Why Do Employees Leave the Public Sector?

Plus: Public vs. private salaries, sharing data over the Web, and more
October 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

A couple of months back, we asked you to share reasons why government employees tend to leave their jobs. About 70 people responded (for which we thank you). This was never intended to be a scientific survey -- and goodness knows it can't even pretend to be one.

But we did want to give you a sense of how the comments stacked up. We think they're pretty interesting and illustrative of some very important issues. Some respondents gave multiple answers to our question, and a couple had a pretty long list. With that in mind, we went through the comments from all the responses and totaled up those that were mentioned more than half a dozen times. A few interesting items didn't quite make that cut -- like complaints about declining benefits, insufficient resources to function well, unfair promotion policies and lack of job flexibility.

Below were the top five, with some quotes from the e-mails we received.

Money (15 votes)

"Some of my friends who have been with the state have gone five years without a pay raise. I can tell you that rent, food, fuel and every other thing we need to survive comfortably has gone up every year at its own rate."

Frustration with bureaucracy/inability to get things done (14 votes)

"Safeguards often make simple tasks very complicated and unnecessarily difficult."

"There's a perception (often correct) that it is nearly impossible to get things moving, to innovate, to do things differently."

"Employees see private industry constantly looking for ways to improve and then they see the state government constantly resisting change and they think, 'I've had enough of this.'"

Inexperienced political appointees as supervisors/political influences generally (10 votes)

"Political appointees, who you have to train on the job and make lousy decisions based on irrational factors not in the agency's interest nor the public interest, but to advance themselves politically, not embarrass their political patron, etc."

"Many administrators and executives are political appointees with little or no management training about either staff or projects. They got the position because of who they know, not what they know, and it shows."

No respect (8 votes)

"Many more people view government as bad, evil, a fiscal drain, an obstacle to development, etc., rather than a provider of infrastructure, amenities, culture, protection and other basic services. This disrespect for government as a whole, then, is borne by the governmental entity's employees."

"The news media are quick to blast government for 'failures' that 'waste' money. That's front page. But hundreds of projects, processes and innovations go unnoticed and unreported."

Bad bosses (6 votes)

"Many of the managers, supervisors and directors do not know how to lead. They are often entrenched in doing the task, and not the leading/advocating/running interference when needed."

"A significant contributing factor to my departure was the absolute lack of mentoring I received from my boss, the city manager."

Serendipitously, as we were putting together the previous item, we came across the most recent compensation survey of public-sector employees done by AFT Public Employees, the division of the American Federation of Teachers that represents more than 100,000 federal, state and local government employees. The study shows that most state employees earn less than their private-sector counterparts, just as the government workers believe. But they're gaining ground at a fast clip. The median increase in average salaries across the 45 jobs surveyed was 5.7 percent, "the highest increase recorded in the last five years."

Here's the full report.

One way the Internet is helping to improve government is by placing a greater emphasis on publicly sharing data that is not only accurate, but timely. For years, many government officials and citizens were accustomed to the idea that two-year-old information was often the freshest they could get. But consider some comments that Kanawha County (West Virginia) Commission President Kent Carper shared with the Charleston Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago. He'd taken note that the county's posting of employee salaries was only accurate as of December 31, 2006. "I don't understand why we put them on there, if they're not going to be current," Carper complained to the newspaper. "What good does the information provide when it's stale?" We certainly share Carper's sentiments -- and are delighted to see people in his type of position asking just that kind of question.

Government officials often complain, justifiably, that they just don't have the money to hire the best and the brightest away from the private sector. Indiana has hit upon one solution -- but it seems to be one where the cure risks being more hazardous than the disease. Take Neil Pickett, Governor Mitch Daniels' top policy adviser. Officially, he doesn't work for the state government directly, but for Indiana University. What's more, half his salary is being paid by the Lilly Endowment, according to an excellent piece in the Indianapolis Star. And he's not alone in that state. A couple of aides to the Indianapolis mayor are paid by the Indianapolis Local Improvement Bond Bank.

It doesn't take much reflection to see the potential problems.

From the Star:

Kent Redfield, a national expert in government ethics, called using private dollars to subsidize the pay of a top adviser to the governor 'a massive conflict of interest.'

