Looking Into Public and Community Services
THE GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC SERVICES, CAREERS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR, TRENDS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR
Public and community services date back to the colonial era, when settlements took responsibility for the welfare of poor people and established public schools to ensure that all children could read the Bible. In some areas, they financed these efforts by collecting taxes from residents. Despite this support of public services, however, colonial citizens resisted government intervention in their lives. One of the major issues leading to the Declaration of Independence was the colonists' objection to paying taxes to Great Britain without being represented in Parliament, which decided how tax revenues would be spent. Once the citizens of the thirteen colonies had won their independence, they had no desire to give it up to another distant government.
This skepticism about governments—federal, state, and local—continues today. Americans count on public institutions and agencies to assist citizens who are vulnerable, to deliver mail, to educate their children, and to handle a wide range of crises, from quelling riots to cleaning up tornado-ravaged communities. At the same time they distrust governments and even those who do their governments's work. They watch carefully for excessive limits on their freedom and inappropriate or unnecessary taxing and spending. Increasingly, they comparison shop for alternatives to public sector services.
THE GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC SERVICES
To protect against a too-powerful central government, the founders of the nation specifically limited its powers (and, as a result, the number of government workers). It could exercise authority over
those matters that were of interest to all states: national defense, diplomacy, coining and borrowing money, and regulating commerce between states. The states retained control over any matters not expressly delegated to the federal government, including transportation within each state, matters of marriage and divorce, and public education. Private groups, religious organizations, or individual families took care of welfare and public assistance for those in need.
The Civil War brought significant changes, including the decline of rural America. Cities grew rapidly as Americans moved away from farms and waves of immigrants poured into the country. Problems that were once handled privately were magnified in concentrated urban populations. When poverty and disease became more visible, responsibility for addressing them was gradually assumed by local governments.
As many of these problems outgrew local resources, the federal government became involved. Its ability to help, however, was limited by its ability to raise the money to pay federal employees. It was not until 1913, when the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution instituted a federal income tax, that the federal government was able to generate enough revenue to expand its services and its workforce.
The Establishment of the Civil Service System
In the early years of the federal government, jobs were usually apportioned according to the "spoils system," which allowed newly elected officials to give jobs to their friends and political allies—after dismissing the previous officeholders' appointees. The system satisfied those who got jobs and rewarded their friendships and political activities, but it failed to recognize the need for continuity of services and for qualified, trained government employees.
The abuses of the system became so serious that, in 1883, Congress established a civil service commission to administer competitive examinations to job applicants. Several states also passed civil service laws and began to fill jobs through similar tests. While the law has been adapted over the years, its basic premise generally holds: merit and suitability are the criteria for public employment.
An Explosion of Public Service Employment
No single event affected public sector employment more than the Great Depression of the 1930s. Because of record unemployment and devastating poverty, the federal government hired people because they needed jobs, not just because citizens needed services. Federal employees built roads and post offices and developed programs to conserve soil and water. Some painted murals on public buildings, while others wrote travel guides. Because federal revenues fell during the Great Depression, the government had to borrow money to pay these employees. In the past, it had gone into debt to pay for wars, but it had never used borrowed money to offset economic recession. Deficit spending in such extraordinary circumstances, it was believed, would help fuel the economy. Repaying the debt would be less burdensome when the economy improved.
However, deficit spending became an enduring feature of economic policy. It has been used regularly to bolster the economy during recessions and to engineer social change—lifting citizens out of poverty, for example. Just as regularly it has caused rancorous debate, with both politicians and taxpayers decrying governments' spendthrift ways. Debaters have called for "reinventing" and "reengineering" government to make it more cost-effective and responsive to citizens. They have argued about "downsizing," especially at the federal level, and "decentralizing," or moving the center of government away from Washington, DC. At times they have called on religious and community groups, volunteers, and families to take more responsibility for community services such as care of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.
Some of the debate has led to successful cutbacks. But usually politicians have come up with new projects they believed their constituents might need or, at least, might remember in the voting booth. Any initiatives—either to cut back government employment or to expand it—can affect the types and numbers of public service jobs available.
CAREERS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR
Many occupations in the public sector are also found in the private sector: engineer, health practitioner, computer technician, accountant, mechanic, and construction trade worker. Some occupations, such as legislator, revenue agent, city planner, and drill sergeant, are only found in the public sector.
Even when the jobs are similar, however, public and community service employment differs in several philosophical ways. First, private companies usually gauge success by the profits earned. Public agencies, by contrast, are more apt to measure it according to the results achieved. For example, when students buy computers, the corporations that sell those computers make money. When those same students learn to use computers in public schools, their teachers have succeeded. Second, public services are more likely than private ventures to be created in response to specific conditions or needs. Companies may develop vaccines because they are needed (and because they make money), but the public sector organizes immunization programs during flu epidemics. The government focuses on the benefits to the entire population when everyone is protected.
