Compensation for Public Servants

So on Tuesday, Alberta Primetime did a feature on whether bonuses should be given to public servants.  Kevin Taft was on arguing against.   This isn’t about that.

But Taft mentioned at least twice that part of the compensation a public servant receives is the knowledge that they are providing a valuable service to society and thus they would be willing to accept a lesser compensation pay package than private sector folks.

[Note I’m restricting myself to public sectors employees, not elected officials or appointees.]

Really?  Does that seem naive to anyone but me?  I once had an argument with a drunken lout who expressed the same view.  Admittedly I was drunk myself at the time.

First (of possibly many objections), Providing a service to society is certainly one of the attractions of public service (at least it was for me.)  But for many folks it may not be the primary one.  Like any job providing a stable income for the family is often paramount.  Other drivers to public sector life might be job stability (normally), a pension, consideration for work/life balance (less lately).  Should we force anyone with a different priority into the private sector?  Shouldn’t we encourage multiple personal values with the public sector to allow for diversity?

Next, Isn’t it possible that folks in the private sector feel they are bringing value to society too?  Are we arguing that we should pay people less if they are useful?  I mean, gah, just  gah!  The whole idea of an invisible hand (not that I’m a huge proponent) is that the free market in itself is of benefit to society…

And, at a certain point maybe pay doesn’t incentivize folks.  But I can tell you what deincentivizes people – seeing someone doing a very similar job to them in another company and being paid more.

Fourth, the public sector must compete with the private sector for skill sets.  Even in a purely outsourced model (some day a post there), the Gov’t has a responsibility to plan and to audit the suppliers.   They have a responsibility to provide consultation to the elected officials.  They don’t want to recruit those skill sets from only those with low pay expectations.  (maybe a role of the state post someday too – that would be controversial).

Should a government hand out bonuses?  That is tricky.  Should the government offer compensation that is competitive with private sector?  I think yes.  How that compensation should be competitive can be tricky because it isn’t just an apples to apples comparison between the two sectors, but that needs to be the goal.  Assuming that the folks would volunteer to do their jobs and that pay is itself a bonus is fool hardy and can only lead to misguided decisions.


12 thoughts on “Compensation for Public Servants

  1. Dano says:

    Does his statement not smack of sayng, “Socialists come work for the gov’t so we can pay you less.”?

    Also, he seems to have the same fundamental problem that all pholosophers have. The desire for simplicity causes him to reduce things to a single (insufficient) principle. In this case, people either take jobs to serve the public or to make wads of cash. Yet, this one principle is clearly insufficient. Sure, PSEs want to contribute and do a service but that does not mean they only want to do these things. The reasons for eployment choice go far beyond these realities. Heck. ask any guy pouring concrete, why he does one of the most miserable jobs available and he will come out with a verbal soup of reasons. The same is true here. It just is not that simple. It certainly is not sufficient to justify unfair wages.

    I guess I feel like he is saying that, “Emotional satisfaction overrides the concerns about unfair wealth distribution.” Frankly, that just doesn’t cut it.

    The other thing that bugs me is the whiff of philosophical egoism here. It parallels the common example in ethics that says that people only volunteer in order to feel good about themselves. In essence all generosity is, in thruth, selfish. He would have us believe that the reason people become PSEs is to get that feeling of satisfaction from offering a valuable service.

    I have to quit now. I am doing one of the things that bug me most. Commenting on someone’s statements by commenting on another commentor without ever examining the original source. Shame on me.

    • ttgdyck says:

      S’alright Dan. I did the same by taking a single comment he made out of the context he made it and then expounded on it. Although Taft did say it twice. The U of A business prof beside him in the studio vibrated noticeably both times he did. 🙂

      That single principle thing is certainly something I’ve noticed, but hadn’t isolated. Descarte – build from 1 true thing, Marx – everything is based on economic structures, Ayer – everything is language, Hobbes – everything is the natural state of human nature, Freud – our unconscious id drives everything we do.

      When I get around do doing a philosophy blog, I’m going to Cicero (or the Frankfurt school) as a model. Not their actual philosophies, but their syncretic accumulation of various streams of thought.

