Moving federal employees out of DC is a good thing (or, “why your intrepid heroine moved to the Midwest”)

I’ve been unhappy with the quality of reporting around the relocation of two Department of Agriculture components (the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)) to the Kansas City region. Local news is misreporting this as a headquarters move (it isn’t), and most national reporting is treating this as a Trojan horse for the decimation of institutional knowledge around climate change research. I’m not saying it isn’t a Trojan horse, and I’ll dig into that in a future post. But this post is about why I generally support the relocation of any federal jobs from the D.C. area.

As a resident of the Midwest, I have a dog in this fight, because moving government jobs here would be a huge boon for a region that is in dire need of jobs. I’m thrilled to see federal investment in Kansas City. And if you believe that climate change is a real and pressing issue, you should support government policies that might spur growth and reinvestment in the Midwest, too.

The Midwest is depopulating, despite having tons of infrastructure and the capacity for the kinds of dense, resilient cities I’m told we need to weather the coming climate apocalypse. We have irreplaceable strategic assets that are currently crumbling because decades of federal disinvestment and policies have favored coastal areas at our expense.

So with that caveat about my personal bias, let’s get down to my hot takes:

The culture in Washington, D.C. is toxic and contributes to administrative bloat.

Specifically: there are many highly paid feds who should retire but don’t because they are paid above market wages in positions that are very cushy.

I have worked in four government agencies and all were either overstaffed or had dead weight on staff that should have been cut. In my experience, most federal agencies in Washington are full of useless managers who pawn their work onto subordinates and/or contractors (the contracting racket is a rant for another day).

These managers refuse to retire, because their subordinates are doing their work, and the managers are often “teleworking” while their peons do the jobs of the absentee manager. (Of course, they’re not doing any work while they’re in the office, either, and most of their employees are probably more productive when the bad managers are at home and staying out of their way. But maybe some of them would retire if they had to go into the office…)

These managers have ruined and squandered a generation of talent. They have enabled our bureacracy to grow far larger than it needs to be by lying about how overworked they are. They have failed again and again to perform the most basic aspects of their jobs. But they’re allowed to continue in their roles because of a fundamentally broken culture in Washington.

These are the people who will finally leave government service if we move their jobs to the heartland. Every American should toast their departure.

There is no accountability in Washington.  Every time one of these managers fails to deliver, they claim their failure is because their agency is understaffed and underfunded. Then they receive more money to hire other people to do the jobs they’ve failed to do. I have personally seen this happen over and over, and it’s not limited to the federal government.

My husband worked at a semi-governmental agency before we moved to Chicago. When he left his job (because of an awful manager that HR refused to fire because they claimed it would be age discrimination), they didn’t just backfill his position. They created two new managerial positions (each of which pays over $120,000) and there were plans afoot to hire fifteen contractors to do his job.

My husband may ultimately be replaced by seventeen additional people (in addition to the person who got his old job), and the work he was hired to do still hasn’t been completed. We don’t know how many people were eventually hired: but the fact that replacing him with eighteen people was even a possibility is completely insane.

Of course, his former employer is constantly asking for more money from the federal government, and one of the awful managers he fled recently requested $80 million for an “artificial intelligence” project. (The project is not actually an artificial intelligence project.)

The managers who oversee these clusterfucks in Washington are paid handsomely. And it’s not just the managers who are well-compensated: mid-level bureaucrats in Washington outearn most managers in the civil service in the rest of the country (and, in fact, the world), thanks to bonkers salary inflation that I personally believe is a result of D.C.’s uniquely toxic culture.

Before I dig into this, a little context. Federal employees are paid according to a salary table called the “General Schedule.” This schedule provides for location adjustments (i.e., an employee in New York makes more than one in Colorado.)

The lowest paid federal employee in Washington is a GS-1 (“Grade 1″), Step 1. They make $25,458 annually. The highest paid employee is a GS-15, Step 10 ($166,500.)

