A New York-based firm that specializes in human capital issues, Sirota Consulting, conducted the survey of pay satisfaction for employees between 2001 and 2003. It was conducted for government employees at all levels, and specific data on federal workers was not available.
Overall, it found that 58 percent of government employees are satisfied with their pay as opposed to 44 percent in the private sector. At the executive level, 61 percent of government employees were satisfied, and only 53 percent in the private sector are.
The survey found that 58 percent of government managers or supervisors were happy with their pay level, while 50 percent of supervisors at private companies reported being satisfied.
Sirota found that the most significant satisfaction gap was in nonmanagement. In the government, 58 percent of nonmanagement workers said they were satisfied with their pay. Only 41 percent of private sector workers reported that they were satisfied with their compensation.
"I wasn't shocked by it," said Douglas Klein, president of Sirota Consulting. "Even 20 years ago, we were seeing patterns like this."
Klein said that government workers, on the whole, had motivations besides pay when they made career choices. He suggested that public servants were driven by a need for job security and a desire to serve their country.
"The overriding attraction cannot be, I think I'm going to make a million dollars," Klein said. "They are working for different kinds of reasons; they are attracted to that job for different kinds of reasons."
He also said that the clearly structured pay system in many government agencies probably contributes to worker happiness.
"It is very transparent how pay is set in the government," Klein said. "It is what it is; it is something that is negotiated, it is known."
Top federal personnel officials are working to replace the General Schedule system with pay-for-performance in many agencies. That effort has been met with an outcry from federal worker unions.
Klein also said that the strong union presence in the federal government has contributed to the high satisfaction of nonmanagement workers. He suggested that workers are more likely to be happy with pay that has been collectively bargained. The low levels of union participation in the private sector have hurt satisfaction levels there, he added.
Klein emphasized that the bottom line of the survey is that, relative to workers' expectations, "the government is not doing a bad job as compared to the private sector."
"What this data is showing," he said, "is the government is doing a pretty good job of providing a fair day's pay for a fair day's work."