  2. Troy says:

    Well at least he (Taft) puts his money where his mouth is (

    This is tough cause you are not comparing apples to apples. I know that the top end for private sector is WAY higher then in the public sector, but it is my understanding that the average working stiff in the public sector makes more compensation then their equivalent private sector partners.

    Why does it surprise Socialists that people might actually work for financial gain? Plus the fact remains that most of public employees haven’t a hope in “providing a valuable service to society”. The guy that fixes toilets in a government building likely doesn’t think that he’s doing a tremendous service to benefit society. The guy that gets printers working for office employees likely doesn’t think about how society has just advanced cause he got a printer working.

    My thoughts on bonuses are that they are OK for public employees, but there has to be some measurable reason for them. Bonuses handed out all the time, every year, are salary not bonuses.

    • Hi Troy! Welcome to the party. Neat article – funny severance structure for a job that is known going in to be only temporary. I’m not sure what I’d propose as a more fair scheme, but it seems wonky to me.

      There are a couple ways that comparing the private sector to the public is very similar though. First the pool of employees that both are looking to attract is the same. Obviously one person might lean towards one job or another, but I think they are competing for those same people.

      In certain ways the average public sector employee is certainly better off in their compensation. A pension, guaranteed health benefits (although anecdotally often the private sector is better), better vacation time, and very well defined pay grid. And a union person has several other perks too.

      And trying for a job in the private sector now, I’d agree that you are probably right. A large private company is quite willing to pay more that public to get talent, but a small or medium business looking for a junior or intermediate person is lower. (A small or medium business can’t afford a senior/specialist IT person – they’ll contract for those skills when necessary.) The scale tops for intermediate and senior public sector IT folks are a bit higher than private companies, but the entry is often also lower (wide scale). Public sector doesn’t have a job classification for the top end IT folks – the specialists and experts – the ones that can make the big bucks in the private companies. So on average, the public sector does compensate a bit better – but I can only speak for IT.

      It actually doesn’t take much for an employee to see their public sector job as providing a valuable service. You mention print – I ran print and that is easy. Reports sent to welfare folks, people in youth services, anyone still getting a paper check, release and admission forms for entry into correctional centres, court documents. There is quite a bit of print that has an immediate impact on the public if it isn’t available. I mean there is also a lot of not being able to print your agenda for the next meeting which isn’t, but you find the job value in the first bit.

      • Troy says:

        Interesting. We are coming at the same question from different perspectives. In my line of work, I deal with a lot of municipal employees and have noticed a whole lot more of a “not my problem” attitude then a “get er’ done” attitude.
        This is in stark contrast to the dedication that you and Dave showed during your time with the Ab Gov’t.

        The homogenization of IT people into a couple of classifications is not unique to government. Most large corporations start to classify people based on education and experience. They create narrow bands of pay commiserate to expereince and level of education. At Syncrude, it was like trying to move heaven and earth to have someone paid outside of the prescribed wage scale.

        You never commented on bonuses though.

        • Public Sector Bonuses are very tough. I like the idea because I think monetary incentives in any job are a good idea. So I think they should exist, but implementation if tough and I’m not sure how to do it.

          First since it is public sector funds it needs to be very transparent. Visible to the public, the staff and the people making the decisions. That transparency costs money.

          Second, it needs to show responsibility. The Government needs to be able to justify every bonus.

          Third, the standards need to be different than the private sector. It can’t be based on making money – that isn’t the business of the Gov’t. And it shouldn’t necessarily be saving money either since that is an incentive to cut programs and staff not deliver service. It needs to be based on the value/quality of the service. And that is hard to measure.

          Currently the public sector isn’t giving out bonuses (at least the provincial gov’t), but when they did none of those three criteria were met.

          On your other point, providing quality dedicated service was pretty common in our shop. There were of course slackers. I dealt with the ‘not my problem’ issue all over the place, but just as often with consultants and external folks as our own people. I tried to reinforce that if it ended up on our team it was our problem – both on the principle that we were the point of last resort and because we were well positioned to coordinate issues among various teams for our customers and because I hated to bump something unless I had to. Not every team ran the same way.

  3. David Silvestri says:

    The following is my personal opinion, which I’m concerned about writing in a public forum, for the potential of offending many former co-workers. I do not write the following lightly.

    I think one of the biggest difference between private and public sector classification is granularity.