In theory, a GS-1 might be a mail clerk (in practice, few positions are ever posted at a GS1 – many entry level positions are a GS3 or higher). A GS-15 should have significant responsibilities, since they are among the most highly compensated professionals in the United States government.

In practice, many of the GS-15 employees I met in Washington were doing less work than their counterparts in the private sector, and being paid more for it. There are additional employment categories for employees with specialized skills: employees in the “Senior Executive Service (SES)” and “Senior Level (SL)” or “Scientific or Professional (ST)” make even more than GS-15s. (You can likely guess about whether most of the SESs I met had any actual skills.)

But let’s get back to the big picture.

The rampant grade inflation in Washington-based federal jobs is proof that the civil service there is unmoored from basic economic reality.

The average federal employee in Washington, D.C. is a GS-12. (The lowest-paid GS-12 in D.C. makes $74,596.)

The average federal employee in the rest of the country is a GS-10. (A GS-10 in Pittsburgh makes $58,209.)

You might suspect that this is because there are more senior jobs in D.C., but you’d be dead wrong. There are more highly graded jobs in Washington, but the pay level does not remotely correlate to the work many civil servants are actually doing (this cuts both ways, and I’ll get into that in another post).

I would bet my life that the average GS-10 in Pittsburgh works far harder than the average GS-12 in Washington. I looked at federal jobs daily in Washington and in Chicago for over a year: the Chicago jobs overwhelmingly had more responsibility at lower pay grades. My year-long job search led me to conclude that there is significant grade inflation in the D.C. area.

Let me give two anecdotal examples of grade inflation:

I worked at an agency’s headquarters in Washington, and interviewed last year for a job at their field office in south Chicago. The contrast between the field office and HQ in DC could not be starker: my position here would have been a GS-5 with more responsibility than I had as a GS-11 in DC, and the hiring manager was a GS-13 with over 300 employees across two states in his chain of command. There are managers in Chicago that are a GS-7. I can’t begin to count the number of useless, nonsupervisory GS-12s back at headquarters. (You don’t have to take my word for it that managers in the government are rarely held accountable: there are tons of federal employee surveys that you can review at your leisure.)

My job search left me with the impression that federal employees in Chicago were more competent, despite having significantly lower salaries than their counterparts in Washington. This impression is supported by the personal experience of another family member who works regularly with regional employees from the Department of Transportation. This family member has said many times (and I’ve heard it repeated by their professional peers) that the caliber of employees in the midwest regional offices was much higher, and that the D.C.-based employees were generally incompetent (and especially so in comparison to the midwest-based employees). Of course, the ones in D.C. were being paid more for similar work.

Here’s another fun anecdote about overpaid employees. A friend writes:

I was a GS-11 working at an *agency* and was essentially a secretary. No real big responsibility, non-supervisory, etc. I worked in a marketing office with roughly 14 employees. They were ALL GS-14s, many of them in their 20s. Non-supervisory, not super significant. The 14 was just something you got if you stayed for a few years.

The managers were all GS-15s and the managers above them were all SES. When I took my current job I took a downgrade to a GS-9…I am now an assistant director with a TON of high level responsibilities. My director is a GS-11. Supervisory.

Some managers are GS-12s (there’s only one for each facility) and they are so fancy that we call them Mr. and Mrs.

There is a GS-14 (ONE of them on the whole entire base, the largest military base in the region) and he is the deputy director of the whole base. This is mind-boggling to me.

In short, while I would love to have my cushy GS-11 that would have eventually led to a 14 without much effort, it just didn’t feel right. And I would be happy to see some of these jobs move out of DC…the government needs a broader pool.

My friend is right: these jobs should be relocated. The rest of the country has never recovered from the recession, while D.C. has continued to boom. Compensation in the federal sector is completely divorced from prevailing wages in the private sector in the region. And compensation in the civil service in Washington is divorced from the compensation civil servants receive in other geographic locations.

