Over the weekend, I fed my reality TV addiction with a heavy dose of my latest guilty pleasures, “Hardcore Pawn” and “Pawn Stars.” Both shows cover the operations of pawn shops that either buy items from customers or place them in pawn for a short-term loan. There’s one key difference, though: “Pawn Stars” focuses on the unique objects that come to the store and the characters that bring them in, whereas “Hardcore Pawn” has almost nothing to do with the items coming in and everything to do with the drama created between the pawn shop workers and the people coming in who are in need of quick cash. If you’ve never seen either show, good for you; TV will rot your brain.

What captured my attention in “Hardcore Pawn” was the dynamic between desperate people and their often nasty attempts to get money, and the store employees who are so jaded that their customer service often ends in yelling matches with very large security guards escorting customers out. Around hour three of the marathon, I turned to my wife and asked, “Do you think the workers were always this untrusting of customers, or did the fact that most customers appear to be lying make them that way over time?” Her response: “Does it matter? All of them are so screwed up now.”

And that’s when it hit me; I know why I love this show. It’s not a Detroit pawn shop I ‘m watching — it’s the DMV; it’s the SNAP eligibility office; it’s any government office where the people coming in are prepared for the worst and workers are so accustomed to customers with incomplete applications, “misleading” information, and an “us against you” mentality, that in order to get through the day, they put on a very thick skin and armor up. And above all, my wife is totally right (as usual). It doesn’t matter what came first, it’s all screwed up now.

The tension in some government offices is so thick you can almost see it in the air. People camped out in the corners because the lobby ran out of chairs; lines that give Disney World and airport security a run for their money; people storming out after being told they need to provide something else; the occasional outburst that everyone quiets to overhear. Customers look for any way they can get what they came for — even if it means cheating a little to get it — and employees who are used to being cheated and lied to are constantly ready to end the transaction at the first sign of something fishy. It’s reality show gold … but it’s not a show.

This is what government’s customers live like every day; and just as bad, this is what public employees put up with every day. Let’s explore one field: social work. Most people become caseworkers because they want to help families and are so compassionate that they take lower paying jobs in difficult environments in order to help. It’s one of the few jobs where the outcome is purely noble.

Now, how do we turn that compassionate person into a jaded and bitter employee? Give them some unrealistic timeframes to conduct their assessments and a caseload that far outpaces their ability to keep up. Then, add a healthy dose of families that will treat them poorly, show little or no appreciation, lie to them and try to cheat the system. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. That’s how employees change, so the customer must be to blame.

Customers come to government when they have no other options. You can’t go to Walmart for social work services just like you can’t get permits at the Olive Garden. We are the only show in town for a lot of what we do. And if you don’t get your building permits, chances are your building and your business are coming down. So there’s already a certain level of desperation when customers walk through the door of a government building. Then they’re asked to wait. Sometimes it’s a few hours; other times it’s a few weeks. Then it’s a crazy cycle of trying to make sure every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed. Customers are often asked to provide things they have no idea how to produce and to comply with complicated policies they’ve never seen.

Then they wait some more. They wait so long they’re sure they got lost in the system somewhere. They call, but no one answers. They grow frustrated and start to look for ways around the system. They question the process. They question your competence. They grow angry and vow to never pay taxes again! So now, it’s the government’s fault.

But does it matter? We’re all screwed up. The real question is: How do we fix it? And the answer is in a familiar place: the pipes.

This isn’t a people problem. Somewhere inside even the most jaded public employee is the compassionate idealist. “There is still good in him.” And inside every customer is a person who understands rules and regulations are necessary to keep the machine running. “You don’t want the truth because deep down, in places you don’t talk about parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” Ok, that was a stretch.

The problem is in the backlogged work, the hard-to-understand requirements, the process in which we must do the work, and the budget cuts that reduce capacity to keep up with the volume. All of these are systemic pipe problems that can be addressed without customer service training, without cultural awareness and without new technology. The problem is getting to the pipes when we’re drowning in everything else.

There’s hope for a new season. It’s a new year, time for resolutions and a new workout routine. Let me suggest this one:

Draw the pipeline of your work. Define what begins the work process — whether it’s an application, a request, a form on your desk or something else — then draw a twisted up pipe from that, ending at the proof that your work is done (for example, someone gets their permit signed or driver’s license renewed).

Then ask yourself: “How long does it take to get from one side of the pipe to the other?” Along every twist and turn, jot down why it takes that long. Are customers forgetting things? Are we waiting on someone else? Is there other work that must be done first? Then make a New Year’s resolution to straighten a few of those twists and undo a couple of those turns.

If total quality management teaches anything, it should be that at least 95 percent of our processes are filled with non-value-added stuff. At a minimum, identify that opportunity to get better. Even if you can’t make the changes now, it can serve as hope that we’re not all doomed to live in a tension-filled reality show where the main characters are crazy customers. Let’s refocus on the pipes this year, and over time, maybe change the channel to a show where people are getting help, buildings are going up, and we’re all singing Brady Bunch songs at the DMV. Now that’s good TV.

*Originally published as A TV-Inspired New Year’s Resolution for Improving Government Services (Public Great @ Governing.com, January 10, 2013)

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