the next few years. I didn’t realize how much of a stress reliever that realization was until I had it.

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