The anecdote sounds like prime material for a David Letterman Top 10 list of governmental inefficiency: To get a pencil at a regional office of the Army Corps of Engineers, an employee recalls having to send a request down to the storage room to check on its availability - before he could put in an order for it.
True story. But it's not the whole story.
Yes, federal employees do sometimes throw up their hands in disgust over the bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through. Yet ask them to talk about their workplaces, and many will sing praises before uttering complaints.
Often they make a conscious tradeoff - giving up higher pay they could earn in the private sector for a better quality of life: shorter and more flexible hours, more vacation, low-cost health insurance.
And for some, a job with a public mission has strong appeal. "People increasingly want to go into government because of the psychological compensation - they feel they're doing something important," says Marc Holzer, chair of the graduate department of public administration at the Newark campus of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
Job security is a big plus, too. But a lot of people have been nervous lately about whether that security will last.
The Bush administration is pushing federal agencies to put many more tasks up for competitive bids from the private sector. Up to 850,000 jobs, almost half the federal workforce, are commercial in nature and so should be subject to competition, says Trent Duffy, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget (see story, below).
However many jobs ultimately do shift to the private sector in the coming years, the debate over the administration's plan, which has spurred strong opposition from labor unions, highlights the less-than-flattering image of government as "red-tape central."
"The stereotype won't die," says Mr. Holzer. "There's always some story poking fun at bureaucracy."
How much of this reputation is deserved depends on your perspective. To get behind the generalities and the extremes on both sides of the debate, the Monitor talked with a range of people who have insiders' views of both the federal government and private companies.
Their stories help explain why 6O percent of federal employees surveyed recently said they would recommend their organization as a good place to work. (See chart.) But they also confirm that there's always room for improvement.
After 13 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, Stephen Dunbar wanted a change. It bothered him that his master's degree, engineering license, and initiative didn't yield extra recognition or pay. (Or even make it easy to requisition pencils.)
"One of the drawbacks to the government," he says, "is that there's no really good mechanism for rewarding those who consistently put in extra effort, over someone who just shows up to work every day."
Mr. Dunbar started managing software development teams for a small private company in Boston in January 2000. After being part of a government entity that employs 34,000 people nationwide, he enjoyed the way managers at his new office could communicate with its 70-person staff more directly and gather input as they made decisions.
"In government," he says, "usually a directive comes down months after it's decided what the policy is going to be."
But the camaraderie at his company began to crumble, Dunbar says, when the IT market went sour and layoffs began.
Business would pick up in spurts and new people later came on board. The face of the company changed. "In the end, it was all 20-somethings, kids fresh out of school willing to work the 50 or 60 hours I was working, or more, for less money," he says. As a father of four, those hours working after the kids went to bed and on Saturdays wore on him. "It was just ridiculous - and it was expected."
The final straw came last year after Dunbar, under the gun to meet a deadline, made his team work 80-hour weeks for a month to develop a major product.
"The day after we delivered it, they let about seven of those guys go.... I didn't see it coming," he says. "That just kills your ability to motivate anybody to put that kind of time in."
After surviving three rounds of layoffs, Dunbar didn't have to think too long about his answer when the Army Corps of Engineers office in Concord, Mass., asked if he wanted to come back.
Since making the switch in March, he's had more time with his family, and less pressure at work. "I find more people are happier," he says. "I had one guy tell me in the private sector that he didn't want to know the new people, because he wasn't sure how long they would be there."
It's also a lot easier to get a pencil now - he just takes a walk to the supply cabinet. In the years he was away, Dunbar says, "they appear to have made big strides in streamlining things."
But pay is still not linked closely to performance. "No matter what you do, you're looking at a 3-1/2, 4 percent raise every year." Many people are happy with that automatic bump in salary, but if you want recognition for extra effort, he says, "the only other way to get more than that is to get a promotion, and those are few and far between."
That may put a damper on ambition, but in most cases, it doesn't mean people become dead weight. "A small handful, maybe 10 percent or 20 percent of government employees, milk the system completely," he says. "But the other 80 percent are very committed."
Ray Lanman finally got on a one-way track into the private sector.
He worked for Amtrak for 21 years, and doesn't discount all he learned there. But he says his eight years as an executive at Herzog, a private engineering and transit company in St. Joseph, Mo., have been "most refreshing" by comparison.
"The major difference I see is less bureaucracy," says Mr. Lanman, the vice president of transit. "If you have an idea here, the president of the company sits up in the corner, and you can go talk with him about it, and he'll either say it's a good idea or not."
It was a different story at Amtrak. When it started operating commuter rail services around the country, Lanman proposed an organization to respond consistently to concerns of new customers in different regions.
"That concept got studied for a year or 18 months, then they never did do it," he says. At Herzog, "that concept would be decided upon immediately."
From where he stands, the government loses the efficiency competition. "The private sector looks at things differently. They're action-oriented, business-minded, [they] get the job done."
Seeing things from every angle is important to Carol Craig.
