Overpaid Bureaucrats

Government workers are among society's favorite whipping boys. Why?

Keith Humphries explains “How ‘Overpaid’ Government Professionals Reduce Public Expenditures” by virtue of an anecdote about a government construction engineer whose insights saved the taxpayers from buying several ridiculously expensive buildings with hidden defects in a single day.

This talented government professional’s annual salary was less than one third of the commission that the realtor stood to make on the sale of the building. How much money he saved the taxpayer that day would be hard to estimate, but it was certainly many times his annual salary and perhaps as much as his lifetime salary.

Imagine now that “overpaid government workers” like him continue to be denigrated in the public square and continue to have their wages cut. How long will it be until one of them decides that a donation from a slimy realtor to their kid’s college fund is enough reason to overlook a few pesky 9-framis rebolted I-frame lattice Acme doo-hickey beams? Or even more likely, how long will it be before the best professionals leave the public sector, and the only people who will take poor paying (by private sector standards) professional jobs in government are those who don’t even know what a 9-framis rebolted I-frame lattice Acme doo-hickey beams is?

Now, there  doesn’t seem to be a dearth of people signing up to take government jobs. And the pay and benefits are generally quite competitive, especially when one factors in security. But, otherwise, Humphries is right: There are a lot of these folks employed by government at all levels and they’re unfairly tarred by a weird notion that people in the public sector are worthless slugs living on the taxpayer dole.

Federal government employees include the 1.6 million members of the uniformed military, FBI agents, CIA officers, NSA analysts, and all manner of other dedicated professionals that Americans actually like. And then there are the vast numbers of engineers, accountants, and other technical experts that most people don’t even know about. At the state and local level, there are legions of schoolteachers, cops, firefighters, safety inspectors, and others who provide valuable services. For whatever reason, they’re not what people think of when they’re villainizing the “faceless bureaucrats.”

People have come to despise “government bureaucrats” because of bad experiences with the DMV and the Post Office and a general sense that governments employ a lot of lazy people with bad attitudes who are impervious from being fired. And they’re right! Then again, so does the private sector.

Customer service is generally awful as businesses seek to economize and treat low-end interactions with customers as an expense to be minimized rather than a vital part of the business. It’s why, despite universal frustration with voice-operated customer service systems, they’re proliferating rather than disappearing. Or why check-out clerks are being replaced by frustrating machines that most customers can’t figure out how to operate. When one does get to deal with a person, they’re often surly and seem miffed to have to do their job.

This is the price we pay for an efficiency mentality, where everything is judged by the bottom line. Good customer service is much more expensive to provide and yet, if the success of Wal-Mart and Costco and Amazon are any indication, people are generally not willing to pay for it.

And that’s in the private sector, where people can lose their jobs and face competition in the marketplace. It’s hardly shocking that people with guaranteed jobs dealing with customers who have no choice but put up with whatever inconveniences and inefficiencies are doled out are no better if not worse. Especially when the employees in question are poorly paid and treated.

Most interactions with government, frankly, are unpleasant. Whether it’s the DMV, the post office, the IRS, licensing agencies, or the court system, someone in a position of authority is able deny us things we want, compel us to be places we don’t want to be, and otherwise make our lives miserable.

It’s also true that the combination of a massive workforce, a lack of a profit motive, and incredible protection from the vagaries of the job market create a certain amount of deadwood in the system. Any of us with experience in the government sector have stories of the “retired on active duty” senior NCO or the GS-12 who spends her days reading the newspaper and surfing the Internet. Whether those people are any less prevalent in the private sector, I couldn’t say; but we naturally resent the government workers not pulling their weight more, since they’re on our payroll. And maybe the system should be fixed to get rid of the bad apples–although making it too easy to fire people is not without costs.

But the deadwood are far outnumbered by dedicated professionals doing incredibly important–and sometimes, dangerous–jobs that even most of us “small government” types want done. It’s useful to remind ourselves of that from time to time.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Peabody says:

    Well, well. Many people will appreciate this post. My US government office is also filled with many military retirees. They, I humbly confess, seem to be even more dedicated, despite the scoffs of ‘double-dipping!’ from outsiders.

