The large sign above the entry to the city hall in my imaginary small town reads, “Give us the responsibility for the dregs of society and the numerous services that Capitalism doesn’t provide in exchange for a few tax dollars, and we will give you the local government that you need.” Sounds like a pretty good deal, until you read the fine print on the brochures in the “Help Yourself” box below the sign.
Almost every day the city newspaper with the largest circulation in Northern California has a headline, an article, or a serious editorial about corrupt government employees, faulty public services, poor use of tax dollars, and situations where our various governments have failed to meet the expectations of our demanding society.
The job description for a management position in government should intimidate the most courageous and ambitious candidates. Only the most self-deluded or the ego-maniacal should apply. Any head of an average household who has learned the valuable lesson that you can’t please everyone would shy away from that taking on such a responsibility. But shucks, someone has to do it, right? Someone with or without integrity will step up, I’m sure.
Running a public services activity of any size is a daunting job; more so when the objectives are vague, the budget is tight, and the scope of the job is rather nebulous: just take care of the public’s needs. The routine requirements, the unforeseen complications, the legal restrictions, the unrealistic demands, and the polarized society don’t facilitate finding solutions to rather simple problems with a handful of underpaid employees.
While the media demands quick action and the public expects cheap and easy fixes, the political opposition does everything in its power to thwart dialogue about what should be done. They attack the individuals in charge, the political party in power, and the intentions, good or bad, to take action that would truly serve the public.
In such an environment, compromises are made with the moneyed interests because elections depend on propaganda and publicity which cost “big bucks.” These political compromises are made into laws and regulations that are written by clever lawyers who have their own agendas. The larger the scope covered by the legislation, the more unfair the consequences of the law are likely to be. The administrators of these laws who man the bureaucracies of local government have no choice but to enforce the law even when there are not enough people on the payroll to do so.
A government activity is more resilient to criticism than a business which can go through bankruptcy when management is incompetent and improvident. The more the public demands from their various governmental entities, the more people are needed to meet these demands and the more money is needed to pay for salaries and for the materials, etc. required for the projects to be undertaken. The result usually is a delay in implementation, especially when there is no consensus about how to meet the new demands. A worse case scenario for taking appropriate action does not exist in any modern organization that deals with problem solving.
Where does this Gordian-knot problem originate? In the undefined “needs” of a greedy society that a “for-profit” or a “not-for-profit” activity cannot be expected to provide. Today these ever-expanding needs are considered “entitlements” by Americans based on an evolving public sentiment which presumes that individual civil rights are more comprehensive than what our Founding Fathers ever dreamed of when they wrote our Constitution and added the Bill of Rights.
As the population of the world becomes less religious and more secular, the exalted role assigned to a concerned and protective deity is now being assumed by a supposedly compassionate, all powerful government who must take care of us when any adversity looms. The obvious inability of these various deities, that we humans worship and expect to discharge their divine responsibilities and satisfy their anointed followers, ought to tell us something about the impossibility of the task that government has taken over by default.
The enormity of the task exceeds our human abilities to manage it. We are lost in the squabbles of power politics, conflictive religious beliefs, scientific theories, and polarized personalities. No one sees the Big Picture, understands the overall mission of the human race, and demonstrates the necessary statesmanship required to form a unified consensus about where to go next and to lead a team effort in accomplishing that objective.
Special interest groups are especially adamant about protecting their own kind, preserving their physical and legal advantages, and avoiding any action that might reduce their influence. It may be easy to criticize these groups for their selfishness and self-aggrandizement, but it is virtually impossible to constrain them. The law usually is on their side, and potential whistle blowers are intimidated by subtle threats.
The next factor that impedes progress in providing efficient and inexpensive services to the public is the overlapping jurisdictions of the numerous branches of the various bureaucracies. The Federal, State, and local governments have different powers of authority which, for a variety of reasons, don’t mesh without judicial interpretation. The best examples of the consequences of this incompatibility are our horrible maze of taxes, our failed educational system, and the inept response by public officials to avoid the loss of life caused by hurricane Katrina.
The “something for everyone” political promises are not valid commitments that automatically can be achieved. Nevertheless, these carefully worded distortions of the “facts” and egregious exaggerations of the “truth” by our politicians appeal to the ever hopeful and optimistic masses.
Another obvious factor for the lack of progress is the relatively unattractive wages paid public servants. The salary structures for our school employees, our police forces, our military troops are never going to induce the most qualified, promising, and ambitious citizens to undertake the duties that these jobs require. The performance review policies covering public organizations and their employees do not eliminate the waste, the poor individual performers, and the dead-end activities that no longer serve a community, a state, or the country.
The only thing that prevents our bureaucracies from growing exponentially, as the private universities have over the past fifty years, is society’s stiff reluctance to pay more taxes. Unfortunately, this uncooperative taxpayer orientation leads to a certain inflexibility in revamping public services and modernizing how a government fulfills its known obligations and takes on new ones.