She used to develop cockpit computer displays for the Department of Defense. But she thought she'd be better equipped to run her own company someday if she knew what it was like to actually operate military planes. So she joined the Navy and flew for a few years before returning to civilian life in 1996.
Now her consulting firm in Virginia Beach, Va., keeps busy with government contracts. Ms. Craig loves working for herself, but she admires the government's high standards.
"Especially in the software development arena, there's a lot of documentation and structure, and I liked that," she says. "Although a lot of times government projects tend to get drawn out, I've seen more civilian software development projects fail and not meet deadlines, because they don't have standards and they don't have the processes in place to follow through."
Like Dunbar, Daniel Stenstream left the Army Corps of Engineers in Concord partly because he saw a ceiling that would be difficult to advance beyond.
"I wanted to go kind of chase the American dream, go for a little more financial reward," he says. "I was interested in being an entrepreneur."
So about four years ago he started training as a stockbroker with Edward Jones and set up an office in Wellesley. He loved the company, but spending 12 hours a day, six days a week making cold calls proved to be too much of a sacrifice. "You kind of feel like the only reason you are there is for the money," he says.
He's now been back at the Corps for a year. "I was a little more prepared this time to accept the fact that I'm never going to be rich working here," Stenstream says.
At least one aspect of the job might deserve to be the butt of jokes, he confesses with a laugh. It's a computerized reimbursement system, and in the big picture, he says, it probably has improved financial tracking. But "it's typical of what somebody would think about the government as a big bureaucratic agency that doesn't give much thought about the end-user.... We waste a lot of time on it."
Cathy Young designs Web pages for the Library of Congress in the heart of federal-job territory - Washington, D.C.
In her nearly 20-year career, she's spent only three years in the private sector. And any advantages she might have seen there vanished when she was given a pink slip.
"In the government, it's very hard to get a person out of [a job], short of, you know, doing something illegal. For me, it's the comfort of knowing you'll always have a job." As a mother, Ms. Young loves the flexibility and the vacation policy.
She's also seen some layers of bureaucracy peel away. To get approval for an idea, "you don't have to go as high. A lot of the higher-ups don't have enough time to micromanage a lot of the smaller details."
As much as she prefers working for the government, though, she's not exactly doing cartwheels.
"It's a job," she says, with an end-of-the-day sigh that workers on both sides of the public-private divide know well.
The Bush administration calls it "competitive sourcing."
To labor union leaders, it's a move to privatize government jobs.
There are 850,000 federal jobs considered commercial in nature rather than inherently governmental - everything from IT specialists to laundry workers. By Sept. 30, federal agencies have been instructed to put 15 percent of these jobs up for private-sector bids. Ultimately, President Bush's goal is to subject all of them to competition.
Private companies already bid for some of these tasks, but the rules are so cumbersome that "it often takes four years from the time an agency puts a job out for competition to the time they sign a contract," says Trent Duffy, spokesman for the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "The initiative is to make the contracting process faster, easier to understand, and more open."
From the union standpoint, this means federal workers will lose their jobs, and the government will have a harder time attracting loyal, high-quality employees once they take away the incentive of job security.
"Our primary concern is that they're in a rush to privatize federal jobs," says Randy Erwin, assistant to the director of the National Federation of Federal Employees in Washington. "They're trying to meet quotas and outsource jobs just for the sake of outsourcing them, not necessarily when it makes financial sense."
Another problem, Mr. Erwin says, is that private companies might offer low-ball bids - and once a job has been shifted from government to the private sector, it's unlikely to shift back, even if a contract ends up costing the government more.
The OMB's response is that there's no reason government agencies can't expect to win the competitions and keep those jobs in-house if they work efficiently. Mr. Duffy offers the example of a recent competition for the printing of the federal budget. The Government Printing Office won the bid by offering to do it at a price nearly 25 percent lower than it charged the OMB last year.
Some observers believe the Bush administration is overstating how many jobs could potentially be done better by the private sector.
"A lot of jobs have already been contracted out," says Marc Holzer, chair of the graduate department of public administration at the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers.
Between 1985 and 2002, the number of federal civilian employees dropped from nearly 2.3 million to 1.8 million, according to OMB records.
"I doubt that there's much in the way of fat and flab," says Mr. Holzer, who believes the administration's motives are to shift "large chunks of government" to give the private sector more opportunities to profit.
There are decades-old debates about what kinds of jobs are "inherently governmental," says Don Kettl, a professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, airport security jobs were left to the private sector.
"In the long haul," Mr. Kettl says, "we're going to be seeing more and more contracting out, but the ultimate question is, at what point is it too much - where we run the risk of undermining government's capacity to do its job?"
The OMB's revised guidelines for competitive sourcing are due out soon, but members of Congress are trying to exempt certain agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, from the requirements.
Whatever the final wording, the goal is "the best service to citizens at the best value for taxpayers," Duffy says. "We don't care who wins [the bids], and in many of these cases, the public-sector employees will win."