My experience in the federal government motivated me to take on the guest editorship of this special journal issue. I enjoyed developing policies and programs that improved employment opportunities, civil rights, and quality of life for people with disabilities. The work was important and interesting. The opportunities to serve were numerous. My ethics and values were supported by civil service regulations and culture.
On the other hand, my entrepreneurial spirit was often thwarted. My response to the culture of anonymity was sometimes to feel invisible and unrecognized. The endless rounds of work required by inefficient systems frustrated me. I have my share of stories!
When career challenges faced me, I searched for helpful books, articles, or web sites. As the author of two career books on disability issues, I read hundreds of books and articles. Very little of the information addressed my day-to-day experience as a civil servant. Books about office politics did not reflect the reality of the inside of a federal agency. For example, a culture of being chained to your desk made it challenging to become visibile within one's profession.
I often led teams. When deadlines loomed, I'd look for staff that was unassigned and available. Many good, competent people had little to do, were eager to work, and performed excellently. Some workers who had histories of achievement were underutilized. They said their managers would not give them assignments, or worse gave them assignments without vital tools or information.
Sometimes the role of management in the federal government seemed to parallel the role of teaching in universities. In higher education, incentives tilt towards research rather than teaching. In the government, managers have a heavy work load and many constituencies. Supervising their employees can fall low on their priority list.
The federal government is one of the few places left where the old employment contract remains. The Merit Systems Protection Board says that "people who finish their one year probationary period rarely leave the government. People enter the civil service expecting to stay for a long period of time and collect a pension at the end of their time." This is still true although there is a trend towards shorter term workers and pay for performance. Because government agencies are organized in the traditional hierarchical pyramid, people often reach a plateau where promotions end. The plateuing trap, much discussed in the mid-eighties, is still a reality in the federal government. Employees need coaching on how to be productive in their current jobs as well as how to move laterally and find other jobs.
Federal employees are underserved by private practice career counselors. According to the Partnership for Public Service, "federal jobs pay better than you think." Average government salaries are competitive in most professions. Knowledge work is the key role of most government employees. Over half of federal employees work in professional, management, business and financial occupations. Five out of six federal employees live outside of Washington D.C. The top ten cities are Norfolk, VA; Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA; Atlanta, GA; San Diego, CA; New York City, NY; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; Oklahoma City, OK; and Los Angeles, CA. …