Question re: Organizational Cultures in the Federal Government
April 4, 2013 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Where do classy, educated, intelligent people work in the (U.S.) Federal Government? Which organizational cultures would welcome me?

I’ve been doing the corporate office routine for a while now. I’ve survived two layoffs in my post-collegiate career. I’ve managed to weather this recession very well, a fact for which I am profoundly grateful. All the same, I realize that my luck, like everyone else’s, is not infinite and the next time the man in the corner office decides to squeeze out an extra tenth of a percent in profit, I might find myself becoming one of those sad stories we are only too familiar with.

I decided that my next move would be to look for a job with the Federal Government, which does not provide ironclad guarantees of job security forever and ever but is the strongest option out there right now. With this goal in mind, I started networking and reconnected with a college friend on Facebook who is a Federal employee. From him I learned that there were many upsides to Federal employment but many downsides at his particular agency. I have his permission to quote and paraphrase his remarks here on the condition that I not reveal anything that would reveal his identity and workplace.

My friend did not paint a pretty picture. He characterized the atmosphere at his job as “stressful and dysfunctional”. He spoke of his frustrations with coworkers, many of whom were “stupid, utterly lacking in imagination, selfish and disrespectful.” His workplace, he said, was a “horrible caricature of bureaucratic life, where organizational imperatives trump individual circumstances and making sure that you have the proper stamp at the bottom right hand of the page matters more than the words on that page or the lives affected by those words.” My friend has made peace with the negatives of his job but he told me that he could not in good conscience recommend it for me, that I would not fit into the organizational culture and it would make me miserable.

So where does an educated, intelligent, artsy, nerdy-goofy fellow find work in the Federal Government? Which agencies would welcome people like me, people who are bespectacled, people who know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, people with leftish politics, secular . . MetaFilter people, in other words. I would strongly prefer that this position be in the New York City metropolitan area but at this stage of the game, I’m willing to be flexible for the right job.

Before we begin, please note that my question focuses on organizational cultures, not on the ins and outs of applying for federal work. Also, out of respect for my friend’s privacy, please do not ask where he works. (“Oh, does your friend work at the Department of ______. Yeah, they really suck, etc, etc.)

OK. Time to learn.
posted by the hot hot side of randy to Work & Money (38 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My boyfriend is bespectacled, knows the difference between "your" and "you're," is way leftish and secular, and works for the Department of Veteran Affairs. Most of his coworkers do not have these same traits, but he get a lot of satisfaction out of helping the vets and manages to find a couple people in each workplace (he's worked at two different VAs) that he likes and can be friendly with. He also gets wonderful benefits, a great work schedule, and health insurance for the first time since he left the military some 20 years ago. But otherwise all those things your friend said about his organization are true of the VA.
posted by jabes at 9:34 AM on April 4, 2013

State has some very cool people working in IT and social media. Somewhere I've seen rankings of employee morale at Federal Agencies. I know because a friend worked at one at the very bottom.

But I suspect that the vast majority of Federal jobs are going to be in the DC area, not NYC.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 9:40 AM on April 4, 2013

In the budget office! The Education Department Budget Service, for example, is full of really smart, hard-working people.
posted by jgirl at 9:41 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: So where does an educated, intelligent, artsy, nerdy-goofy fellow find work in the Federal Government?

They don't. The majority of government work (outside of the hard sciences that haven't been outsourced to contractors) is boring administrivia. You'd probably have a better chance finding interesting work as a contractor to the federal government but that's not going to happen in NYC, you're going to have to live in DC for that.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 9:43 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agencies with a clear federal role are best, such as State. Education is a bad place in general because it has no defined federal role, except for the Office for Civil Rights. It's a big bank.
posted by jgirl at 9:43 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: My experience with state government is that even within the same agency, different groups can have Wildly different cultures. I'd just go looking for federal jobs near you, apply, and then if you get interviews, start investigating the culture of the group you're interviewing with.
posted by ldthomps at 9:47 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Go to the website to review the agencies hiring.

My Dad is an LCSW and worked for the DOD for 10 years, primarily abroad. (This was after 35 years in the non-profit sector. Both of my parents enjoyed the camaraderie of the military and are still friends with folks, even after 5 years of retirement.