A third difference is accountability, workers' obligation to answer to others about job performance. Private sector workers are accountable to their managers who, in turn, answer to stockholders. In most cases, stockholders want to ensure some kind of return on their investments. In the public sector, employees answer to administrators, who report to the elected officials overseeing their agencies. Taxpayers, whose money pays the bills, may not like the way the operations are run. They are usually eager to complain about their officeholders on election day.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government employed more than 2.5 million civilian workers in 2004. About three percent work in the legislative and judicial branches. The other ninety-seven percent work in the executive branch, which includes fourteen cabinet departments and more than ninety agencies. Two out of three federal workers have white-collar jobs, with systems analysts and computer scientists forming the largest occupational group. Although most federal departments and agencies are headquartered in Washington, DC, only fourteen percent of federal employees work in or near the nation's capital. About ninety percent of federal government employees fall under the jurisdiction of civil service laws. The remaining ten percent are mostly top-level appointees.
Individuals seeking employment with the federal government generally must take written, oral, or performance examinations related to their occupational fields. If they pass the examinations, their names are placed on waiting lists according to their scores. When vacancies occur, hiring agents may select any of the three highest-rated people on the lists. For many jobs, however, the hiring agents simply evaluate applicants on the basis of their education, training, and experience in the occupation.
The civil service system has a number of pay plans for various types of work. The General Pay Schedule, for example, covers most white-collar employees,
while the Federal Wage System covers most blue-collar employees. Each plan consists of a series of pay grades, or levels, and a range of salary steps within each grade. Workers usually enter the system at the starting grade for their occupation. Their work is regularly evaluated, and if it is satisfactory, they advance to the next salary step.
In 2005 there were 2.6 million people serving in the armed services. Defending the nation in times of conflict and deterring aggression are the missions of the armed services, which include the U.S. Army (land based), the U.S. Air Force (air and space), the U.S. Navy (sea), the U.S. Marine Corps (a branch of the navy that defends against land invasions), and the U.S. Coast Guard (which enforces federal maritime laws, recovers distressed vessels and aircraft, and prevents smuggling).
Armed services personnel have a wide range of duties, including some not usually associated with the military, such as operating hospitals and programming computers. The military offers about three thousand basic and advanced occupations for enlisted personnel and about one thousand six hundred positions for officers. Although about thirty percent of these specialties are specific to the military, the remainder have civilian counterparts. Job training is perhaps the most attractive benefit for those who enter the armed services.
State and Local Government
More than 2.4 million people work in state government, and nearly 5 million others are employed in local jurisdictions (excluding education and hospitals). State governments hire more workers in managerial, administrative support, and professional occupations than do local governments. Local governments employ more workers in service occupations, such as firefighters, police officers, and sanitation workers.
Working for state and local governments is much like working for the federal government. Employees work under a merit system and advance according to set procedures and schedules, as long as they work competently. In some government positions promotions are based on seniority as well as job performance. Unlike federal employees, however, most state and local employees have the right to negotiate their wages through collective bargaining.
In 2004 more than 6.1 million jobs existed for teachers from preschool to colleges and universities. Other jobs in education include clerical and administrative workers, school librarians, social workers, health-related specialists, and counselors.
Elementary and Secondary Education
Nearly 3.8 million teachers are employed at the elementary and secondary levels. More than eight of ten jobs are in the public school systems. They introduce children to learning and teach them reading, writing, geometry, even social skills. Because of their broad mission, teachers hold some of the most scrutinized jobs in the public sector. Parents, who work closely with teachers, and employers, who hire graduates of the school system, regularly complain that students are not being prepared properly. Taxpayers worry that their tax dollars are being squandered.
Many improvements have been debated or implemented over the years. Voucher programs, for instance, introduced competition into the schools. They allowed parents to apply their child's "share" of a district's funding to the school of their choice. They may select a school because of its overall academic reputation; its specialization, such as the arts; or its facilities, such as the newest computer labs. Charter schools, another option, were based on the premise that bureaucracy burdens schools and teachers and prevents them from being creative and effective. Charter schools are generally autonomous public schools that receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional schools but operate independently of school district and labor union regulations. In return for this autonomy, charter schools are expected to achieve better results.
Perhaps the most hotly debated recent effort has been the congressional mandate that ties funding for schools to students' performance on standardized achievement tests. While opponents argue that students are now being taught to take the tests, rather than prepare for their own futures, the program has had an important effect on teachers: in the past, school districts tended to hire recent graduates because they were cheaper to employ; now many administrators do what they can to retain or hire the most innovative teachers, especially those with plenty of classroom experience. New incentives, such as additional pay and tuition reimbursement, have been put in place so teachers keep their own skills current and comprehensive.
