My Experience with Public Employment

April 7, 2015 at 12:58 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When I first entered the world of civil engineering, I worked for a private consultant in Oklahoma. We designed a lot of municipal infrastructure for cities and small towns that ranged from sewage processing lagoons all the way up to major pipelines and streetscapes. My second job was doing more or less the same thing, but on a bigger scale in Washington state. I swore up and down that I would never work for the public sector because I saw it as wasteful and unnecessary. I thought that people who worked on the public side were not as bright as those folks on the private side.

That attitude is only somewhat true and depends on where you live. What I’ve learned, over four years later, is that the talent pool split between private and public varies widely by geography. For example, in Oklahoma, most towns and counties are sparsely populated and don’t keep highly skilled staff of any sort on-hand. They can’t afford to because the tax base is weak, and they have no need because their infrastructure is either non-existent or relatively uncomplicated. The consequence of failure is low since very few people depend on the public infrastructure. The majority of counties in Oklahoma are a metal building in a field with three county commissioners who get together from time to time to shoot the shit. The Pacific Northwest is the opposite of that world. It’s made up of large cities that own a lot of complex, large-scale infrastructure and manage huge populations in small spaces.

So it makes sense that in Oklahoma, trained staff are likely going to be freelance consultant engineers who move from place to place as the need arises. It wasn’t uncommon for us to travel in excess of four hours one way to a job site. In the Pacific Northwest, the public sector has a real need and a lot more resources available to keep trained engineering staff in-house. And the challenges are great, technically speaking. Accordingly, when I began my job as a consulting engineer here in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself outfoxed regularly during conversations with city engineers, even the ones in small towns. They clearly knew something I didn’t know. Okay…they knew a lot of things I didn’t know.

Not long in to my consulting job, my firm won a contract with the City of Tacoma to do engineered plan review. The terms of the contract specified that my firm would provide one engineer on an as-needed basis to review plans prepared for private development. The plans included anything from marine structures to sewers to streets and sidewalks. As you have probably already guessed, my firm chose me to fill this role and I found myself at the City of Tacoma’s offices a few times per week, reviewing engineering plans.

It was during this time that both the depth and breadth of my engineering experience expanded at an exponential rate (lots of exp’s in there – you like that, don’t you?). During my time at the City on contract work, my firm began its downhill descent. I spent less time there and more time at the City. The contract between the City and my firm did have a specified end date and, as that date drew near, private development began to pick up the pace. More permit applications were coming through the door than the department could handle and I was a star reviewer. They didn’t like the idea of losing me. When contract negotiations for renewal went south, they set their sights on hiring me full-time.

Naturally, with things in the toilet at the other office, I accepted the position. It also amounted to a tremendous salary boost, partially because of how poorly I was paid on my consulting job and partially because the City pays pretty well. And thus began my experience with full-time public employment. Of course, I felt pretty silly ever thinking I would never find myself in this position. I’ve been at the City now part-time for over two years and full-time for about a month.

What has blown me away and really surprised me is that my preconceptions of what government does and what the people who work in government are like were completely wrong. Now, I’m sure that my experience is limited and that it varies with geography (as mentioned above), but my experience with the public side has been very eye-opening. I wanted to share my experience because I was wrong and I know that many people share my incorrect interpretation of public institutions. And I also wanted to share because, as a taxpayer, it’s good to know that at least some of your money is going to a good cause. So without further ado, here are my more in-depth, myth-busting discussions about government and why each preconceived notion, in bold, turned out to be incorrect.

Government is Wasteful

I thought it and so do you. In fact, it is true of some government. But the City of Tacoma is definitely not. The people who represented other cities in the Pacific Northwest were at the recent public works conference and I had a chance to talk to many of them and get an inside look at the workings of their cities. They are not wasteful. By the way, I’ll be saying “cities” throughout this miniature novel, but what I really mean is cities, counties, utility districts, and other forms of local government.

Not only did I learn that cities are not wasteful, but I also learned why people think they are. Someone at the conference made a remark that caught me off guard and left me, quite literally, stunned. They said “Government isn’t in it to make a buck. If you could make a buck doing government work, someone would be doing it.” When those words hit me, I felt like a deer in the headlights. And a total moron. Of course it’s true. And it blows the whole “privatization of government” theory right out the window. It can’t be done, and I’ll show you the fundamental reason why.

Let me give you an example to show you what I mean. I work in a department of the City that deals with regulating private development. Of course any city wants development – that is, the investment of private dollars on public and private land to build improvements. An example of private development might be a builder who buys a large plot of land, subdivides it in to 40 smaller lots, builds some roads, and puts up a bunch of houses. But it can also be construction of apartments, or a shoreline development, or a nice big park. Development is essentially the construction of a city, one piece at a time. It is what makes a city somewhere we want to live.

