The State Worker

The State Worker: Why the public dislikes state workers

A customer waits to be helped at the DMV office in south Sacramento. State workers like these are often disdained, Jon Ortiz writes, while state employees such as firefighters and CHP officers are celebrated.
A customer waits to be helped at the DMV office in south Sacramento. State workers like these are often disdained, Jon Ortiz writes, while state employees such as firefighters and CHP officers are celebrated. rbenton@sacbee.com

Nearly two dozen state workers and retirees dropped into The Bee’s Capitol Bureau on Friday to munch on brown-bag lunches and think the Big Thoughts about government work.

Among the dozen or so topics discussed: Bad management. Government technology struggles. Union labor contracts. Goofy civil service rules that stymie hiring and promotions.

And this: Public disdain for public employees.

“If people knew what government really did, they’d appreciate it,” said Kevin Menager, a Franchise Tax Board employee who attended the Friday get-together.

It’s true that much of what government does goes unnoticed, just like nobody notices freeways until they’re jammed. Failure is news.

America is an anti-authority, anti-leadership culture.

Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley

But the seeds of dislike for government workers were planted at the founding of this nation and have taken deeper root the last few decades. The United States was conceived in rebellion and dedicated to the proposition that government tramples freedom. It’s in our social DNA to distrust the state.

“America is an anti-authority, anti-leadership culture,” says Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.

Since the 1980s, what government does has come under increasing fire from politicians and interests that want to downsize the bureaucracy and run it like a business.

“Over the last 30 years or more, a divided view has emerged,” Citrin said. “Government vs. markets.”

Reports about waste, employee misdeeds and the usual detritus that goes with running any large organization, further stain government’s lackluster image, Citrin said, while pay and pensions “lead a lot of people to think that public employees have a good deal.”

We also segregate our government workers. Police and firefighters? Heroes. That harried employee at the crowded DMV? That disembodied voice you flamed on the phone about your missing unemployment direct deposit? Mere state workers.

The distinction, justified or not, is so significant that a union-commissioned polling firm two years ago found the most powerful phrase to defeat a pension-rollback ballot proposal is to say it is “eliminating police, firefighters’ and other public employees’ vested benefits.”

When state workers do their jobs, nobody notices it.

Franchise Tax Board employee Kevin Menager

Cops and firefighters also enjoy a built-in PR advantage: We expect government to keep us safe and protect our property. We’re glad to see them when we need them, and they don’t show up with a form to sign.

Most of government is lower profile. “When state workers do their jobs, nobody notices it,” Menager said, and invisibility doesn’t win accolades.

Government work “used to be considered honorable,” one of Friday’s lunch bunch wistfully recalled.

That was when government was building roads, universities and dams at a torrid pace, Citrin noted. The public good was easy to see.

“Those days,” Citrin said, “are over.”

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