"It sets a terrible precedent, and you leave yourself open to all kinds of questions" about where one's loyalties lie, said Redfield, who teaches political studies at both the University of Illinois at Springfield and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs in Illinois. "You can say it's not [a conflict] and it's all above board, but if you want to restore confidence in government, you want to bend over backwards to avoid these situations."

We're pretty confident that the folks in Indiana have taken a number of steps to create firewalls, preventing conflicts of interest. But if even one firewall is perceived as failing, the danger to the government's credibility is high.

As any of you who read our column in Governing know, we're really interested in the use of incentives of all kinds to lead to better behavior -- whether it's higher productivity or a healthier lifestyle. So, you'd anticipate that we'd be interested in a new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

It demonstrated that relatively small financial incentives led to rather dramatic weight loss among employees at one university and three community colleges in North Carolina. Participants who got $14 for every percentage point of weight lost were shown to be five and a half times more likely than those who received no incentives to lose five percent of their body weight.

This is intriguing, given the provably cheaper health care required for the slimmer employees. But we're a little worried about the fact that the measured goal was short-term weight loss. As moderately successful Weight Watchers ourselves, we can tell you first-hand that it's a whole lot easier losing the weight while you're in the thick of the effort than it is avoiding that tasty cheeseburger deluxe a year or so down the line. It's our contention -- however unscientifically proven -- that incentives are only really worthwhile if they're accompanied by efforts to convince those being incentivized that their change in life style is beneficial without any extra bucks thrown in.

How much stuff do you think governments buy and don't ever actually use? We're not talking about the headline-grabbing stuff, like computer systems that never perform properly. No, we're thinking more about instances like one recently uncovered in California by the state auditor. Apparently the state's Highway Patrol bought about 50 vans a couple of years back for almost $900,000. According to the auditor, "As of April 2007, the CHP had driven 46 [of the vans] a total of only 401 miles -- an average of nine miles for each van -- since it purchased them in 2004 and 2005."

Of course, this isn't even a rounding error in a state like California. But it's our fear that this story isn't atypical -- and not just in California, but elsewhere.

County leaders, put this one on your Web "favorites" list. Back in April, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer formed a Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. One of the first steps was to come up with a long list of ideas from the state's counties of ways they can save money and streamline services that could be researched with the help of some state money. Right now, it's kind of a laundry list, divided by county, and there's no knowing what will seem to work and what won't. But we'll bet that a bunch of these ideas will show merit -- and could help counties elsewhere.

One of the first things to go when governments are short on cash is money for travel. Even though times aren't particularly hard for cities, counties and states right now, we're aware that a great many have tight constraints on the number of trips employees can take for conferences, meetings and the like.

We certainly understand the desire to cut down on abuses. (The Birmingham School District in Alabama, for instance, reportedly spent $2.5 million during a 10-month period sending folks to conferences, but the school board has little idea where they're going or why.) But we've become real believers in the value of some conferences -- if not all -- to inspire people, imbue them with good ideas and give them a sense of their importance to the entity for which they work.

So, here's the question: Has anyone put together performance measures for the value of attending individual conferences or meetings? It seems to us that this would be the way to make sure a government is getting its money's worth on these trips -- without making hard and fast rules.

With apologies to our Governing Management Letter neighbor Girard Miller for intruding into the pension area (about which he seems to know pretty much everything), we couldn't resist this item. According to a state auditor general's report, Cranston, Rhode Island's Police and Fire Employees Retirement System now has an annual required contribution of $21.7 million for 505 active members and retirees.

That's close to 10 percent of the community's entire revenues, and it's just the police and fire system sucking up all that cash. It's so high because Cranston chronically underfunded the pension for years. That's not so unusual, but it provides a lovely contrast to a number of municipalities in Rhode Island that voluntarily became a part of the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System and were forced to keep up with their yearly contributions. Those communities have 14,052 active members and retirees -- 28 times the number in Cranston. And their required annual payments are $1 million a year lower than those of Cranston itself.

What makes a good manager? Lots of ways to answer that question, but from now on, we think we'll simplify matters by just referring to research done at the University of Toronto, McGill University, Harvard and the University of Hawaii. They've determined that the men and women who have better than average prefrontal cortexes (that's the part of the brain often described as the "executive") are particularly competent managers. "Neuroscience has revolutionized our understanding of the brain," says one of the study's authors. "Perhaps this is the beginning of the neuroscience revolution in management."

Wow. We were just getting used to zero-based budgeting.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba