While many occupations carry stereotypes – think lawyer, professor, NFL player – few are less understood than those in state and local government. Media hype and outdated perceptions have led to several misconceptions about people who work in the public sector – from elected officials and administrative staff to mass transit workers.
Misconception #1: Public sector workers aren’t held to the same accountability standards as their private-sector counterparts.
Not true! “The extent to which employees are held accountable for their workplace performance and conduct is largely a function of organizational culture and individual management and supervisory styles and practices,” according to Mark Weinberg, a municipal management consultant and former City Manager.
“However, unusual protections are afforded civil servants. Their actions are highly visible, and can have serious consequences,” he says. “I believe these factors contribute to a general perception that government employees are held less accountable than their counterparts in the private sector.”
Bottom line: Public sector works are, indeed, held accountable for their actions. A job is a job, and if not performed to standards, appropriate consequences will follow.
Misconception #2: Public sector employees have wonderful benefits, earn great pay and can retire early.
For some unionized employees, that may be true, says Steve Sanderson, Budget Officer at the Village of Downers Grove, Illinois. But most people who work in state and local government – particularly “desk jobs” – not only have to pay for Social Security, but also pay into their own retirement funds. “While the Village does provide a match, the gross pay amount sure looks a lot different than what comes home as net pay!”
Data compiled in a National Institute on Retirement report entitled, Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation over 20 Years finds that:
“Wages and salaries of state and local employees are lower than those for private sector employers with comparable earnings determinants such as education and work experience. State workers typically earn 11% less and local workers 12% less.”
This data is based on averages, and naturally, varies on a case-by-case basis. And compensation includes more than what shows up on a pay stub. Sanderson says that while the pay for parallel jobs in the public sector is fairly equivalent to those in the private sector, most people don’t realize that public sector employees often get fewer paid holidays and less vacation time than their private sector counterparts.
Misconception #3: “My taxes pay your salary.”
Well, yes and no. For starters, state and local governments have a variety of revenue sources – above and beyond residents’ property taxes. While the exact percentages vary by state and locality, property taxes comprise about a third of government revenues, according to the Tax Foundation.
In a great introduction to city finances, the City of Portland explains, “Some citizens think that all tax dollars and city revenues go into one large pot and can be spent in any way the Council wishes.” Not true. Money used for human resources expenditures must be allocated from a specific fund (usually the General Fund), as stipulated by an annually reviewed and approved budget.
Misconception #4: If you work in state or local government, you have special “pull.”
Steve Sanderson says that it’s funny how often people ask him when a ditch is going to be cleaned, or for help when the power goes out. “Everyone in the Village has a job, and a vast majority do those jobs really well. But as a budget officer, I don’t dig ditches or run the street sweeper – nor do I have any special pull to tell those employees how/when to do their jobs.”
Misconception #5: Workers in the public sector are “lazy,” “incompetent,” “lack integrity” …
Stereotyping is dangerous business. Unfortunately, because of their high visibility, the general public is far more likely to hear about wrongdoings by state and local government employees. Does this mean that private sector employees don’t try to cut corners or engage in dishonest activities? Hardly. We are just less likely to know about it.
Mark Weinberg exemplifies the other end of the public sector HR spectrum. The side that represents people who choose jobs in state and local government because they feel a civic duty and/or want to make a difference. His first job in the public sector was to provide crisis intervention for high risk juveniles and their families. “It was an opportunity to apply my psychology training in a way that helped youth avoid incarceration and contributed to public safety.”
“I suspect many others enter the public sector for the same reasons—to apply their training and skills in a way that improves the plight of both individuals and their communities.”
I suspect he’s right.