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What does the "government" mean to you?

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Wide White: What does the "government" mean to you?

Monday, May 24, 2010

What does the "government" mean to you?

I've had a few conversations lately related to government that have been pretty frustrating. In my job I work exclusively with government clients. I've been very impressed with the quality of the people I've worked with. They're extremely hard workers who are increasingly being forced to do more with less as government agencies across the board work with massive budget deficits.

However, when I've spoken with others about the work ethic I've seen and the work I do, I've received dismissive comments from some. One referred to them all as a "pit of debt." Another claimed that government workers are more prone to laziness than the private sector and that they cop an attitude.

I have a few thoughts on people's perception of the government.

First, the government is the benefactor of our taxes. We don't like paying taxes. Therefore, we have some natural angst against the government.

Second, we typically interact with the lowest level of government. Everyone seems to have a horror story with the DMV. Never mind the differences between our city, county, state, and federal government experiences. It's all "government" and the negative experience at the DMV is applied broadly to "government."

Third, we often interact with the enforcers of laws our politicians have established. Nobody likes being pulled over by a state trooper. Building inspectors aren't on our short list of people we want to see. And any small business owner who tells you they love the guy from OSHA is probably lying.

Consider all of these groups. Now, consider the other government agencies with whom we interact on a daily basis. Every time you drive on a highway, you're benefiting from the Department of Transportation. Your daily weather forecast - and tornado warning - is brought to you by the National Weather Service. Disputes are mediated by the U.S. Courts.

The list goes on and you can debate the necessity of each group all you want - and there are certainly functions of our current government systems in which I don't think they should be operating. But the fact is, our society values order and has determined that the government can best provide order in a number of areas.

Opposition to specific laws and regulations in place needs to be directed towards our politicians. After all, they direct the government. But take it easy on the guys just doing their jobs.

Ronald Reagan once said, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

That may have been true of that DMV agent you worked with after waiting in line for 45 minutes last summer, but I've seen plenty of evidence that suggests this line of thinking is significantly overblown.

No, the government is often not the best solution to a problem. But let's be serious: sometimes, it is.


Blogger watchman declared,

Excellent thoughts. I think we often have valid criticisms pointed toward a vague idea. If we were more specific in criticism, then we may be better able to understand the reality of the situation.

For instance, when people say they don't want to pay taxes, don't they really mean "I don't want to pay too much in taxes"? Most people enjoy roads and satellite weather imagery, but we don't really like to pay too much for that stuff (the Pentagon's infamous $1,000 hammer).
Another example is the anti-government stance that many people take - government is bad; "gov'ment" is da problem; government is inefficient. Lack of government is anarchy. No thanks. What I think people really intend to criticize is bureaucracy or inefficient government actions. There is a difference.

It is common to throw the practical baby out with the conceptual bath water.

5/25/2010 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Bill Roehl declared,

They're extremely hard workers who are increasingly being forced to do more with less as government agencies across the board work with massive budget deficits.

Finally we’re getting to the point we should have been at all along! Now while I don’t know exactly who you deal with (either on a 1-1 level or as a whole), it’s clear that you are not dealing with the general face of government. The individuals you are dealing with are not on the front lines (such as those in the DMV office or the window at the courthouse) who the majority of the general public deal with but apparently management level individuals who know most of what is going on. Why are you meeting with those people rather than one of their subordinates? Possibly because as a result of the necessary funding cutbacks which eliminated much of the fluff in between the highest level within the agency you are working with and the lowest or the simple fact that the government agencies don’t trust that kind of work to the peons—and rightfully so.

As for your point about doing more with less, if they were truly and honestly forced to do so they wouldn’t be contracting with a third party agency to host their documents and handle their e-mail blasts. As someone who worked for the State I can attest to the hardworking and underpaid people who were able to build those types of interactions with the outdated tools already available rather than forcing the taxpayers to shoulder the additional burden of outsourcing.

Another claimed that government workers are more prone to laziness than the private sector and that they cop an attitude.

As someone who has worked an even amount of time in both the public and private sectors this is clearly the standard. We all have examples of individuals in both worlds fit the stereotype described above but it is far more prevalent in agencies controlled by unions. While unionized I joked that you would have to commit double homicide in order to be fired because they’d give you a pass on the first as an honest mistake. I see far less of this type of behavior (i.e. letting someone just skate by while begging for additional funding for another person to pick up the slack of the underachiever) in the private sector as they just don’t have the time or money to move people around, hire additional workers, or beg and plead with those who underperform to do their jobs better.

Why should anyone in the public sector attempt to put forth a greater effort than anyone else? They all are on the same promotion schedule and they are likely to get their step level increases regardless of their performance. Upward mobility doesn’t really exist because of funding and leaving government ends up in loss of seniority, benefits, accrued vacation and endless sick time so where is the motivation for change? There is none and thus the status-quo is preserved.

Opposition to specific laws and regulations in place needs to be directed towards our politicians. After all, they direct the government. But take it easy on the guys just doing their jobs.

This I agree with to a degree. The administrative side always has to deal with the political and do their bidding but there is a clear necessity for the administrative side to do more to provide a set of requirements for the political side to follow rather than loosely worded, feel good suggestions which the politicians can feel safe ignoring for their own political benefit. So while we should direct our ire towards our elected officials you have to realize that there are people behind those officials who need general scrutiny as well as they are the ones who are driving operations as much as the politicians are.

5/25/2010 10:13 AM  
Blogger Joey declared,

Heh. The notion that handling electronic communication in-house would be cheaper is absolutely laughable. What we do goes WAY beyond sending emails, but that's a separate discussion.

I think you identified something that has little to do with the public or private sector: unions. I don't like them either and it's tough to argue that there are union members who do very little just because they can, but that's not exclusive to the government and many government employees aren't part of a union.

The people I'm working with range from directors to low-level administrators, for what that's worth.

5/25/2010 10:42 AM  
Blogger Joey declared,

Oh, and one other thought related to Watchman's comments. I think we tend to polarize ourselves because we're afraid that if we give in a little, we're giving up a lot.

For example, we have politicians making pledges to never increase taxes, when reality says that they had to be increased at some point to exist and fund our government in the first place. Similarly, environmentalists often oppose 100% of development when development was necessary to even give them access to the environment they (and we) love. But all of us are afraid that if we give an inch, a mile will be taken. It's political paranoia and it's crippling us.

5/25/2010 10:52 AM  
Blogger watchman declared,

I think you're right, Joey. This tendency to embrace the extreme is only exacerbated by the obsession with bumper sticker policy statements. Political discourse is usually lazy. Unless you can put it on a bumpersticker, nobody wants to hear it.

To many people, Simple = Right. This gets ugly, though.

I hear this one a lot, and it is almost always universally agreed with by seniors and people who drink Pabst Blue Ribbon. "We should just nuke the whole Middle East and be done with the damned [insert derogatory term for Arab ethnicity]." That is an awful way of going about things on every level - pragmatic foreign policy, ethics, economics, etc. However, because it is simple, it must be right.

Americans have no patience for nuance, and it is usually thrown out the window in favor of an aphorism which usually isn't even close to describing what is really going on. For instance, "No New Taxes!" is always a beloved political motto. However, it is too simple. It usually means "I'm going to borrow a ton more money so I don't have to cut spending!"

This type of conversation leads to extremism in our thoughts, but it works well for a scrolling headline on a 24 hour news channel.

5/27/2010 11:34 AM  

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