What does it mean to be a state employee?

For those outside looking in, the stereotypes pile up. State workers are overpaid, underskilled bureaucrats. They couldn’t make it in the private sector. Their benefits are obscenely generous. These are stereotypes that former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback leaned on while he gutted government, outsourcing jobs to for-profit companies and squeezing those who remained.

From the inside, however, the perspective is much different. That’s the message from a new survey of state employees, reported this week by The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter: “Three of every five Kansas executive branch government employees said in a survey their most significant workplace concern was low pay and benefits, while one-fourth of respondents pointed to inadequate equipment, technology and training as the greatest shortcoming.”

It’s important to note that the survey was voluntary; still, more than 8.000 employees took it, a whopping 54 percent response rate.

On the other hand, workers found their jobs important. As Carpenter wrote, “The Department of Administration said the survey revealed nearly 65% of respondents were satisfied with their job. Eight of 10 employees answering the survey were convinced their work advanced their employer’s mission and agreed their supervisors valued input from staff.”

In other words, from most state employees’ perspectives, the stereotypes are all precisely incorrect. Salaries and benefits aren’t necessarily generous, and they generally enjoy the jobs and see them as useful for the state’s mission.

The Kelly administration’s move to raise salaries by 2.5 percent and lower health insurance premiums by 6 percent make sense in this context. We need talented people working for the state, and their compensation packages should be competitive.

At the same time, we can see that most state employees genuinely care about the work they do and care about the missions of their agencies. This sense of mission is part of compensation as well. State employees work on some of the most challenging problems today — the foster care system, corrections, infrastructure, economic development and so on. They deserve our respect and admiration.

Or as Gov. Laura Kelly put it: “We know the past several years have been difficult for our public employees. Their well-being and satisfaction dramatically affect the efficiency and effectiveness of the services Kansans receive.”

Rebuilding an efficient, sufficient, truly responsive Kansas state government has been a titanic task. State workers, whatever the stereotypes, are critical for making that a reality.

If they don’t work, if they aren’t at work, our state won’t work either.