Sure, all government is bureaucratic and dysfunctional. Sure, some folks are jerks and idiots. This is true of every organization, anywhere, ever. However, it's really about your workgroup and your job.

The benefits and pay are outrageously great, so it's worth it to apply, apply often and when you get that job, settle into it like a birdie in his nest.

You have unparalleled ability to move within agencies and within jobs, you get to do professional development and training. If you ever want to transfer back to the Corporate sector, having government experience (and clearances) can put you in some pretty great situations.

Also, applying for Federal Government jobs is unlike any other kind of process. Even your resume should be different. Research how a federal government resume should look (think longer, think more detail.) Research how to answer KSIs and Questionnaires.

It's a long, tiring, process, but eventually, once you're in, you're golden.

My parents are making more now, in retirement, than they ever did when they were working.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:48 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

To add, my bespectacled, PhD-holding, peace-loving mathematician father - to whom I frequently mention metafilter because he's still just that geeky even retirement - worked for the army for 20+ years as a civilian. I wouldn't think the army would be a great place for someone like him, but he found it sincerely fulfilling.
posted by ldthomps at 9:50 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Census Office and Bureau of Labor Statistics have good people in them, from what I can tell.

My experience with the government scientists has been universally great, as well.
posted by deanc at 9:52 AM on April 4, 2013

I enjoyed working with the Army Corps of Engineers and would go back in a second if I could. I suppose it depends on where in the Corps you were working, but I worked with intelligent, engaged people who really cared about what they were doing.
posted by backwords at 10:01 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: I work for the department of homeland security's science and technology directorate in NYC. I am ok with the work and like my colleagues. We need to know more about your background to help though. Stem graduate? Are you a veteran? Getting a federal job without being a veteran can be very, very challenging these days.

Also, holding out for a secular leftist government workplace strikes me as unlikely and undesirable. At my workplace we sort of steer clear of open politics and religion discussions, but I know there is a wide variety of opinions, which is sort of how I feel it should be. There was some open bad mouthing of Fox News not long ago though, so there are limits to restraint.
posted by pseudonick at 10:04 AM on April 4, 2013

Response by poster: We need to know more about your background to help though. Stem graduate? Are you a veteran?

I am not a STEM graduate. Nor am I a veteran.
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 10:08 AM on April 4, 2013

The people I know who work in the science agencies seem to like their jobs and workplaces: NASA, NOAA, FDA, the research branches of the Department of Agriculture...the problem there may be that while not everyone working at NASA is a rocket scientist, they do have more jobs for engineers than they do for media relations specialists, for example. For the more humanities-oriented person, I've heard good things about the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

This is probably the study that RandlePatrickMcMurphy is thinking about. It's somewhat incomplete in that it doesn't appear to cover places such as the Library of Congress or the Government Printing Office.
posted by drlith at 10:10 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Federal Government: Best Places to Work. It's not going to overlap completely with your requirements, but it's helpful. In general, the places you are looking for will be smaller agencies (or units with a lot of autonomy within a larger unit) and have a highly educated staff (often a technical field which requires a graduate education). Working in an office that oversees a large workforces or contractors is less likely to suit you. But of course, there are several million federal workers so the specifics will vary.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:23 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: (For what it's worth, I had a cultural resource management type job with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for a year, and I found the overarching workplace culture to be extremely bureaucratic/regimented, with a definite "you're in the army now" feeling even for civilian employees, coupled together with an embracing of the hot new "Total Quality Management" practices of the day, with weekend bonding retreats and days-long meetings to draft "mission statements" and core values. I mean, Jesus Christ, I was cataloging rusty nails from Orville and Wilbur Wright's burned-down machine shed. My mission statement was "It inscribes the catalog number on the nail and then it puts them in the spreadsheet.")
posted by drlith at 10:24 AM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

First, I know a ton of classy, educated, intelligent people who work all over the federal government. There isn't just one agency that has more terrific people. Plus, each agency is gigantic.

Second, I wouldn't think too much about this, and you're good to think of other options. Most agencies are either letting people go or have hiring freezes.
posted by General Malaise at 10:32 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

together with an embracing of the hot new "Total Quality Management" practices of the day

FWIW, this was a total nightmare in the private sector too. Also, I had to take a whole class in TQM in Grad School. WHAT A WASTE!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:33 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: One of the hazards of the federal government is that jobs come in set categories with clearly-defined boundaries. In some agencies (such as the one I work at), this results in a ridiculous amount of territoriality and boundary-defending. If you are of a creative bent, with an interest in cross-training and working across disciplines, you may have a hard time getting along with your more traditional coworkers (who may find you threatening to their area of expertise), or getting support from your management.

