Last weekend, while at a birthday party my boy was attending, I made the mistake of telling someone what I do for a living. See, I’ve been working in government my entire adult life, and I’ve dedicated the past 15 years to working with agencies and departments to make things run more efficiently.
Well, the minute I told the party guest my line of work, he launched into half an hour of typical government bashing. It was all the same stuff we hear at these occasions: every dinner party with friends in the private sector, every church picnic (that somehow always seems to fall on the Sunday after taxes are due), and every casual conversation that follows, “Hi, I’m Bill, and I work for the government.”
I’ve had hundreds of these conversations over the years. But this time I had an epiphany. Standing at that birthday party, I experienced a paradigm shift that will forever change the lens through which I view government. The problems of government all have one common denominator: us.
Somewhere along the way, government employees have lost touch with what it’s like to actually work for a living. We’ve become lazy and complacent, and we don’t even know how it happened. When I worked in government, the computers only had two applications on them: Internet Explorer (so we could look up pictures of the Kardashian wedding and check our Facebook pages) and Spider Solitaire (to help us get used to the concept of a mouse). Anytime someone walked into the office, half of us would scramble to hide the screen. The other half simply finished their game of Solitaire before even acknowledging someone had come in!
That is, if we were in the office at all.
When I worked in government, I loved having more vacation time than my private-sector friends. I loved having sick days I could use for whatever I wanted — even if it was just to give my third-cousin a ride to have his wart removed. I hated lumbering into the office day after day like I had a real job. On Columbus Day, I would go to the bank just to make sure they didn’t have more days off than me — sure enough, open ’til noon. Suckers! When I did have to actually go into the office, I’d split my time between smoke breaks and not answering the phone. Most of us in the office didn’t even smoke! We just liked to go outside and watch the people who had real jobs drive past for an hour or two.
Luckily we were so overstaffed with people living off the government teat that the office always looked busy. Looking busy is an underappreciated art. You have to have a stack of applications overflowing your inbox, a bunch of voicemails filling up your phone and Post-it notes stuck all over your desk to give the impression that you’re working hard. If you’re good enough at looking busy, whenever somebody asks you to do real work, they’ll feel real bad about piling it on.
If you do ever have to engage in real work as a government employee, your main goal should be to make it as miserable and experience as possible for everyone involved. Unhappy people don’t bring back more work. Apathy and a slight scowl are essential tools of the trade. But the true public servant goes above and beyond to work traps into the policy and procedures and really gunk things up for customers. You know you are dealing with an experienced pro when they can quote the manual without looking and send customers away with a tear in their eye.
It’s us. We’re the problem. And that’s why outsourcing is so popular right now. Of course it was only a matter of time until someone realized non-government workers are clearly smarter and better at doing these jobs. While government workers were off enjoying college, business students were learning what real work is all about. They were getting the quality education in measurement, accountability and productivity that the rest of us somehow missed. (Thank goodness the government would have us!) The more tasks we can turn over to these superior, outsourced workers, the better. We all know that the only reason outsourcing fails is because public-sector managers sabotage it in an effort to save their jobs and get rich on the taxpayer’s dime.
That’s why the vast majority of staffers brought in by presidents, governors and mayors are from the private sector. Who knows more about collecting taxes than a lawyer, or more about running the Department of Agriculture than the owner of the largest farm in the state? If we want radical change in government, it is going to come from outside government for sure. If we could do it, we would have done it long ago.
Like Soylent Green, it all boils down to people. We are the problem. So the solution must be to fix us. How are we going to get all of us customer-hating, lazy, uninspired freeloaders to actually do some work? Obviously what we’re doing now just doesn’t work.
So. Do you agree? Do you at least know some people who would agree? Did you see some grains of truth in that rant? We may all feel that way sometimes, but my firm belief is that those “truths” are a bunch of bunk. The problem isn’t with the people. Every effort to argue that it is, or to fix the people, is foofaraw.
Over the next several blog posts, Ken and I hope to show that it’s this kind of thinking that has caused an epidemic that is doing more damage than any amount of budget-cutting or political turmoil. The problems in government do not start and end with the people in government, despite all the bloviating to the contrary.
*Originally published as Fixing Government’s People Problem: A Modest Proposal (Public Great @ Governing.com, October 5, 2011)