Behind the lies, damned lies and headlines about feds

Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, says you shouldn't believe everything you read -- especially when it come...

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

This old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli, points out the fact that statistics can be used to obscure truth rather than reveal it. I am working on posts on pay and performance management, so I have been reading a lot of articles in various publications regarding federal employees. After reading until I could not take it any more, I think it is time to amend Twain’s quote to include headlines.

We know that federal employees have become more and more of a political issue. After a four-year pay freeze, federal employees finally got a 1 percent pay raise in January. The controversy around pay extends to bonuses, taxes and even the number of employees. I spent some time reading articles published from 2010 to today, and found some alarming headlines. Here are just a few:

  • “Federal workers raking in millions in bonuses, new database shows”
  • “A new in-depth database of federal worker salaries shows the government paid out a whopping $105 billion in salaries last year for most of its civilian workforce — to boot, the workers got $439 million in bonuses.”
  • Who got $332 million in federal bonuses?
  • “SES members unscathed by bonus freeze”
  • Federal Employees Owed $3.5 Billion In Back Taxes In 2011: IRS
  • Number of Tax-Delinquent Government Workers Up 11.5 Percent
  • Obama Aides, Fed Employees Owe Millions In Back Taxes
  • Largest-ever federal payroll to hit $2.15 million

Wow. It must be great to be a rich federal employee who is raking in millions in bonuses and not paying taxes. Unless that isn’t the truth and the headline is designed to inflame rather than inform the reader. If that is the case, then headlines such as these are shameless attempts to get clicks on a website. Headline writing is a bit of an art form. You want to get the attention of potential readers, give them a taste of what is coming, and get them to read. That is hard to do in a few words. If the writer or publication has a strong point of view, headlines can serve as the primer to pump up emotion. Many of the headlines on the bonus issue are of that type.

Let’s take a look at some truth about federal bonuses. The article that followed the 2013 “Who got $332 million in federal bonuses?” headline reported that 360,000 federal employees got $332 million in bonuses. That is an average annual bonus of $922.22 or 44 cents per hour. I doubt many people would read an article that follows the headline “Federal Employees Get Average Hourly Bonus of 44 Cents.”

The article with the headline about SES members being “unscathed by bonus freeze” included the fact that SES members had received $340 million in bonuses in four years. That is a lot of money, but let’s put it in perspective. SES pay is intended to have an “at risk” component in the form of a bonus. It was part of the design of the system in an attempt to put more pay at risk based on individual and organizational performance. Bonuses were never intended to be a significant part of the compensation package for GS employees.

As a result of these types of stories and a few agencies mismanaging some aspects of their bonus programs, there is increasing pressure in the Congress to restrict bonuses for federal employees. Some proposals focus on specific departments, such as the proposal to ban executive bonuses at the Department of Veterans Affairs for five years, while others are targeted at the entire workforce. These recommendations are on top of restrictions the administration has already put in place that eliminate bonuses for political appointees and cap bonus pools at 1 percent of salaries for the general workforce and 5 percent of salaries for executives.

The tax issue is even worse. The headlines about taxes would lead one to believe federal employees are deadbeats who don’t pay their taxes. The truth is that their delinquency rate is 3.2 percent. The delinquency rate for the overall population is 8.2 percent. That fact is buried in some of the articles, but many casual readers will never notice it. The headline about Obama aides doesn’t mention the general public delinquency rate at all. A headline that says “Federal Employee Tax Delinquency Less Than Half of General Population” doesn’t inflame anyone, so it is unlikely we will see one like that.

And then there are the fact-free headlines. The story about the “largest-ever federal payroll” is simply not accurate. Office of Personnel Management data clearly shows the number of federal employees since 1962 has varied greatly, but in 29 of the 48 years prior to that article, the federal payroll was higher than when it was written.

Maybe bonus programs should be revisited. Maybe federal employees should be even more attentive to their taxes. Maybe we have too many (or too few) federal employees. Whatever the case, flaming headlines that distort facts and incite anti-federal employee biases are definitely not part of any reasonable discussion of the issues.


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Copyright 2014 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.

Jeff Neal is founder of the blog,, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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