By Susan Kemph, Senior Administrative Assistant, Human Resources
“Good enough for government work.” This phrase originated in World War II and meant something could pass the highest, most rigorous standard, the best quality. More recently, though, the phrase has taken on a more sarcastic tone. When people say “Good enough for government work,” they more often mean work that is substandard or poorly executed. Another sentiment we often hear is that government should be run more like a business. Campaigns are run and won based on this idea, selling voters on ideas of success they are familiar with, like efficiency, a balanced budget, accountability, and performance.
The reality of working in a government at any level, though, is that it is drastically different than private sector work, presenting unique challenges and pressures non-existent in the private sector. Governments are actually held to higher standards of work, morality, and fiscal responsibility through transparency, regulation, and public scrutiny. The fact is, it’s not for everybody, and some folks leave government work simply because they find it too difficult to work with these restrictions.
Bureaucracy A Positive Thing? Think Checks & Balances
One of the biggest challenges of working for a municipality is bureaucracy. Constituents find it frustrating and time consuming, but government workers also have to work within the confines of bureaucracy at the local, state, and national levels. We have to follow the same rules and procedures that any other citizen has to follow, most often more. Bureaucracy does have its benefits, though. The procedures in place to accomplish complex tasks often provide a series of checks and balances, and call for plenty of inter-departmental coordination.
Government can move s-l-o-w-l-y. That can be frustrating for both constituents and government employees. For example, private companies can go out and buy what they need when they need it. Municipalities, however, must follow government procurement rules, which require competitive bids for larger purchases. This slows the procurement and contracting process significantly.
In the private sector, there is no need to wait for public meetings, community input, or votes. No need to coordinate rights-of-way or await state funding. The truth is, real, lasting results in government are slow in the making. New developments can take 10, 15, or 20 years to come to fruition.
Getting things done, even things as seemingly simple as a new stop sign, may not be simple at all. Those involved must to look at the big picture and weigh how a change will impact everyone in the community. This can slow the pace of the project but is an important consideration. A stop sign may benefit the homeowners in one neighborhood but have a negative effect on another neighborhood or the traffic flow on county or state roads. Almost every decision we make has far-reaching consequences. And with every function we perform come regulations that we have to carefully research and consider.
Flexibility Comes with the Territory
Another challenge of working in any government is that our organization’s leadership is chosen by the voters. Even though municipal employee jobs are not political, our jobs are greatly affected by politics. An organization’s leader determines the direction for an organization, and in government, that can potentially change every two to four years. As government workers, we have to be flexible enough to often change direction and focus as leadership changes to work effectively with the leaders chosen by the constituency.
Transparency is the Rule of Law
The openness within which government operates is unmatched in the private sector. The Freedom of Information Act allows citizens to request just about any government document, including emails and texts. The salaries of every government employee are required by law to be published on our website. Our budget goes through a public hearing process so every citizen can see the City’s revenues and expenditures. Zoning changes require notification and public hearing. Municipalities operate in a fishbowl.
Handling Issues from A to Z
They say variety is the spice of life. If so, municipal government work is like a spice house. Citizens look to the City for reliable electricity, clean water, waste management, fire prevention and fire suppression, public safety, financial management, utility billing, building inspections, community planning, urban forestry, wastewater/flood management, street maintenance, and much more. It’s tough to be responsible for such a variety of specialties and perform every function up to the standards expected by citizens.
Many of the functions government performs are of social value and would not exist if they had to be profitable. That makes it hard to measure the value of what we do and justify costs. The work of fire departments, libraries, parks, and police departments could not be run for profit. Socially useful, often unprofitable tasks are the main functions of government. Working for social benefit is commendable but almost impossible to measure, so the fruits of municipal employees’ labors often go unnoticed and unmeasured.
Municipal work is not for everyone, but for those of us who stick with it, it’s challenging, rewarding, and uplifting, and there is no other place we would rather work. And considering many of our open positions net upwards of one hundred responses from interested candidates, City of St. Charles is definitely a sought-after place to work.
Are you up for the task? Check out the City’s job postings and apply online at www.stcharlesil.gov/jobs
Want to learn more? Following are some resources used for this article.