About 1.6 million teachers are employed at colleges and universities in the United States, instructing more than 14 million full-time and part-time students and conducting a significant amount of the nation's research. Nearly a third of their students are over age thirty and have returned to college to start new careers, to retrain so they can keep their jobs, or to qualify for advanced positions.
Vocational and Adult Education
About five hundred thousand teachers are employed in vocational education and in community-based adult education programs. They prepare students for a variety of occupations that do not require college degrees, such as welder, machinist, mechanic, cosmetologist, and word processor. Adult education programs, which are usually run by local school districts, offer such diverse courses as reading, writing, mathematics, cooking, aerobics, investing, and dog training.
About five hundred sixty-two thousand jobs exist in the broad field of social work, nearly forty percent of them in the public sector. Careers in social work, or human services, involve helping people cope with a wide range of problems, either through direct counseling or by referring them to specialists or placing them in assistance programs.
Sometimes social workers help the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged obtain food, shelter, and clothing; at other times they provide social rehabilitation, crisis intervention, and life-skills training. Some social workers specialize. Medical social workers, for example, help patients and their families cope with catastrophic illness. School social workers counsel troubled children and help integrate children with disabilities into the general school population. Others have found work in the corporate sector. Businesses employ them to ensure compliance with regulations that require accessible facilities or to manage employee assistance programs, such as substance-abuse counseling.
Of the seven hundred thirty-four thousand lawyers in the United States today, about twenty percent hold government positions. A majority of them work at the local level. In the federal government, most jobs for lawyers are in the departments of Justice, Treasury, and Defense.
Some administrative and managerial jobs in law do not require legal training, although can be an asset. For example, to handle litigation more quickly and inexpensively, agencies are relying more on paralegal aides and legal assistants. Numbering two hundred twenty-four thousand, paralegal aides and legal assistants research law cases, prepare documents, and perform other legal work previously done by higher-priced lawyers.
Workers in the field of protective services seek to safeguard people and property. These workers include about seven hundred twelve thousand police officers, detectives, and special agents; more than four hundred eighty-four thousand corrections officers; and more than three hundred fifty-three thousand firefighters. These numbers do not include volunteer firefighters, who number in the hundreds of thousands. While most police officers and firefighters are employed by local governments, the majority of correctional officers are employed at state prisons, prison camps, and reformatories. In the past the job of correctional officer consisted of enforcing the rules of the institution. More and more, however, correctional officers are assisting with inmates' rehabilitation by serving as informal counselors and by reinforcing remedial training.
TRENDS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR
At a time when the need for public services is increasing, the resources to provide those services are decreasing. Public servants at all levels of government
are searching for ways to perform their work more economically and efficiently. Teamwork and collaboration are becoming more common as personnel from different agencies and different levels or branches of public service find they have similar problems.
Privatization and Competition
In the United States privatization means contracting with for-profit businesses to deliver publicly funded services. A city sanitation department, for example, might replace its refuse collectors with a private company that guarantees more economical and efficient trash removal.
In some areas, private companies have always been hired to provide services or goods that governments were unable to supply. For instance, the federal government hires private contractors to make weapons and build highways. Local school boards contract cafeteria and busing services. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, governments began privatizing services traditionally managed by public sector employees, such as wastewater treatment plants, motor vehicle inspection stations, and correctional facilities. School boards in Maryland and Massachusetts have even turned poorly performing public schools over to private education companies.
As might be expected, unions representing public sector employees fight efforts to privatize their jobs. Even those outside the workforce fear that this trend will revive the spoils system if it is misused to reassign civil service jobs to entrepreneurs who are political allies of and campaign contributors to government officeholders.
The premise behind privatization is that business is more efficient than government. However, private companies that have a monopoly on a service or that operate without adequate government supervision can also be inefficient. Consequently, government policy is shifting from privatization to "managed competition," which requires that more than one company must be available to bid on a contract. Workers in the public sector are allowed to bid against private companies. For example, when the city of Indianapolis put the job of filling potholes up for bids, employees of the public works department figured out how they could do the job more economically than private companies and kept the task in the public sector.
The public sector lags behind the private sector in adopting Information Age technology. Even so, government at all levels now uses new electronic media for better delivery of public services.
Electronic Pathways to Government
Federal, state, and local governments are using computer bulletin boards to provide quick, convenient access to information and to facilitate communication. From the comfort of their homes, citizens with computers and Internet connections can obtain the latest census statistics, read summaries of bills before the state legislature, send e-mail to the mayor, and access the card catalog at the local library. In some areas governments have installed interactive kiosks in shopping malls, grocery stores, and other central locations to provide information about city services, employment opportunities, and unemployment benefits. Some kiosks dispense marriage licenses and other government forms.