I would definitely support the idea that the science-based agencies are more likely to be filled with like minds. There are cool people even working for the military, but they have adjusted their expectations, so to speak. Places like the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, and Forest Service might have great people, but they tend to be understaffed and underfunded. The military has more money but the organizational culture might not be as supportive as you would like. (Although even that varies pretty widely.)

I know you said you didn't want to talk about the hiring process, but you should know that the Obama Administration changed the veterans' preferences rules a few years back, and with the increased number of combat veterans in the job market, it is ridiculously difficult to get hired into an open slot without any preferences, especially for lower grades. (I am absolutely speaking from experience: I couldn't get hired into the position I'd actually been doing for four years.)
posted by suelac at 11:01 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: If you are willing to relocate, the Smithsonian institution is about 2/3 Fed, and many if not all of the employees are MeFite types or sympathetic.
posted by juniperesque at 11:12 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: A few things to keep in mind is that a lot of federal positions are funded for specific programs that can and will get cut in the post-sequestration world. A lot of the funding for non-STEM "interesting" work that's going on now is probably going to start getting cut over the next couple of fiscal years or contracted out as task orders (i.e. not a full FTE position).
posted by playertobenamedlater at 11:18 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: I work at one of the lowest ranked components of the lowest ranked agency listed by Mr. Know-it-some and yet I have found many people meeting your description and my part of the component is a fantastic place to work with fantastic colleagues. Which is all to say, apply and then get into the weeds on that office's culture. And be open minded in the whole process.
posted by semacd at 11:27 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: The Library of Congress comes to mind. In my experience there as a contractor I found the atmosphere professional and nearly everyone was interesting.
posted by dgran at 11:49 AM on April 4, 2013

In terms of day to day work environment, your immediate work unit will have far more impact on your work culture than the agency. Even small Federal agencies are large workplaces and they contain multitudes.

It does help if you are working for an agency whose mission you care about. However, if you are serious about wanting to make a long-term career as a Fed and you don't have preference points, your best bet is probably to apply for every job that you are qualified for regardless of whether it is your long-term job of your dreams. Once you are past your probation period (I think it's two years?) you will then have a wide variety of choices to move around within the government. Many job postings are open to current Federal employees only (due to pressures not to "increase the size of government") and if you move around within the government you still get to keep your tenure for purposes of retirement, etc. Also, do yourself a favor and research the process, because it is completely unlike looking for a private-sector job and some best practices for private sector job hunting will likely hurt you in the government.

Also be aware that while you don't have to live in DC for a Federal job, most agencies are headquartered there (CDC is headquartered in Atlanta but that's uncommon) so from a long-term career perspective, if you do not live in the city where your agency is headquartered, you will have an upper limit to how much your career can progress without relocating.
posted by oblique red at 11:51 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

My experience is that generally the larger the employer is, the fewer iconoclasts it tolerates. The federal government is vast, and grinds the cogs off of gears with plodding determinism. Honestly, smaller governmental jobs may be better — many of my planning friends love state and county positions. The only other folks I know who are happy with federal jobs are quasi-academics doing serious research, and really, I don't think they'd notice if their office was on fire so long as it didn't touch their labs.
posted by klangklangston at 12:10 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know "classy, educated, intelligent people" who work or who have worked in various branches, from on the hill to the FAA to DOD to State to the SEC. (One of them is even primarily based out of NYC, but it's in a STEM role. None are veterans.) The museums (not just the Smithsonian) have really wonderful people. Is there a specific branch at all that you're interested in? The Smithsonian, for example, has its own facebook page promoting their jobs, and there are a lot of interesting opportunities.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:36 PM on April 4, 2013

If you want to teach and like to travel, the Department of Defense has a network of American schools all over the world. The relevant acronym is DoDDS - Department of Defense Dependents' Schools.
posted by bendy at 12:45 PM on April 4, 2013

