- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

Government Jobs Mean Bureaucracy

The economy stinks and companies are cutting staffs. But, the government has been hiring consistently for a few years. There are no shortage of takers for jobs in all agencies. Thirty-five percent of prospective graduate students say the war in Iraq has made them more interested in government or military jobs, according to a recently released survey from GradSchools.com, an Internet clearing house for graduate school information. In addition, more than one-third feel opportunities with defense contractors, the military and the government have increased since the war began.

But they’re also pursuing government jobs because they’re secure. Uncle Sam doesn’t bounce checks, not yet at any rate. You’re not going to get rich on a government salary, but you’ll earn enough to cover at least two meals a day. It’s back to mom’s for the third.

The government hiring process is faster than it was in the past, but bureaucracy, the hallmark of government culture, will never disappear.

Bureaucratic systems and procedures are annoying and frustrating, but they’re essential for managing a worldwide workforce. The acquisition process is bogged down in red tape. It can take a year-and-a-half to buy an aircraft carrier or an IT system. It slows things down when you want to get them done quickly. But, a company can get a product approved and in the marketplace in six months. The government doesn’t have that luxury.

So what can be done? Quit and find another job? That’s a dumb move because you risk winding up on the employment line. The answer is learn how to deal with the bureaucracy, advises Martin Mendelsohn, a principal at Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm in Tysons Corner, Va. and former program analyst at the U.S. Department of Commerce. “The secret to dealing with government bureaucracies is understanding the power structure which is 30 percent politics and 70 percent performance,” he stresses. “Even though job performance always takes precedence over politics, politics must be taken seriously.”

Frederick J. Friend ,the Director of Scholarly Communication at the University College in London insists politics, power and people are all interwoven. “Politics alone, however, can mean wielding it for a constructive end to rally and motivate team players to achieve an end,” he explains. “Using it the wrong way as a manipulative tool can destroy teams and entire organizations for that matter.”

However defined, power politics is the platform for setting rules and boundaries.

The government wants performers, but it also wants people who can succeed politically. There isn’t a CEO who hasn’t masterfully used power to shimmy up the corporate ladder. They were tough and single-minded, yet turf protection is stronger in the government than it is anywhere else, Mendelsohn insists. “Play the game and you’re protected for life,” he says.

Your role in government politics has a lot to do with the agency you’re working for and your place on the hierarchy. At the upper level jobs are won by political appointment, low end jobs are hired through conventional channels. “They are the clock watchers, and their chances of moving up the ladder vary from agency to agency. Some agencies are notorious for being backwaters, others are aggressive and stress performance. The GSA (General Service Administration), for example, has clear metrics and a strict bottom-line budget which tracks employees to find out how much they are saving the government. OMB (Office of Management and Budget) has a similar metric whereas the Department of Commerce and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) see no need for it.”

Metrics are set by your supervisor and if don’t get along with him (or her) you have problems that can’t be rectified. “If you put yourself into a caldron, you’re not going to climb out because government bureaucrats are very judgmental,” Mendelsohn cautions. “You’re more apt to get a second chance in corporate America.”

So, what are the secrets for thriving in the government bureaucracy? Don’t trumpet your accomplishments. Listen and learn. Get the lay of the land. Look for minefields, know who your opposition is and don’t alienate anyone. Like any new job, be careful and don’t take too many risks early on. Most important, don’t be too ambitious because it’s bound to backfire, Mendelsohn warns. “You’ll ruffle feathers, run into roadblocks and be resented.” Don’t forget it. Your future is at stake.

***

If you have any questions contact Bob Weinstein at Weinsteinrv@aol.com.

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