There are a lot of codes in place to regulate how developers do things. Development is a business in which private owners attempt to “make a buck.” It is for profit work. So let’s say that you go in to business as a developer and you want to build a bunch of houses on this big field you got. Let’s say that this parcel is located with the City of Tacoma’s jurisdiction. There’s a lot of parts to the process, but ultimately the City will say that you can only build the houses if you construct roads, utilities, traffic signals, and parks with those houses. The building department would say that you can build those houses if they are in compliance with the latest building codes. Codes keep becoming more restrictive and the cost of compliance goes up, resulting a nicer end product but more capital outlay for the construction of the product.

The nature of development is to make money, and one way to make money is to do as little as possible. It isn’t uncommon for developers to cut corners because development is a big dollar game and you need the big bucks to play. So it is the City’s place to ensure that the roads, houses, utilities, etc. are constructed according to code and in the best interest of the public and the end users of those homes – the homeowners.

Think about that for a minute. The City’s objectives and interests run contrary to the developer’s interests. Of course no private company would ever attempt to do that. And if they did, they would probably be sued in to oblivion and fold. It is only through the power vested in a public institution that the City can fulfill that role. Sometimes, it is the City’s duty to sit stubbornly as a road block to a frisky developer until the developer complies with code requirements. There is no way to make a buck doing that kind of work.

This is just one case study and the one to which I can speak most directly, but it extends in concept to many other parts of the City’s responsibilities. You might look at this and say, “Okay, Frank. I see what you’re saying. But that doesn’t meant government shouldn’t make efforts to be fiscally responsible and financially solvent.” I absolutely, 100 percent agree. And although you might not be able to privatize government for the reasons above, you can most certainly borrow practices and principles from the private sector meant to eliminate waste and unnecessary costs and you can apply those to municipal corporations.

You’ll be happy to know that it is happening already. The negative publicity and the widespread notion that the people have about government being bloated and wasteful has initiated a move in the public sector to trimming down – smartly. Cities, counties, and utility districts in the Pacific Northwest are progressive and usually some of the first to adopt new trends. One such trend is the concept of “lean government.” It has a lot of uses and applications, but the basic concept is to eliminate redundant steps in a work flow to provide more efficient, valuable government services. Seeing the ways that various cities in the region have implemented lean government in their own ways at the public works conference was inspiring and encouraging. It isn’t rocket science – the basic idea is to eliminate redundant work and reduce opportunities for error. But because of the complexity of what cities do, it isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Cities also seek to limit their review and jurisdiction where legally allowed as it relieves them of liability and keeps staff from becoming too bogged down with work.

I see it within my own department as well. We have weekly meetings to discuss policies and procedures. The discussions are always geared toward making us all more efficient and doing our work cleanly and effectively. I sleep well at night knowing that the money supporting our department is not wasted.

And, lastly, the financially solvent piece. Places all over the country are tackling this issue in different ways. Utilities have it the worst, especially water and sewer utilities. People are accustomed to subsidized water and sewer charges, so they don’t see the full cost of maintaining our buried infrastructure or supporting growth of those networks. That is likely to change as utilities all over the country undergo financial audits and reset rate structures. In my department, the majority of our salary as an engineer is supported by the private developers whose plans we review. They pay hourly rates for our review services which encourages them to do a good job the first time. And, of course, we recognize that people are paying for our services and we have absolute respect for that – we don’t run up the bill unnecessarily.

Government is Outdated and Archaic

The public perception is that government, especially cities and counties, work on outdated technology and processes that haven’t taken the last ten years of industry advancement in to account. I can definitely see how that perception comes about. The City of Tacoma just finally moved all of its permit processing from paper to electronic within the last two years and that change was very slow to come about.

While it certainly isn’t perfect, where the City absolutely excels is in progressive management of development. The City has adopted recent building codes and continues to update its own development (civil engineering) codes constantly. Washington state is known throughout the country, at least in the civil engineering world, for its cutting edge management of stormwater and the environment. Tacoma is near the forefront of that effort. The City has installed countless alternative stormwater management systems that include such things as rain gardens, bioswales, natural filtration, wetland mitigation, I could go on.

The City also requires private development to mitigate stormwater impacts to the highest extent feasible. For those of you who don’t know, extensive development can cause biological and hydrological changes to a stormwater basin. An example might be where a developer builds a hundred houses and roads on what was once an empty field next to a stream. That stream will see reduced flow during dry weather and increased flow during wet weather, without mitigation. The water quality will also deteriorate so that you might see lots of gravel, oil, and other pollutants washed in to the stream. Washington state doesn’t allow that type of unmitigated development.

