I spent a little over three years working in the federal government as a software engineer on an intervention team. I learned a lot in that time, and wanted to share one opinion that I came away with, and explain how I got there.
The audience of this post is not people in civic tech (government or non profit style work), but rather people who are less familiar with these ideas. I believe that the scope of what civic tech can accomplish is defined by political realities and public perception, so I’ve been thinking a lot more about those things recently.
Part 1: Being A Government Employee Doesn’t Pay Well
As of this writing, $146,757.00 is the top pay step at the maximum government pay schedule. According to that site, that’s a pay rate usually reserved for people at the Ph.D level. Contrast that with Facebook, where the entry level salary is $184K. Looking for something a little closer to government work, we can find a contractor position that pays $197,641 to $237,169, and allows you to work and live wherever you want.
Part 2: Government Software Is Mostly Contracted Out
I’m not sure how commonly known the phrase “Beltway Bandits” is outside DC. It’s used to describe the private companies that provide consulting services to the Federal Government, playing on the “Capital Beltway”, the ring road around DC. I mostly just think it’s an amusing term, but I also think it’s a good window into the dynamics of federal contracting.
To give a sense of the scale of this, in 2022 the Department of Defense plans to award 9 billion in cloud contracts. In trying to find out how that relates to total spending, I found this exciting website, full of ads for how to win government contracts, that reports 2022 IT spending at $20.2 billion. This site says that the DoD spent about $46 billion on personnel in 2017 (it’s older data, but I’m just trying to get the right order of magnitude), so that’s 1/5 the total salary of all federal DoD employees, just on cloud contracts.
I’m only using the DoD because the fact that the U.S. spends crazy amounts of money on defense makes for the flashiest news articles, but the dynamics and order of magnitude dollar amounts are similar for other agencies.
Part 3: Underpaid Employees Are Awarding Billions Of Dollars
The federal government has spent billions on information technology projects that failed or have performed poorly. These efforts often suffered from ineffective management. Agencies have also had cybersecurity failures affecting millions of people.
This other GAO report recommends involving Chief Information Officers in contracting. Surely, the people that the GAO is recommending to oversee how billions of dollars are spent get paid something reasonable, right? Nope. This site lists the average yearly salary around $169,548.
My Opinion: Pay Government Software Engineers More
I think we should pay Federal Software Engineers, real software engineers who know how to build things, not just competitively with market rates, but proportional to Federal IT spending. If someone is responsible for making sure that the companies recieving 9 billion dollars worth of contracts have actually heard of computers, paying millions for that position to attract the most qualified people possible seems like a good idea. Although I don’t have hard data supporting this, based on my experience I believe that this change would pay for itself on the order of weeks.
I know that this isn’t even touching on all the byzantine rules for hiring federal employees. We should fix that too of course, but let’s at least make it so that qualified people would even want to apply first. I do also want to give an honorable mention to the USDS founders. They negotiated for permission to match private sector offers, up to the max government salary mentioned above, and to bypass the hiring rules for USDS in particular. In some ways, this is a continuation of those ideas.
Maybe this all seems obvious, but I haven’t come across this proposal in the public discourse, so I wanted to put it out in the world. Thanks for reading!
For some of these sources I just did a quick search for what public data I could find, so if I got anything completely wrong (or if you would be interested in more posts), feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.