The workers who staff the federal government in Washington are whiter, richer, more educated and more liberal than the rest of the country, according to two political scientists at Johns Hopkins University —who warn of the potential for a troubling gap between the federal workforce and the people it serves.
"It might be a problem," said Jennifer Bachner, director of the Hopkins' master's degree program in government analytics. "If the government looks very different demographically than the American people, the question is: Can they govern well? Can they appreciate the challenges of the American public?"
Bachner and colleague Benjamin Ginsberg, director of Hopkins' Washington Center for the Study of Government, say they have seen plenty of surveys asking Americans what they think about the federal government — but almost no research on what the government thinks about Americans.
Bachner and Ginsberg surveyed about 850 workers in federal agencies in Washington, on Capitol Hill and at the White House, including contractors and consultants.
Are inside-the-Beltway types like the rest of America?
"We found that they certainly weren't," Ginsberg said. "They were a lot whiter, they make more money, they had much higher levels of education. They weren't representative and maybe that doesn't matter … but these folks aren't elected by anyone."
Some key findings:
•Nearly 56 percent of congressional and White House staffers, 71 percent of civil service employees and 72 percent in the policy community hold advanced degrees. Among the general population, the figure is 10.6 percent.
•About 90 percent of the inside-the-Beltway staffers are white. The figure for the general population is 78 percent.
Half of congressional and White House employees, 54 percent of civil servants and 57 percent of policy staffers identify as Democrats. The country is 35 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican and 33 percent unaffiliated.
Government workers say they read the news in print or online more than five times per week. The American average is 3.6 times per week.
The workers whom Bachner and Ginsberg surveyed in 2012 and 2013 are responsible for writing laws and regulations, providing federal services and running federal programs that affect everyone.
Because the workers are not elected, Ginsberg says, the American people have no direct means to root them out— or push for reform— when their actions don't match the will of the governed.
Ginsberg comes down hard on federal employees, painting them as out-of-touch and more interested in reinforcing their agency's culture than serving citizens.
"Public officials do not have a sense of fiduciary responsibility," he said. "They sense that they know best and everyone should do as they're told and that is not appropriate in a democracy."
Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, takes offense.
"They have horrendously misrepresented the federal workplace," she said.
Simon said it's not fair to lump a few high-ranking policy employees in Washington RIGHT? with the rest of federal workers across the country, who often have middle-class jobs.
"A nursing assistant in a VA hospital is not part of the ruling elite," Simon said. "A Border Patrol agent in Rio Grande is not part of the ruling elite. People who are working in meat processing plants, watching thousands of dead chickens go by on a conveyor belt, identifying the ones that are diseased, are not the ruling elite."
Simon said federal workers make less than their private sector counterparts, and have just weathered three years of wage freezes before getting a 1 percent raise this year.
"Their premise is offensive, untrue, terribly misleading and doesn't deserve the word 'science,'" Simon said.
Bachner said the survey results reinforce what many Americans already think about the government.
"Certainly a lot of people feel like the government is out of touch, to some degree," she said.
While Ginsberg is critical of the federal workforce, he also has suggestions for closing the gap between the government and the governed.
First, he said, federal workers wo are based in Washington should be required to rotate out to different parts of the country to work in field offices, where they're more likely to interact with people and businesses affected by their agencies.
"Get them out of Washington once in awhile," Ginsberg said. "In Washington, all they do is talk to one another."
Second, Ginsberg said, federal workers need training about their responsibility to serve the citizens of the country.
Third, Ginsberg advocates improving civic education for Americans, so that it doesn't focus on heroic-seeming founding fathers and simplistic explanations for historic events and development. Rather, Americans need to be taught the realities of American politics, how to rule and how to be ruled, he said.
"We need real civic training," he said.
Ginsberg and Bachner presented some of their findings to the American Political Science Association recently and are working on a book, "What the Government Thinks of the People," to be published next year.