I have been stewing about this post on r/sysadmin, Is apathy a problem in most government IT teams?, for a while and felt like it was worth a quick write-up since most of my short IT career has been spent in the public sector.
First off, apathy and team dysfunction is a problem everywhere. There is nothing unique about government employees versus private employees in that respect. What I think the poster is really asking is, “Is there something about government IT that produces apathetic teams?” and if you read a little deeper it seems like apathy really means “permanent discouragement”; that is to say, the condition where change, “doing things right or better”, greater efficiency are or seemly are impossible. When you read something like, “…trying to make things more efficient is met with reactions like ‘oh you naive boy’ and finger pointing,” it is hard to think of just plain old vanilla apathy.
Government is not a business (despite what some people think). Programs operate at a loss, are subsidized in many cases entirely, by taxes because the public and/or their representatives deems those programs worthy. The failure mechanism of market competition doesn’t exist. Incredibly effective programs can be cancelled because they are no longer politically favorable and incredibly ineffective programs can continue or expand because they have political support. Furthermore, in all things public servants need to remain impartial, unbiased and above impropriety. This leads to vast and byzantine processes, the components of which singularly make imminent good sense (for example, the prohibition of no-bid contracts) but collectively all these well-intentioned barnacles slow the ship-of-state dramatically. Success is not rewarded with growth either. Implementing a more efficient process, a more cost effective infrastructure and saving money generally results in less money. This tendency of budget reduction (“Hey, if you saved it, you did not need it to begin with, right?”) turns highly functioning teams into disasters overtime as they lose resources. Paradoxically, the better you are at utilizing your existing resources, the less you get. Finally, your entire leadership changes with every administration change. You may still be shoveling coal down in the engine room, but the new skipper just sent down word to reduce steam and come about hard in order to head in the opposite direction. Generally private companies that do this kind of thing, with this frequency, do not last long.
How does all this apply to Information Technology? It means that your organization will move very, very slow and technology moves very, very fast. Not a good combo.
Those are the challenges that a team faces but what about the other half of the equation… the people facing them?
Job classes are just one small part of this picture but they are emblematic of some of the challenges that face team leads and managers when dealing with the ‘People’, piece of People, Process and Technology (ITIL buzzword detected! +5 points). The idea of job classes is that across the organization people doing similar work should be paid the same. The problem lies in that updating a job class is beyond onerous and the time to completion is measured in years. Do you know how quickly Information Technology reinvents itself? Really quick. This means that job classes and their associated salaries tend to drift away from the actual on-the-ground work being done and the appropriate compensation level over time, making recruitment of new staff and retention of your best staff very difficult (The Dead Sea Effect). If you combine this with a lack of training and professional development, staff has a tendency to get pigeon-holed into a particular role without a clear promotion path. Furthermore, many of the job class series are disjointed in such a way as working at the top of one job series will not meet the prerequisites for another job series, making advancement difficult, and at least on paper sometimes impossible. For example: you could work as a Lead Programmer for three years leading a team of five people and not qualify, at least on paper, for an entry level IT Manager position.
How does all this apply to Information Technology? People get stuck doing one job, for too long, with no professional training or mentorship. Their skillsets decline towards obsolescence and they become frustrated and discouraged.
I have never met anyone in the public sector that just straight up did not give a crap. I have met people that feel stuck, discouraged, marginalized and ignored. And rightly so. Getting stuff done is very hard. It is like everyone has one ingredient necessary to make a cake, and you all more, or less, agree on the recipe. You are all trained and experienced bakers. You can easily make a cake but you each have 100 pieces of paperwork you have to fill out and wait on, sometimes for months, before you can do your part of the cake-baking process. You have 10 different bosses, each telling you to make a different desert when you know that cakes are by far the best desert for your particular bakery. Then you get yelled at for not making a cake in a timely manner, and then you all fired and replaced by food service contractors whose parent company charges an exorbitant hourly rate. But hey, the public eventually got their cake right? Or at least a donut. Not exactly what they ordered but better than nothing … right?
If IT is a thankless job (and I am not sure I agree with that piece of Sysadmin mythology), then Public Sector IT is even more thankless. You will face a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. You will likely be very underpaid and have a difficult time seeking promotion. You will never be able to accept a vendor-provided gift or meal over the price of $25. You will laugh when people ask if you plan on attending VMworld. The public will stereotype you as lazy, ineffective and overpaid. But you will preserve. You have a duty to the body politic to do your best with what you have. You will keep the lights on, you will keep the ship afloat even as more and more water pours in. You have to. Because that’s what Systems Administrators do.
And all you wanted was to simply make a cake.