Apathetic Workers in State and Local Government Are Costing Taxpayers Billions
Policy + Politics

Apathetic Workers in State and Local Government Are Costing Taxpayers Billions


At a time when many cities and states are struggling to make ends meet, even with an improving economy, officials are constantly attempting to improve their workforce productivity in order to get more bang for the buck.

There are more than 19.2 million employees in state and local government, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And state and local governments together spent $3.7 trillion last year – or about 11 percent of gross domestic product. Much of those funds went to cover the salaries and benefits of public school teachers, policemen, firefighters, clerks and city and state government managers and officials.

Related: Fiscal Shame: Illinois Has Gone Nearly a Year Without a Budget

But as a new Gallup study indicates, many government jurisdictions are saddled with a preponderance of unhappy, indifferent and generally unproductive workers who are costing taxpayers billions of dollars in lost productivity.

Based on a nationwide survey of state and local government employees in 43 of 50 states, Gallup found that 71 percent of the work force was “disengaged” or unenthusiastic about their jobs – and unwilling or incapable of improving their output. By contrast, only 29 percent said they felt fully engaged in their work and eager to improve on the services they provide.

Considering the large share of state and local government budgets devoted to personnel, Gallup said “disengagement” is costing state and local governments up to $100 billion a year – or more than most states’ total annual budgets.

The study found what it described as “pockets of excellence” among state and local government workforces. In Mississippi, for example, researchers found that engaged workers outnumbered disengaged workers by nearly three to one. By contrast, Illinois, which has been wracked by budget and pension crises at the state and local level, and New York have about one “actively disengaged” employee for every enthusiastic and engaged worker.

Related: Illinois Is Not Alone: States Facing $1 Trillion Pension Shortfall

The report could have done a better job of defining engaged and disengaged workers and offering clues as to what might be done to improve the problem. According to the report, engaged employees “drive innovation and move their workforce forward,” while actively disengaged workers do just the opposite, costing their states millions of dollars annually while “interfering with government goals.”

There are scores of reasons why some government workers are more enthusiastic and committed to their jobs than others. Typically, they relate to the age of the workers; their length of service; salaries and bonuses, opportunities for promotion and advancement; and – most importantly -- the quality of management. 

The Partnership for Public Service, a federal government research and advocacy group, has produced surveys for years showing that employees are more productive and feel more connected to their jobs in departments and agencies that are well managed and that encourage employee initiative.

More broadly, employee disengagement across the economy costs the U.S. economy roughly $500 billion a year, which suggests that the problem is just as prevalent -- or more so -- within the private sector. But while private corporations and businesses are accountable to their investors, state and local government workers and officials are accountable to the taxpayers. And that carries with it an added obligation for government workers to excel at what they do.

Related: States Keep Using Gimmicks to ‘Balance’ Their Budgets    

The Gallup report concludes that “Leaders have the chance to more effectively help government employees understand they fit into the government’s mission, and what they can do to help the government achieve that missions faster.”