At the grass roots level, the citizens’ ad hoc task forces work against their own long term interests. “Don’t cut the budget allocation to my school!” “Don’t raise my property taxes!” “Don’t let that happen in my neighborhood!” and “Don’t ask me to sacrifice!” are pleas from vocal citizens. “Let someone else do it, pay for it, and sacrifice themselves for the good of the country, the state, and the local community. Not I!” Certainly, the “I’s” have it. But, that is to be expected in a democracy such as ours, right? We have a government of Other people, by Other people, for ME! Get in line behind me! Please.
Perhaps the biggest reason why we are not pleased with what the government does for us is our lack of contact with the service providers. When we do interface with an agency that serves the public, there are long lines, red tape, mechanical answering machines, officious staffs, forms that are customer-unfriendly, and answers to our questions that we can’t fully understand. Visit an INS office, the DMV, and a consulate in a foreign country, or call the IRS on the phone. You are treated like an unwelcome Third World refugee begging for political asylum. An employee at the Social Security Administration was helpful enough to this retiree, but it took the agency over two years before it finally paid me the correct amount per month.
No one expects to be treated with great sympathy for their specific problem as a family member of the deceased would be treated by a funeral home director. However, due to the factors I have already mentioned: insufficient budget for enough employees to handle the crowd and the low pay of those who do have to deal with the public, the atmosphere is not “Welcome to my store, how may I help you?” The major department stores have converted their “helpers” to cashiers and expect us to find what we need on display racks.
Assuming the best and genuine intentions of every employee in a public service agency, the feeling most “customers” have after visiting an agency is one of relief, “Well, that’s over!” And when it isn’t “over” and a return visit is required, then comes the gnashing of teeth and the profanities, regardless of who is at fault. The agency can’t win! Government service is not a “win-win” game that the politicians claim it would be. The rules applied and the forms used are specific and allow few exceptions or deviations to “standard operating procedures.” “Learn the rules, fill out the form correctly, and then get back in line.”
Unaccustomed as we are to such strictness in America, we shudder to think about returning to be humiliated further. And each time we seek government advice or stop by to pick up our unemployment check, we feel like we are imposing on busy people who have better things to do or would rather be working anywhere but in that bureaucracy. The employees at the window are efficient enough, but they don’t go out of their way to explain certain things that might eliminate the customer’s anxiety and the subsequent mistakes that require him or her to return to the back of the line or come again another time.
Tenured servants whose jobs are not at risk, like those employed by the Post Office, work at a pace tolerated by a society used to a monopoly. Change is unlikely, so have patience. When there is a serious complaint, the old excuse that “there isn’t enough money in the budget to address the problem” is used to explain why things are the “way they are.” Eliminate sports programs, art, music, and superfluous extra-curricular activities in schools before you seek the funds necessary to provide students with the education their parents had.
There are many professional people working hard in all government agencies I’m sure. Their focus is directed by the rules of the agency which the public is not familiar with or does not understand. Government officials refrain from explaining anything until something happens which is so bizarre that an explanation cannot be avoided. When those explanations don’t seem adequate after catastrophes like 9/11/2001 and hurricane Katrina, the game of musical chairs begins and heads roll around somewhere. Money for recovery and reconstruction that was never provided for in any budget suddenly appears from nowhere; folks who won’t accept tax increases donate to charities; and the budget is forgotten until the end of the fiscal year when a brand new budget is required.
Knowing how the game is played at all levels of government doesn’t stop us from loathing our political system. However, we, the citizens, are responsible. It is our job to bring about the changes which would benefit the majority. People like us built the system, and it takes honest people to correct the faulty construction job. There’s the rub.
Who is motivated to bring about change, the insiders or the outsiders? Who will admit the stupid things that are going on inside? Who will pay the tab to bring about improvements? Who has the gumption to blow the whistle? (Note: since I wrote this musing in 2005, a “protect the whistle- blower law” was sanctioned, but it doesn’t cover government employees!)
We are told by servants of the public: “That’s the way we do things in the military, in this industry, in this school system, in this business, in this law firm, in this hospital.” There’s no room for iconoclasts, non-conformists, agitators, and trouble-makers in those organizations. Anyone who needs help better learn the game, play by the rules, and be grateful for all the benefits they have in America which no other country in the world offers its people.
But, who is satisfied with the status quo? Utopia on Earth this isn’t! The “needs” of the public are not adequately taken care of yet. A consensus about our essential needs must be established, not a wish list of whims, capricious desires, and unreasonable demands. However, before you go out and demonstrate for your favorite “cause celebre,” think about what the overall job of the government is, who is going to do the additional work, who is going to pay for the service, and what specifically needs to be done. Just begging our secular deity to fix what you personally feel needs attention won’t accomplish much no matter how loud you shout and how much you complain or demonstrate.
If you desire cradle to the grave healthcare, education or job training for everyone, guaranteed employment, national security, and transport facilities like roads, bridges, airports, and docks, how much more are you prepared to pay for these things? If the government can’t afford to provide us with everything after increasing taxes, what are you prepared to sacrifice and go without? The next manned space flight to the moon? The next pre-emptive war? The bail-out of the fly-by-night mortgage companies when the real estate market bubble bursts again?
It’s your job to think about the options, and which candidate has the courage to address the tough issues honestly and sincerely. This won’t be an easy task for us in view of the conflictive misinformation provided by special interests and the political parties themselves. Yet, someone’s got to “bite the bullet” and do it. Want to help?