    Having now been in the private sector for 5+ months (which by no means makes me an expert) I have had something I believed previously, confirmed.

    In Government all IT staff have one classification… they are systems analysts. All IT jobs are created equal. All System Analysts (Level 2) get paid the same amount. Whether they are Cisco certified specialists, or Domain Admins, Storage Admins, AD experts, software packagers, Server Guys or Desktop support staff.

    In the Private sector, different jobs are paid at different rates. VMWare VCDX and network guys get paid a ton. Storage guys get paid pretty good too, so I’m not complaining.

    IMO one of the problem is that Alberta public sector (because I have no experience outside of that) believes that all IT are created equal.

    Unfortunately, that’s not true. It’s akin to saying that everyone on a construction site should be paid the same… and unfortunately that’s not true. And it can often come to supply and demand.

    The amount of training it takes to be trained as an entry level desktop person is different than it takes to be an entry level Network guy… in part because as an entry level network guy would be expected to have a rudimentary knowledge of desktops as well.

    Not having seen Kevin Taft’s comments, I don’t know the context they were in. But, if it was in the context of “we’re spending too much on staff”, then perhaps. But it’s not because we pay our AD experts a comparable salary to the private sector. It’s because we pay certain job functions much more than the private sector.

    Other issues like paying “technologists” a System analyst wage because they were maxed out at their pay grade is also a problem.

    If people doing Public sector jobs have to get a private sector job, and the difference in pay is more than 30%, there’s an obvious problem.

    Part of the problem is that public sector isn’t providing opportunities for training. For example, a desktop person would have a hard time, almost impossible, getting approval to try to get training for a storage job. The desktop analyst might be bright and may thrive in a storage (or network, or ADS or DB etc) but there is no opportunity to grow. So they are stuck in their role. But the public sector “over compensates” for that role because the staff are stuck in that role.

    Again, if the public sector starts laying people off, they have a hard time finding a job because they are:
    a) very focused in what would normally be a generalist role
    b) over compensated so that any job they get offered in the public sector feels like it isn’t compensating adequately.
    c) not up to date on training for private sector needs

    To the point though of providing a public benefit… I certainly felt that. It was always great when I heard about a project I worked on going live, and there being t.v. coverage for the launch… but I also know that public sector had many consultants in on these projects, being paid a large amount more than the employees. So I think this point could be debatable.

    just my .02

    • I should point out that there are a ton of AD people out there. Unlike the storage folks and the VMWare folks, normal training does encompass our skills. Sorta – the difference between an enterprise class AD person or an enterprise class network person and a generalist with the basic training is still pretty broad.

      Good points Dave.

      • David Silvestri says:

        Thanks… I just want to clarify something for my guilt 🙂

        I don’t blame public employees or begrudge them in any way.

        But the fact of the matter is that in the private sector, there is an obvious compensation difference between an intermediate Service Desk Analyst, and an Intermediate Network Analyst.

        But in the public sector there isn’t.

        And if you enjoy that job, that’s fantastic.

        But by taking away the compensation driver for personal growth (and despite what anyone says, making more money is always interesting), that driver is taken away.

        Again, if you enjoy that job, that’s fantastic.

        Until that job goes away, and you’re looking for a job in the private sector, and you realize your compensation levels are going to be very different.

        Do I blame the employees? Nope

        But the government for paying everyone the same, and not supplying training so that employees can grow into those better paying roles? Yep!!

    • David Silvestri says:

      Interesting I think that there are two jobs that pay higher in the private sector, though the job list is not exhaustive.

      Dental Hygienist and Energy Consultant.

      None of the other jobs require a post secondary University Education.

      Small sample size, and only for one public entity… but interesting nonetheless.

      And $12 for daycare is less than I have to pay for babysitting.

    • Hey – thanks Troy.

      So – first off is awesome. Awesome! Am I expecting too much? Answered!

      Second, it seems to support Dave’s hypothesis. Generalist skills, low education requirements and low certification requirements have better compensation in the public sector. Specialist skills and high training and education requirements flop the other way.

      And third, since there are more of the former than the latter it skews high for the public sector. Another factor is likely the unions for those positions that qualify.

      Fourth, we are assuming the information is good. It isn’t certain that their survey size is large enough to be accurate.

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