How to Work for the Federal Government Without Really Trying

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A friend of a friend who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency had agreed to see me. Five years ago, after I’d been laid off, I was applying for jobs with the federal government. While this guy wasn’t in a position to hire me, I’d hoped to gain a look inside this massive agency.

I met him on a weekday morning at the Ariel Rios building, a large EPA office in Washington, D.C. He was polite and friendly, which I appreciated because he probably barely could afford the time out of his day.

I showed him my resume and he seemed impressed. “We can always use smart people around here,” I remember him saying.

But it takes more than being smart to land a job in Washington. What exactly it takes, however, remains a mystery.

The federal government is ineffective, many people say, and I’m not going to argue with that. Leaving aside Congress for the moment (which is its own special nightmare), most people when they talk about the government are referring to administrative agencies. As extensions of the office of the president, the “alphabet soup” of agencies employ the bulk of the federal workforce and are the focus of a majority of public bitterness. Just think about the IRS, the VA, or the EPA and notice how you feel inside.

Some of what irks folks about the government can be blamed on systemic problems. Bloated budgets, inane mandates from Congress, and a lack of clear purpose can hamper anyone’s effectiveness, no matter who you are.

Yet some of the problem also may be bad employees.** You don’t have to look too hard to find some egregious examples in the federal government….

Minerals Management Service: A few years ago, a little-known federal agency called the Minerals Management Service was reorganized because of its inability to properly function. Among other things, an internal investigation found that MMS staff members falsified records, used illegal drugs, and accepted gifts from the oil companies they were supposed to be regulating. Members of the royalty collection office in Denver even “had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

Wow. Now that’s public service.

(To solve this problem, the Interior Department disbanded the MMS and created three new agencies, like more government is the solution.)

General Services Administration: In 2012, the head of the General Services Administration resigned over a scandal that threw her agency onto the front pages. An investigation discovered that the agency had spent more than $800,000 on an internal training conference in Las Vegas in 2010. This party–funded by the taxpayers–included a clown and a mind reader. The sushi alone cost $7,000.

The dude who authorized the party, Jeffrey Neely, was a career bureaucrat who received no significant punishment as a result of his extravagant use of government funds. He reportedly retired from the agency with full pension and benefits.

Gotta love it.

Environmental Protection Agency: More recently, the news came out that the EPA also has a few workers who are less than stellar. The Associated Press reported that an internal investigation found one  employee who had defrauded the agency out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and another who sold jewelry and diet pills on work time.EPA logo

Even better, there’s an EPA employee who has reportedly watched pornography at work for two to six hours daily, downloading more than 7,000 porn files on the agency’s servers.

And he still works there.

Just to be clear, many of my neighbors work for federal agencies and they are all terrific people. And I understand how one bad egg can unfairly tarnish an entire class of people (think Lance Armstrong), and that I shouldn’t paint them all with the same brush.

But the fact remains that these people were successful job candidates. They were hired and worked for their agencies, sometimes for years, while exhibiting behaviors that  most people would recognize as unacceptable in the workplace.

Back in 2009 when I spoke with the guy at the EPA, I was hopeful that I had a shot at the federal workforce. But over the years, having applied for at least five different federal jobs, I’ve never once been contacted for an interview.

It leads one to wonder what the qualifications are to work for the government. What’s a guy got to do to get noticed in this town?

I should add watching porn to the list of skills on my resume. Maybe that would help.


**I’m using “employee” here to cover career workers, staff, political appointees, and managers–I admit I’m lumping them all together.

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