Here’s the visual proof:

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These two lines would almost certainly be closer together if D.C. salaries were excluded.

Not one journalist reporting on this issue has ever made a compelling argument that there is a benefit to taxpayers from having these jobs in Washington, which forces me to ask the obvious question: Why should the economic benefit of these jobs be concentrated in one of the most affluent parts of the country?

And, a bigger question: why should D.C. remain uniquely insulated from our country’s economic downturn simply by virtue of its status as a historical federal employment center?

In my opinion, the culture in Washington (and the overpayment of civil servants there is a symptom, not the cause) means that continuing to locate these jobs there is a detriment to taxpayers.

Seriously, D.C.’s culture is messed up.

It’s unfortunate that an honest criticism of the culture in Washington is missing from the discourse. I hope my blog can do its small part to shed light on the culture I left. I love living in the Midwest, and I think more jobs should move here, both for the obvious climate and logistical advantages, but also because D.C. is objectively bad and working in that kind of institutional culture damages people on a deep and fundamental level that is rarely discussed.

In my experience, the average professional in Washington is simply not as skilled as the average professional in Chicago, because most people haven’t ever had to truly work (much less work in a functional or high-performing organization). This isn’t just limited to the federal government: it was also clear in my last area of work (public libraries). The District of Columbia Public Library system is swimming in money, but my former employer (Prince George’s County Memorial Library System) consistently delivered better and more innovative services with a fraction of the budget.  So does the tiny one-branch library in my 22,000-person Chicago suburb.

I have examples from my husband’s line of work, too. If you look at the District of Columbia government’s budget for road maintenance, and consider the temperate weather there, you’d would quite reasonably expect the District to have the nicest roads in the country. It doesn’t.

There are roads in Southeast D.C. that are worse than the roads in my broke-ass town in the Chicago Southland. The fact that no one in the District is embarrassed about their failure to deliver basic services via a transportation department with one of the highest budgets in the country just goes to show how broken the city truly is. (Of course, roads in Virginia, where taxes are lower, are much better. It’s almost like having infinite fake money makes bureacracies worse…)

Culture matters, and Washington’s is terrible.

In my opinion, Amazon made a big mistake in choosing a market where they’re going to overpay for people who are used to working in less-than-challenging conditions. Working for a bad boss and not having enough work to do can really mess you up. If I had stayed in Washington any longer, I surely would not have been able to recover my wits. I escaped a year ago, and I’m still not as sharp as I was before I started working for the government.

We all pay the price when a generation of civil servants rots because they work in a fundamentally broken place.

Our government should move these USDA jobs to Kansas City. It should probably move many more jobs away from Washington.

And it should move them to the Midwest.

People in the Midwest are used to working harder for less money: we’re a bargain for taxpayers. We have great universities. Our cities are underpopulated, have tremendous infrastructure, and have baked-in climate resilience.

Give us those sweet federal jobs.

We need them.

In my next post:

I’ll explain career ladders, how federal hiring is terrible, and more (including a brief history of the idea of moving government jobs out of Washington, which predates the current administration). At some point, I’ll also respond to some of the frequent criticism lobbed at these plans, and engage specifically with the matter of the climate scientists whose jobs are moving to Kansas City.

Thanks for reading!

One Comment

  1. mhj

    Wonderful post!!

    It has been common knowledge for a long time that USG jobs in DC are about 20% overpaid, even allowing for high cost of living. It’s theh gravy train that never runs out of gravy.

    fwiw, back in the 1990s the (inequitable) difference in grades and responsibilities between DC and the regional offices was already quite notorious, and it sounds like it has only gotten worse.

    I also think that back then I was too hasty to criticize Robert Byrd for trying to get every federal office that wasn’t nailed own to relocate to West Virginia. Whatever his motives, better in WV than DC.

    And as we are more and more conducting workflow electronically rather than physically, all the more so.

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