Government as a business – perks

I’ve been in the public sector for almost 17 years. One of the more unique aspects of public servant life is the notion of a different standard of ethics that in other domains. Specifically, there are rules around the dollar amount of gifts that you can receive from vendors (something like $25). I can certainly see the benefit of this, as when I was in the private sector the amount of money that would get spent by vendors trying to woo our business were sometimes insane. As public servants we’re not there to make a lot of personal gains.

However, one aspect of this is that it is often very difficult for governmental organizations to do reward staff appropriately. This is often displayed with the notion of purchasing food for public servants. Many times in the IT world, staff are asked to work late hours, and sometimes during major outages this could require very long shifts. However, there are many complicated rules in place about purchasing food for consumption by staff using public money. As a manager, I pretty much have to pay for any perks, like pizza for a hard working team, out of my own pocket.

This also shows in how hard it is to put on large professional development gatherings. The organization I work for manages one large gathering a year for management staff, with all the regular perks, but it is an exception to the rule. The animus about paying for public servant perks with taxpayer money becomes so contentious that many organizations simply avoid dealing with it, and do nothing at all.

This has two detrimental effects. First, it limits how we can reward staff for doing a really good job during a crisis situation. Second, it makes it hard to retain talent that can be woo’d by the abundant perks in the private sector. For the couple of years I was a private sector employee I loved having a corporate American Express card, and staying in nice hotels on business trips. But as a government employee, we’re told to make do with as little as possible.

The public demands that our government services are 100% reliable and available at all times, and when something doesn’t work right (especially in the technology sector) we catch a lot of hell. Yet, we’re hamstrung in how we develop and retain staff by citizen worry that their money might buy a hardworking server engineer a $10 pizza.

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