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The Myth of the Virtuous Public Worker

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

By Anthony Taylor
June 16, 2019

Since the genesis of the nation, America has maintained a tempestuous relationship with public servants. At the core of the American ethos is a propensity to regard public servants with a circumspect skepticism, at best, or with a paranoid cynicism at worst. American’s revolutionary origins is reflected in law that protects against the, “Tyranny of government,” and in the societal rejection of the notion that public servants are invested in stewarding the public good. 

The mythology that surrounds public service is the idea that public sector workers should persist on virtue alone, putting the purpose of their work over their individual wants or needs. A fundamental lack of trust in public workers leads the public to mistake requests for increased public salaries for avarice, defined public pension plans for public exploitation and public sector employee incentives for embezzlement of public funds. A persistent public contempt for public workers tangibly manifests itself today through the systemic under-investment in workers in the public sector.

A 2017 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, Comparing the Compensation of Federal and Private-Sector Employees 2011 to 2015, concluded that federal workers with a professional degree or doctorate degree earn about 24 percent less per hour than similarly situated private sector workers. The lower salaries found in the public sector divert top talent from the public workforce and potentially result in the most talented public sector employees bleeding into the private sector.

Outside of drawing a salary, the value of being a public servant has traditionally been thought to lie in the stability of public positions, along with the benefits that come along with public employment. The state of Kansas is a perfect exemplar that showcases the degradation of such benefits within public sector work. According to a Leavenworth Times article by Jonna Lorenz, the state of Kansas has gone from a workforce that contained 19,277 classified employees and 2,815 unclassified employees in 2006, to a workforce that contained 6,277 classified employees and 11,546 unclassified employees in 2018. This article largely attributes this shift to efforts undertaken by the state to convert classified state positions to an unclassified status (note: unclassified employees are at will employees while classified employees are not).

According to a 2019 Wichita Eagle article, Are the savings worth the cost? Kelly plan will take longer to pay off KPERS debt, Jonathan Shorman writes that due to fiscal mismanagement, Kansas’s pension fund only has enough assets to cover 68 percent of its future pension liabilities for public sector employees. Public sector workers also have less access to paid vacation time, more restrictive work schedules and less autonomy than private sector employees, according to the news release from the Bureau of Labor, Employee Benefits In The United States – March 2018. The degradation of public benefits within the public sector combined with the increasing instability of the public sector reduces the capacity of the government to retain quality employees.

Despite the declining allure of public service, the myth surrounding public sector work persists. According to a CNBC article by Megan Leonhardt entitled Federal workers miss a 2nd paycheck today—here’s how many Americans could do that and still pay bills​, in the midst of the 2019 federal government shutdown (which lasted 35 days and ended with federal workers missing two paychecks and federal contractors going unpaid), United States House Representative Mark Meadows stated that forging payment is, “Actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position… they know they would be required to work (during Christmas) and even in preparation for a potential shutdown [federal workers]… have been instructed to show up.”

While the representative’s sentiment is not uncommon, it plays into an American mythology that weakens government as an institution. The unrealistic notion that public servants could (or should) divorce themselves from their personal finances, dutifully overlook private sector benefits and endure any sacrifice for the sake of their work merely serves to drive skilled workers from public positions. Ultimately, this reduces effectiveness of government by reducing the productivity, efficiency and talent pool of the government.

While this article does not purport to solve the broader challenge of dispelling the myth of public service, I would like to speak to the role that localities should play in investing in their employees. In my experience at the local level, there has been a trend towards a disinvestment in human resources. This is problematic, because human resource departments in public organizations should be utilized as a primary vehicle to invest in public sector employees.

Local governments are perhaps uniquely situated to invest in public employees, not only because local public employees are more politically popular than other government employees, but also because council-manager municipalities employ professional administrators that may be mobilized to help grow human capital. In particular, assistant city managers should be utilized for this purpose because of this position’s high rank within local organizations (ensuring that growing human capital is an organizational priority) and because of the stability of this position relative to the city manager position. Finally assistant city managers, generally speaking, have more amorphous job responsibilities than other positions within the local organizations (meaning that there is less organization inertia to overcome if the responsibilities of this position were to be shifted). Regardless of the method, it is clear that United States governments need to invest more in public sector workers lest government institutions suffer as a result.


Author: Anthony Taylor is a graduate student in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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