The City is a bit behind the curve on processes that might be visible to the public eye, such as how it processes permits or stores information, but its management of stormwater and public infrastructure is making headlines. New stormwater management techniques are tested in Washington state and if you can succeed here, you can succeed anywhere.

Public Employees are Incompetent

Another misconception that is probably somewhat true, but think about it – it’s no more true than saying that private sector employees are incompetent, too. The old idea is that private sector cuts out the incompetent people because they waste dollars and the objective of private employment is to make money, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience in the world of private consulting.

In fact, though it may pain me a bit to say so, my personal experience was that I encountered more fundamentally dysfunctional teams and individuals in private consulting than I have on the public side. In private consulting, everyone had a different agenda and those agendas typically served only themselves. Through a continuing ladder of dysfunction, these folks eventually reached the top of the ladder and imposed their own dysfunctionality on their subordinates. I dealt with everything you could imagine – of course the usual politics, closed doors, decisions made by supervisors that made absolutely no sense and didn’t take in to consideration the subordinates or their roles. Sure. I also dealt with nearly disabling neurosis, childish egoism, people with bad hygiene, folks who couldn’t focus and wasted other peoples’ time. My point is that, at a minimum, private sector employees are at least as dysfunctional and incompetent as we imagine public employees to be and, in some cases, far far worse.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but I have far more respect and admiration for the folks I work with on the public side than I ever did in my private employment stretch. My favorite coworker is a veteran who has not claimed any benefits associated with his veteran status except for the VA loan program, which is hardly a benefit if you’ve ever tried to buy a house that way. I admire him because he isn’t like your typical vet, demanding respect and special treatment for his years of service and deployment. He isn’t touting his status every time he goes to a restaurant, he isn’t claiming PTSD or using it as an excuse to avoid work, and he’s an exceptionally hard worker (and a great father). This is the kind of guy I wish our veterans were – who we all wish they were. He isn’t waving his flag of entitlement. He’s serving in his new capacity with humility and respect.

The City spends money training its employees. In our department, that equates to sending employees to training relevant to our projects such as stormwater management, road construction, utility management, etc. Because of the City’s size and its many arms, we have immediate access to resources like real property management and legal that a private consultant doesn’t have. This lends itself nicely to a more rounded, complete education of what it means to be a civil engineer.

My private consulting employer never spent a dime to train me. They wouldn’t even pay the fee to register for the professional engineering exam, much less any preparation associated with that test. For those of you who are wondering, a license is the biggest, most valuable thing you acquire as a civil engineer and it is a tremendous asset to a company. Why they wouldn’t pay is beyond me.

Public Employees are Wasteful

This is my last one, I promise. I thought that public employees were the type of folks who had eight meetings a day to avoid doing real work, went to the coffee shop a few times for an extended break, and generally just took advantage of their cushy jobs with a nice salary. I thought it was difficult to get fired from public employment.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The folks I’ve had the privilege of working with are actually immensely productive and incredibly dedicated to their work. I’m not talking about people who stay until 8:00 every night working on projects – a practice which is actually counterproductive. I’m talking about people who find ways to use their time wisely and effectively. Yes, I’ve been to a few meetings where I would rather have not gone because it seemed like a waste of time. But on the whole, most of the meetings I have attended produced meaningful results and did not have superfluous staff. I know that there are dud meetings on the private side, so this is another case of “at least as bad, but probably better.”

The City works a bit differently from private consultants in that the folks who are on the low end still have a say in how their jobs are performed. This gives employees, even the “low man on the totem pole,” a sense of ownership in their jobs. If they have even a limited say in how they perform their jobs, set their schedules, etc., the productivity of those folks skyrockets. People here are genuinely interested in their work and, maybe more importantly, they keep the objective in mind and find creative ways to get to the end. Our role is, at its heart, customer service. Sometimes we deliver bad news, sure, but we find ways to work with people from average Joe homeowner all the way up to Megadevelopment, Inc.

Conclusion

Okay, I used a bold conclusion header for those of you who gave up and scrolled through. Basically, I thought that public sector employment would be terrible and that I would be ashamed to be a City employee, needlessly spending public tax dollars to accomplish an objective in a horribly inefficient manner. Basically everything about what I thought public employment would be was wrong. My experience with public employment has been immensely positive and encouraging. Seeing what the City of Tacoma and other cities and counties around the Pacific Northwest are doing to better serve citizens is inspiring and I wanted to share that with you so that you know that at least some of your tax dollars go to a great cause.

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