Apply at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
posted by lstanley at 1:11 PM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: The raw results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by OPM (which are used to get to the "Best Places to Work" report) may also be helpful, especially if you wind up drilling down into smaller agencies. I've linked you to the OPM summary (the glossy brochure, essentially), but I believe there's Excel versions with all kinds of interesting crosstabs.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 1:41 PM on April 4, 2013

People tend to think of the agencies and the military when they think "federal government," but don't forget about the U.S. Courts! The district and appellate courts employ various non-lawyers and I think some of those positions could be a good fit for you based on what you've written here.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 1:59 PM on April 4, 2013

I don't necessarily know about artsy and nerdy, but the people I have met who work for State and within the Intelligence Agencies have been well educated, well read, and idealist. These positions have very specific requirements however, which doesn't make it a very accessible place for you most likely.
posted by SollosQ at 2:07 PM on April 4, 2013

classy, educated, intelligent people

NASA has lots of these! I'd think NOAA, as well.

But then you changed the requirement to

an educated, intelligent, artsy, nerdy-goofy fellow

Nerdy-goofy, even better -- but artsy? You'll have to hide that in almost any government or corporate position -- out in the real world an interest in Art is viewed with suspicion. If you could change that to Sports, you'll have it made.
posted by Rash at 2:07 PM on April 4, 2013

And I should also add, for anybody considering a Federal job, people doing actual government work are mostly contractors. Much easier to get a contracting gig... the benefits may not be quite as good, but there are other advantages.
posted by Rash at 2:11 PM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: You would probably fit in at the Smithsonian or National Archives.

Others that come to mind: State, NASA.. I know some cool people at EPA, Park Service, NOAA. What about Voice of America? They don't have a ton of openings ever but if your skillset fits (languages) there's that. A lot of the neat artsy-nerdy jobs (if you mean communications) are probably held by contractors so you might look into working for a contractor instead of directly as a civil servant.

The thing is.. It might look stable compared to the private sector, but actually this is a very difficult time for federal workers. Civil servant jobs are often going unfilled because of all this budget sequester stuff going on. Some are being required to take furlough days over the sequester. There haven't been cost of living raises in a couple years. The programs they work on are getting cut and the stalemates in Congress make planning so much harder than it needs to be - when budgets don't get passed or get cut indiscriminately as they are now, how can you even do your job. (I get to hear a lot of this from friends here in the DC area lately. They say they don't want to talk about it but then they talk about it all the time.)
posted by citron at 2:47 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think a lot of the comments above summarize it pretty well, but I'd like to add that things aren't quite as rosy as they used to be. You do have good job stability as a direct-hire, and the benefits are awesome, but the current budget environment has made things a bit more challenging. Beyond the furloughs and freeze on cost-of-living raises going on right now, the ongoing budget stalemate in Congress over the past few years has also meant that most agencies can't plan ahead well and have had a surprisingly hard time actually getting things done - which can be very frustrating to say the least. On preview, what citron said.

That being said, I made a move similar to what you're proposing. I was in the corporate world for several years, but a couple rounds of layoffs + a longer-than-expected stretch of unemployment convinced me to jump ship for the public sector three years ago. Despite the bureaucracy and current sequester nonsense, I'm actually pretty happy as a fed! The benefits are great and I'm under much less stress compared to my last job. I don't know if I'll stay in forever but I don't see myself going back to the private sector anytime soon.
posted by photo guy at 4:07 PM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: I am a Federal Public Defender and have found that the FPD offices tend to be a haven for the people you're describing. The folks in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, the area you're looking in, are good folks and have a good reputation. They have non-lawyer needs (admin, paralegal, etc.) that might be a fit.

You might also note that we're in a sequester situation and many federal offices (not just FPD) have been on a hiring freeze for quite some time and are in the process of figuring out furloughs and layoffs so the timing may be rough.
posted by *s at 7:21 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Most people I know at USAID are happy with their work and quite left wing politically. The jobs are in DC and the developing world, though.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 11:43 PM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: I would worry about the NYC part. The federal offices in NYC don't have a good reputation, possibly because the government pay scale doesn't go high enough to really compete for talent with the private sector there. Especially in lower level jobs you may be surrounded by people who couldn't get anything else. In smaller cities the government pays quite well relative to the private sector and really gets some very smart and dedicated people.
posted by miyabo at 5:35 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great answers! I think I know where to start from here.

posted by the hot hot side of randy at 11:36 AM on April 6, 2013

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