    Thanks, Mr. Joyner.

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    My experience has been that in any large organization deadwood rapidly accumulates, not to mention the garden-variety sociopaths who tend to coagulate in management positions because it gives them the opportunity to make someone miserable.

    The hatred of government employees is, I think, a result of the widespread belief that government “steals” through taxation. Untrue, but a great many believe it. Therefore the agents of that government are servants of a faceless enemy benefitting itself at the expense of the taxed.

    Although this same attitude also seems common among those who not only do not pay taxes, but are direct beneficiaries of government spending. So we see unemployed, poor white southerners denouncing taxation as theft. I suspect their hostility to government is a result of shame at needing its help.

  3. Lit3Bolt says:

    The question that consistently baffles me is why some Republicans and libertarians see so much evil, inefficiency, and waste in the government and are utterly silent when confronted by the same waste, inefficiency, and malice to workers and consumers and residents from any business or corporation.

    In short, every evil and abuse that could be laid at government’s feet can be laid at the feet of large corporations as well, whether it’s the charge of employees that are incompetent and lazy and grossly overpaid, examples of waste and abuse, or the fact that so much our taxpayer money is funneled into them. Why are these corporations instead defended from an accounting, from the President on down?

    To be sure, the Democrats are as equally as silent on this issue save for a fringe base. Yet they just don’t seem to be engaged on a national scale in the same misdirection as the Republicans (or any direction; what do Dems stand for these days, except status quo?).

    Also, there’s the issue of local and state government vs. the federal government. No one quite seems sure which government is the one full of fraud and abuse, but I bet that many of the government complaints Republicans have should be directed to their own local governments rather than the federal government at large.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    My experiences with the post office and DMV have been uniformly good . . .

    But my concern was shared with me by a government engineer. They know who the deadwood are and there’s not much to do about it, but as the states and local governments retrench and cut benefits, it will be the deadwood that will be all that remains.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus that my personal interactions with my city, county and state gov’ts have been pleasant and efficient. Even signing up for Medicare not too long ago was relatively painless and efficiently handled by the gov’t workers I dealt with. No reason to generalize that everyone has similar good experiences and some of the tales of abuse are no doubt true.

    But I think, Mr Joyner, that you’ve stepped over a line here and contradicted conintern official dogma. I’d hold onto my hat if I were you.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It is interesting…

    My computer crashed recently (and burned) my wife, who is computer literate, dealt with this situation. She called the **** help desk and negotiated a deal whereby they said they would fix it for us.

    3 days later, they admitted they could not, and the tech said the fee would be refunded. Guess what? They got our money, then said “F*ck you!”

    The wife and I have been having this argument for a few days. She say’s, “Computers are different.” I say, “F*ck that sh*t, I bring my truck into a mechanic and tell him, “Make it run.” I do not say, “Replace parts until it runs.” Hell, I can do that. But somehow or other, computers are different. (and for the record, eventually, the wife fixed it (I luv her) without any help)

    What is my point? It is not a gov’t thing, it is a beaurocratic thing… Corporate beauracracies are no better than gov’t beauracracies.

  7. mattt says:

    Whether it’s the DMV, the post office, the IRS, licensing agencies, or the court system, someone in a position of authority is able deny us things we want, compel us to be places we don’t want to be, and otherwise make our lives miserable.

    And there, in a nutshell, is the reason so many people have a negative impression of public employees compared to private industry. All of the above – except the Post Office, which has generally provided me with good service and which I think gets a bad rap – are enforcing rules and regulations. Humans generally don’t want to be constrained, by anything. So if you are forced to deal with someone who’s job it is to constrain your choices or behavior, no matter how competent, helpful, and cheerful they are you’re more likely to view the experience as a negative one. Whereas most experience with workers in the private sector is with people who are trying to sell you something – something you want or need – and the obtainment of which should generally be a positive experience even if the customer service is lacking.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And one more point: Once upon a time (a long time ago) I worked at a law firm where among my duties was dealing with the many government beauracracies. Invariably, if I played stupid, they were more than helpful.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Whether it’s the DMV, the post office, the IRS, licensing agencies, or the court system, someone in a position of authority is able deny us things we want, compel us to be places we don’t want to be, and otherwise make our lives miserable

    The next time you are overcharged by Comcast or AT&T, something they both do systematically, give their helpful “customer service” 800 a call and see how much pain you have to endure just to get back your own money.