Saving Time and Money
The public sector is taking advantage of new technology to cut expenses and speed up services. For example, most Departments of Motor Vehicles allow drivers to renew their licenses online. Because of the time saved, clerks can spend more time on other tasks. The Social Security Administration uses electronic technology to deposit benefits directly into retirees' bank accounts, eliminating costly paper checks. The U.S. Postal Service handles more than fifty percent of all mail at least in part through automation, resulting in enormous cost savings. Electronic mail sorting, for example, costs only a fourth as much as sorting mail by hand. Increased automation may eliminate more than forty thousand postal jobs by 2008.
A growing trend in the public sector is to regard recipients of community services as customers and to approach them with courtesy, efficiency, and know-how. Many agencies provide mandatory training in customer service.
The customer-service approach is having its most noticeable effect in the delivery of human services, where many people qualify for more than one type of aid and the system is fragmented and confusing. For instance, an elderly blind woman with medical problems may find that the resources she needs lie within four or five different agencies or departments. She must shuttle from office to office—often in different towns or even different counties—and submit to repetitive questions. After all that, she may still not receive complete assistance. Responding to clients' frustration, government officials in many areas have installed "one-stop shopping." Services such as Medicaid, employment counseling, and welfare benefits may be grouped together in an accessible location, or clients may be assigned one social worker to negotiate various branches of the system.
Plastic for Paper
Some agencies issue plastic cards to welfare recipients, which they can use to pay for food or to obtain cash. Similar to bank debit cards, the cards are more secure, convenient, and efficient than paper checks and food stamp coupons.
To help pay their bills many localities are now turning to "government marketing," which takes several forms. A government unit might operate a store or a mail-order catalog that sells merchandise to the public. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, for example, grossed about $20,000 per month in the mid-1990s through sales of key chains, coffee mugs, towels, and other merchandise. Other agencies sell advertising space on public property such as trash barrels and bicycle racks at city parks. While transit departments have long sold advertising space on buses, they now offer advertisers the entire vehicle—from headlights to taillights and from roof to road—for their "body-wrap" ads. Advertisers also donate uniforms, automobiles and vans, and other equipment—all of which bear companies' names and logos.
Some government units sell their services for profit. For example, a fire department might run ambulances—driven by firefighters—for a fee. The U.S. Department of Energy signed a contract with factories along the Mexican border to consult on pollution control.
OTHER AVENUES TO PUBLIC AND COMMUNITY SERVICES
In addition to government entities, nonprofit agencies, corporations, and volunteer organizations offer opportunities for public service.
About twenty-three thousand private, nonprofit service organizations exist at the national level, and many more exist at state, county, and community levels. They operate prenatal clinics, food banks, shelters for battered women and the homeless, hospices for people with AIDS, counseling centers for troubled youth, and many other programs. Federal, state, and local governments contract extensively with nonprofit agencies to provide key services. Religious and fraternal organizations also sponsor many social service organizations.
Many large companies have community service or public affairs divisions that direct corporate philanthropy. They donate funds or goods, such as surplus merchandise or used office equipment, to events and projects in their communities, as well as the services of executives to run civic or charitable projects. Sometimes they give their employees time off to participate in community activities or match their employees' charitable donations. Banks and other financial institutions may look for ways to invest money and other corporate resources in the community. These efforts are driven by a desire to build good public relations and the realization that a healthy community is good for business.
More and more corporations work with public and private community organizations to revive neighborhoods, improve schools, and curb violence. A good example is the Atlanta Project, launched by former president Jimmy Carter, which divided the city of Atlanta into twenty clusters and assigned a corporation to each. Residents of each cluster and corporate employees work together to try to solve problems related to housing, public safety, health, and education.
Nonprofit agencies, religious groups, and other community organizations offer opportunities for volunteers to perform public service. For example, volunteers are needed to construct low-income housing, clean up polluted areas, patrol neighborhoods, serve as companions to neighbors who are elderly or disabled, be mentors for disadvantaged youths, and deliver meals to the homebound. Although volunteers usually receive no pay for their work, they learn skills that may be useful in future careers.
Government programs such as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and Job Corps also offer many opportunities. Some government programs provide financial assistance, health care, or other benefits. AmeriCorps, a national service program established in 1993, repays community service with grants for college tuition.
WHY PUBLIC SERVICE?
Although employment, job security, and benefits have become more variable in recent years, public service careers have not lost their main appeal: they present opportunities to individuals who want to make a difference in the quality of people's lives. Employees become a network of people who provide services their communities require.
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