Anecdotes and assumptions

Before my brother-in-law landed a job at a federal fish hatchery in Vermont and worked his way up to assistant manager, he applied his skills at a trout farm run by an entrepreneur.

This private trout farmer was long on ideas - his goal was to find a niche market for "fingerlings," small fish that he packed in tins, sardine-like, with gourmet sauces.

The innovation was energizing at times. "It was a good way to start out," says my brother-in-law, who still dreams of running his own aquaculture operation some day.

But working at the farm could be frustrating. Often, a shortage of funds slowed progress. And my brother-in-law had, he says, "no real benefits or perks."

Nor did he have job security, a key issue as he started a family. For him, a shift to government work spelled stability. He now leaves his job every night figuring that "everything will be there in the morning."

He's probably right, at least for the near term. Still, a good many federal jobs may ultimately be dished off to private concerns as the Bush administration looks to trim spending (see story).

Tales of bureaucratic ineptitude, inefficiency, and infighting are the stuff of legend. My brother-in-law can reel off a few small examples.

But sometimes the stakes are high. Last week, reports surfaced that civilian experts now working to find banned weapons in Iraq blame their military partners for hindering that important task.

Do private firms trump federal agencies in terms of efficiency? Do government agencies hold onto workers who slow them down?

We asked our section's newest writer, Stacy Teicher, to track down a handful of people who've worked inside both camps. Some of their assessments may surprise you.

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