    This sort of stupidity is not something that was invented by the government. It’s part of the human condition.

  10. Moosebreath says:

    And of course a multi-generational denigration of government and their employees by one political party has a lot to do with the negative view of bureaucrats.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Dangerously reasonable, James.

    Gabba gabba, we accept you, one of us. . .

  12. JKB says:

    Of course, this poor opinion of bureaucrats didn’t really start until they starting involving themselves in everyone’s business. The high-handed, entitled behavior of the regulators is responsible for as much if not more than the slovenly clerk. There are, of course, those in government who engage in service to the public but far to many seem to feel their job is to lord over the citizen with their rubber stamps.

    If you wish to improve the opinion, you’ll need to remove the need to ask some bureaucrat’s leave for every little transaction.

    One good way, would be to do away with the informal, professional courtesy, where the bureaucrat is able to avoid meeting the same standards they meticulously hold the private citizen to. All regulations should apply equally to all agencies, employees and politicians with immediate termination of anyone who does not hold government employee to a higher standard than they hold the citizen.

  13. PJ says:

    Good customer service is much more expensive to provide and yet, if the success of Wal-Mart and Costco and Amazon are any indication, people are generally not willing to pay for it.

    I’m not sure why you included Amazon, are you comparing it to visiting a physical book store or to another online book store with better customer service?
    Because to me, Amazon, and other online book stores are a lot better than having to drive to a bookstore and hopefully find the book I want, and if I don’t, then ordering it and driving to them again days later to get it. Which was what I used to do. And now, with the Kindle, it’s even better, I now get the book I want at once (if it is available for the Kindle obviously).
    Same reason why I prefer Internet banking to visiting a bank.

  14. steve says:

    “Now, there doesn’t seem to be a dearth of people signing up to take government jobs. ”

    Used to not be true for physicians and other professions that make much more in the private sector.

    My experience with the Post Office and DMV was not good when I lived in Philadelphia. Where I currently live, out in the boonies sort of, they have been uniformly good.


  15. James Joyner says:

    @PJ: Oh, I love Costco and Amazon and was a big fan of Wal-Mart before moving to Northern Virginia, where the stores suck for some reason. But that’s because I’m pretty well informed (or, in the case of consumer electronics, my wife is ridiculously well-informed) and like getting commodity goods at low prices with minimum hassle.

    But Amazon is not nearly as useful as shopping at a niche bookstore if you want personal service. The trouble is, I generally know what books I want already and just want to get them cheaply and easily.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @steve: Actually my experience as well. I had universally happy experiences with the Post Office until moving to the DC area, where being a postal carrier is a comparatively low paying job and they attract commensurate talent. In Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, it’s a high level middle class job and they get top quality folks. Ditto the DMV.

  17. DS93 says:

    Generally I do agree that dedicated and responsible civil servants exist in our government. I do not, however, believe that they are as common today as in the past. Civil service has become ‘commercialized’ as have the professionals engaged in it. This reflects a popular drive to demand and equate civil service and indeed the mission of our government with the values, services and goals provided by firms and professionals that exists in a competitive marketplace. We have had a decades long conversation about outsourcing our government – and in many ways we have succeeded. What we may have left ourselves with is a destructive combination of the worst traits of competition and bureaucracy without any of the marketplace controls – like going out of business, losing to a better competitor or being fired. When you add into this mix a government workforce which now moves freely in and out of the private sector with little ethical constraint – it is little wonder that that we have a diminishing number of folks left in the government that even understand their agency mission much less how to carry it out.

