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Confronting an Exodus

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
November 6, 2023

The frontlines of public service reflect an array of beliefs, mores and experiences.

Some kind of motive has apparently drawn each person towards what is a very unique arena. Whether at the federal, state or local levels, some common reasons include job stability, health insurance and retirement benefits.

As a whole, the public employment sector managed to attract far more long-term employees than private sector positions where changing jobs is far more frequent. Those hired for a government job tended to stay with the promise of retirement benefits acting as a large draw there.

Without a minimal tenure, benefits could be forfeited with some jurisdictions requiring at least five years of full-time employment or its part-time equivalent. Even after pension plans are fully vested, establishing full ownership rights to employees, the employer’s plan contributions still continue.

Yet incentives remain in place and continue to stick around. Most importantly, the actual size of retirement benefits ultimately awarded generally depends in part on how many years a retiree worked for the agency or in government service overall.

For example, federal government service offers countless opportunities to develop new skills, explore different workplace roles and move to new geographic locations. The three highest paid income years also factor into a federal employee’s pension calculation formula.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s in-depth study, Trends in Employee Tenure (1983-2022) determined that the promise of a more comfortable retirement lacks the luster that it once had with younger generations of workers.

Until 2004, the number of long-term public sector employees had steadily grown, however, it has been declining ever since. Not only will retirees have less income in light of that, but switching jobs also brings less aggregated as opposed to staying put.

The report also highlights the larger downside this poses, with “the loss of experienced, public-sector workers.” What has happened in America since 2004 to provoke more job turnover and a growing tendency for seasoned employees to seek opportunities elsewhere and to leave?

Some don’t go too far and end up working for another jurisdiction whether it’s a move to a new state or a recently discharged military veteran who pursues local law enforcement opportunities. Others abandon the public service world completely, preferring a more low-profile private sector role.

In 2019, the Pew Research Center explored the nexus between “trust, facts and democracy,” and found an overwhelming trend that Americans increasingly do not trust the federal government or each other. The turning point happened around 2005 and the perceived decline in trust has steadily progressed ever since.

In 2017, the annual Gallup opinion poll found similar trends, focusing on Americans’ regard for moral values where November 2004 featured a Gallup poll low as 64 percent of respondents reportedly believed moral values were getting worse—rising to 82 percent in May 2007 and then hovering around 72 percent thereafter.

Could the post-9/11 deployments of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have played any role in shifting public sentiment, even though those soldiers were navigating battlegrounds largely out of sight and half a world away? Is it any coincidence that diminished public sector employee retention coincides with a growing disaffection for government overall?

Time always flies, but despondency does not. The Pew Research Center published a new report in September finding that just 1 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what’s right “just about always” while 15 percent believe this to be true “most of the time.” In addition, a blunt summary observation by the Center: “This is among the lowest trust measures in over seven decades of polling.”

Our workplaces aren’t only a convenient source of income and pension benefits. We look for a space to grow personally and professionally—a destination we ideally do not dread traveling to each day of the workweek. Our roles in many ways define us, giving us meaning and a sense of purpose as much as they may provide a means to pay mortgages, food and bills.

Survival means nurturing what’s inside as much as it means making ends meet. If only 1 percent of Americans believe that their agency will do the right thing, is that where you’d want to remain for the next 25 years?

Maybe this is simply a passing storm with no need to overreact. After all, it was in 2019 when 84 percent of Pew respondents still maintained hope that the declining trust could improve with better political leadership, cooperation and more honesty.

An unrelenting threat exists in America, and its impact reaches from our hearts and homes, stretching into those core institutions of society on which we should rely.

No single employee’s public service commitment, however zealous, can overtake public perceptions, whether well-founded or not. As some people wait to cooperate, to lead and then to trust, a tarnished image will continue to taint everything.

Author: Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from NYU, Jason Bowns earned his Master in Public Administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Inspector General program. A certified social studies teacher, Bowns worked in many K-12 education settings and recently matriculated into a public policy doctoral program. He’s interested in juvenile justice, penology, and public sector ethics. Contact him at [email protected]

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