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Opinions About Government & Motivations for Working in the Public Sector

Opinions About Government & Motivations for Working in the Public Sector

To obtain a baseline understanding of government employees, a few initial questions were asked about what motivated survey respondents to seek government employment in the first place, as well as how they perceived government as an employer or institution. A slight majority (55%) of government employees have a somewhat favorable opinion of the government as an employer or institution. Millennials are much more likely to hold this opinion (Y- 60%↑, X-55%↓, B-52%↓).

Good benefits (53%), job security (49%) and pensions (40%) top the list of factors that motivated the employees from the 10 organizations surveyed to seek careers in the public sector. Respondents could select three answers to this questions, and at least 4 out of 10 professionals cited the top three factors. In general, these factors were much more influential in motivating baby boomers than Gen Xers or millennials to seek jobs with the public sector.

Work-life balance and a desire to make a difference in their community are more influential in steering members of Generation X and millennial professionals toward careers in the public sector. In the same vein of community- mindedness, Generation X professionals are much more influenced to work in the public sector by the potential to make a difference in people’s lives.

Not surprisingly, given their career stage, millennials are more influenced to seek jobs in the public sector because they perceive taking such work to be an opportunity to learn and grow.


After indicating why they pursued government employment and how they felt about their government organization, survey respondents answered a few questions about their hiring experience.

A little more than one-third of government employees said they became aware of the job they currently hold through a friend, colleague or family member (37%). Another one-fifth of survey respondents cited their public sector organization’s website (21%). Having more working years and professional contacts, members of Generation X and baby boomers were much more likely to indicate becoming aware of their job through a friend, colleague or family member. Gen X employees and millennials were more likely than baby boomers to report that they found their job through their public sector organization’s website.

Employees who provided responses other than ones listed on the survey cited a temp agency, an internal job posting and “by appointment.”

Reflecting on the hiring process at their current organization, the greatest number of respondents estimated that it took two to three months to get hired. Overall, government employees’ views on this were mixed, with 47% characterizing the length of the hiring process as too long and another 44% characterizing it as just right. “Too long” was how millennials (55%) and Generation X (47%) typically characterized their time-to-hire. Among baby boomers, 42% said their hiring took too long. Millennials were significantly less likely to say that the length of the hiring process was just right (Y-38%↓, X-46%↑, B-47%↑).

The government employees surveyed are relatively loyal to their public sector organizations. A little less than a quarter (21%) have looked for a comparable job in the private sector over the past two to three years. As a cohort, millennials are much more inclined to have sought out private sector employment (Y-34%↑, X-19%↓, B-11%↓) in recent years.

Government workers who reported looking for similar jobs in the private sector as recently as three years ago were asked a few additional questions about hiring processes in both sectors. The largest proportion of these employees (41%) pointed out that the government application process was more cumbersome than the one used in the private sector; interestingly, 5% of respondents said the private sector hiring process was more cumbersome. Additionally, according to these government employees, a private sector employer was far more likely to afford them the opportunity to negotiate their salary (53%) than was their public sector employer. Just 4% of respondents reported the opposite.

Strengths of organizations in both sectors when it came to recruiting and hiring included the ability to answer questions throughout the hiring process (76%) and during interviews (83%).

Statement Agreed With

Public Sector n=729

Private Sector n=729

Both Private and Public Sector n=729

Neither n=729

Application process was cumbersome





Provided feedback on my application status in a timely manner, even if the employer did not plan to interview me





Provided me with a sense of the organization’s culture, benefits and the environment that I would work in prior to my acceptance





Provided me with a timeline for when I would hear back after the interview





Answered my questions during the interview process





Answered my questions during the hiring process





Had flexibility to negotiate my salary





Asked to select the top three features that their current public sector organization should emphasize to attract new employees from their same generational cohort, survey respondents most often chose “medical benefits” (51%), “Pension” (41%) and “job security” (38%).

All three generations reported with similar incidence emphasizing, job security, stock market based retirement programs with employer match (e.g., 401k) and training opportunities, when recruiting employees from their generation.

Ambitious millennials, new to the working world, were much more likely to suggest emphasizing the government’s opportunities for advancement and any leadership/mentorship programs that might exist. Millennials are much less concerned about the medical benefits provided by the organization, unlike Generation X and baby boomers. Pensions are also much less important to emphasize, when recruiting millennials, than Generation X and baby boomers. Millennials value work-life balance and value leave (e.g., maternity, vacation, sick, sabbatical) to the same extent as Generation X. However, unlike Generation X, millennials are much more interested in alternative work schedules (e.g., compressed workweek, ability to telecommute, etc.).

The greatest proportion of public servants rated the public sector hiring experience as neutral to easy (69%).

Asked how the public sector hiring experience could be improved, government employees mostly indicated that the process needs to be shortened. Many commented that the process can take six months or longer.

Several survey respondents provided solutions for shortening the hiring process, or at least making it more palatable for candidates. A few commented that hiring could be decentralized by allowing departments to post job advertisements and interview candidates themselves instead of relying on the human resources department, which can create a bottleneck. Relatedly, employees suggested having hiring decisions made by lower-level employees instead of always at the director level, allowing for more than a few interview slots, and making the process move more quickly by better accommodating candidates.

Regarding two-way communication during recruiting and hiring, survey respondents suggested that human resources should make sure that the job has been budgeted for and that there is not a hiring freeze before any candidates are interviewed. This will undoubtedly help alleviate candidates’ frustration. Also, according to employees, candidates should be presented with a timeline of how long the hiring process will take, updates on where they are in the process and notice of when they will likely hear back from the organization. Several commented that as candidates, they would have preferred receiving updates on their status directly from a human being instead of via automatically generated emails.

The government hiring process can be quite lengthy, requiring multiple background checks, credit checks, reference checks, drug testing and, for some jobs, even polygraph tests. Another common complaint regarding the hiring process in the public sector is that job descriptions need to be more thorough and transparent. Two quotes from survey respondents that typify this sentiment are

  • “There is a need for clearer work expectations, as not until I was hired was I told that I would have to work every weekend.”
  • “Agency could be much more precise in job description, answering questions during the interview process about what a typical day is like and letting me know about what exactly ‘potential travel’ means.”

There is some belief that civil service exams should be phased out. Employees commented that jobs should be provided based on education and experience, not on test scores. Several also commented that scores on tests do not necessarily equate to good performance.

If civil service exams and lengthy, centralized hiring processes are to remain in place, many feel that the process needs to be made more transparent and more efficient through the use of technology. For example, test scores should be posted online instead of mailed. Additionally, all job vacancies and application materials should also be posted online, according to some survey respondents.

Workplace Structure and Organization