    As I read my comment – it also strikes me how similar the state of our government is to the state of our economy. We no longer understand the need to invest in government and the hard things we ask government to do so we do not believe we need an infrastructure of functional civil servants. Similarly we cannot seem to bring ourselves to understand how to invest as a country in our long term economic success so we see little need to develop, encourage and support the infrastructure of people, skills and innovative products we need to compete.

  18. Drew says:

    Great, a one in a million government employee prevents what would be a routine firable offense in the private sector. He’s a hero?!

    You know, I’m thinking Seattle………a $20 million “green” grant…….14 office workers hired………3 homes “weatherized.” Beautiful. Any blog posts on that?


  19. jan says:


    I think you hit a nerve, Drew.

  20. ponce says:

    Woah James,

    You’re a Republican decrying the propaganda against government workers your party has been bellowing since the days of Reagan?

    Talk about zero self-awareness.

  21. Console says:

    A good bureaucrat is hard to replace. Government work tends to be quirky and kafkaesque. The system is naturally inefficient, so it takes a long time to learn how to efficiently work this system that naturally bogs you down.
    This institutional memory is so necessary to government that people severely overlook just how much money you can lose by firing people, or hiring cheaper newer workers. Especially in an environment where there’s no real bottom line.
    A big example of this is with congress trying to cut the SEC’s budget. All that will happen is that you’ll make the agency more unproductive (it’s not like the SEC has a group of shareholders that’s going to fire management if revenue drops) and cost more in the long run due to that drop in productivity (less fines and fees being collected).

  22. sam says:

    An emerging dynamic:

    Drew: Some Galtian bullshit

    Jan: Oooooo

  23. Rob in CT says:

    Sam: Emerging? Hah.

    My experience w/government has been mixed. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes not. On the whole, I don’t see much if any difference between that and dealing with various corporations.

  24. steve says:

    “You know, I’m thinking Seattle………a $20 million “green” grant…….14 office workers hired………3 homes “weatherized.” Beautiful. Any blog posts on that?”

    I am thinking lying to shareholders, lying to consumers, hiding monies off of balance sheets, creating billions of dollars of havoc in the economy. Repeated over and over.


  25. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    Bah. I was wondering why Drew and our local repost cheerleader were once again so much in lockstep. Unsurprisingly, the story was plastered all over Fox.

    How did those geniuses at Fox arrive at the numbers mentioned? They took the allocated grant money (that has, at this point, neither been fully allotted to projects nor paid out) and divided this by the number of fully paid permanent jobs created so far. In short, they confused “budget” with “payments made”.

    Another conservative reading comprehension fail. And, of course, the illiterati cheer them on and praise them for their perceptive and unbiased reporting :P.

    As a side note: even if this story were true, it is unlikely to be covered here since OTB tends to deal with large-scale trends and uses examples only to illustrate those (instead of keeping the readers in a permanent emotional red haze). Thus single cases will not be covered unless they are exemplary.

  26. ponce says:

    An emerging dynamic

    Most blogs eventually acquire a wingnut in the comments section whose only job is to raise the “Mission Accomplished” banner for failed fringe right arguments.

  27. Racehorse says:

    I have had several dealings with large corporations in the past, over the internet and phone. Some were really layered with levels I had to try to get through while others were very responsive, polite, and patient. Same with government agencies. There should be some procedure where each agency is studied and recommendations made to: improve, shut down, or merge with another agency. This should be done at least every five years for every agency and department. Many presidents have suggested just this, but it goes no where. There are many agencies that members of Congress don’t even know they even exist, they were started up long ago and just left to run on and on. The bureauacracy is actually a 4th. branch of government, with no checks, balances, or accountability on their actions and powers. Just look at the IRS: agents can carry guns and close down a small business without a trial. The Dept. of Education: can close schools that were built by and belong to the states or local communities. This is really a blank check for abuse and dictatorship. With a corporation or business, I can always take my money somewhere else; exception – some utilities.