Government Needs to be the Best It Can Be

Is this how government employees are viewed? Well, this is what I see every day when I get home from work. This is hopefully not the norm, but it does reflect poorly on all of us. We need to be better. We are public servants – that’s right, we serve the public with the money they fork over in taxes.

I want to submit a challenge. Let’s make a pledge to establish a golden standard for government employees – to be the best we can be. I’ll go first…

“I pledge to be the best government employee I can be and a responsible steward of the tax payer’s dollar.”

Please join in if you agree.

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Susan Thomas

I would like to know why the postal worker routinely parks in a designated handicapped area. This type of behavior gives all Feds a black eye.

Mark Hammer

I pledge to be the best government employee I can be and a responsible steward of the tax payer’s dollar.”

So, uh, you’re probably new at this game, eh?

It can depend on the kind of position one has, the clarity of one’s organizational mandate and such, but I think the reality is that such pledges, while absolutely sincere and eminently laudable, get harder and harder to live up to with each passing year. And when one lives up to them, it is only momentary, like a whack-a-mole animal popping up its head.

The question is “Why?”. There are many components to a suitable and comprehensive answer. Although people may look at the photo posted and think “That’s awful”, the person parking the vehicle probably thought to themselves “Well what does it matter?”. And I think this is important. It is not the absence of conscientiousness driving the behaviour, but the perception that conscientiousness is of little or no consequence.

I was a student of learning theory for the better part of a decade, in grad school and labs, and one of the tacit understandings in that area is that it is a relatively trivial matter to get animals or humans to do something once, but requires planful and concerted systematic effort to get them to do it again and again and again. What makes them do it repeatedly is consequences. At the human level (where it is not simply a matter of food pellets or shocks), the behaviour has to matter.

And “mattering”, within large ever-changing organizations, can be difficult to do and difficult to have a sense of.

To whit, I try to be a pretty green guy. I make a point of keeping my supply use to a blessed minimum. I completely power off my office devices if I’m going to be away more than 12 hrs. I am perfectly happy with a circa-1998 computer, despite the new stuff they keep giving me against my wishes. Hell, I even made a point of living off the muffins they’d put out the first morning of conferences I’d attend out of town, go for the cheapest accommodations, not go to restaurants, and try to return the unused portion of my per diem back to the organization when I go to out-of-town things, simply because it is the taxpayers’ money, not mine. Over time, I have given up trying, though, because everybody else makes it so hard to do, and when you watch the organization piss away $25k here and there for consultants that add no value, or invest in big initiatives only to have an official or bureaucrat poke their nose in and undermine it, you lose incentive because conscientiousness becomes perceived as having less consequence.

Don’t get me wrong. I am conscientious about the quality of work I do. But one’s sense of “good enough” changes the more one accumulates examples of how little impact the extra mile can actually have.

Personally, I think this is not a marker of a sick or toxic organization, but rather something that probably happens naturally, with tenure. Instances of the lack of consequence happen all the time, every year, but newer employees don’t necessarily register them, and certainly don’t log enough of them within 2-3 years to see any pattern. Sadly, time can all too often give you a pattern. I just wish to heck the folks at the top were a little more mindful of how they create that apparent pattern for employees. Because, you know, it would be really nice to feel what you are apparently feeling with the same zeal. Taxpayers deserve that. The organization deserves that. The mission deserves that.

So, I’ll try, Adam. But I’m not making any big promises. You keep it up, though.

Adam Arthur

Susan – “I would like to know why the postal worker routinely parks in a designated handicapped area. This type of behavior gives all Feds a black eye.” …

Exactly. This is unacceptable.

Adam Arthur

Mark Hammer – No, I DO understand everything you’ve stated. As a matter of fact, I have been where you are right now for the last couple of years – this postal worker just hit me like a splash of cold water! I remembered how I used to be when I started and then compared that to how I had been feeling…night and day difference. Sure, the same things that drive you crazy, drive me crazy. Working with “personality disorders” is becoming more prevalent and if I think about them too long, my blood pressure shoots straight to the moon! So, I guess the point of this post was to renew my pledge of good service to ME. I don’t like feeling as I have and want to reinvigorate myself to be better – hence, the pledge. 🙂

Susan Thomas

@Adam, Well said! Personality problems are apparent. There are always people who find the time to skylark all day but cannot seem to get their work done. When called on the behavior, they are indignant. It’s difficult to reason with people like that because they have poor work ethics. Unl.ess that postal worker is handicapped himself, he disrespected all of the people who are. The behavior is pretty thoughtless and all too common. As managers, we have to try to redirect behavior but it is not easy.

Ed Albetski

With our government on the brink of default and congress unsuccessfully trying to find their collective butt with both hands and a flashlight, you don’t have to look further than Capitol Hill for bad examples of government employees. They are paid more than the rank and file of government workers and are hardly held accountable for what they do. Wait… Are they DOING anything?

I will say that mail does get delivered to me each day. Not so sure about our paychecks if congress can’t brush the cocaine off their desks, push their mistresses off their laps, and start negotiating.

Mark Hammer


I commend your commitment to “re-committing”. Good on ya!

My fedora is generously tipped in the direction of all those who try (and especially if they are able) to help their staff or colleagues rediscover what excites them about the job, the role, the broader responsibility. The fact that losing perspective, enthusiasm, and conscientiousness will happen with time, is something that many lose track of, whether for themselves or their staff. If you can keep it in your thoughts that it is a perpetual risk that needs to be protected against, that bodes well.

For myself, I try to carry myself like this is MY government and MY country. Not “MY” in the sense of ownership, but “MY” in the sense of a solemn obligation to stewardship. If you’re not prepared to knock it out of the park every time you step up to the plate, you can look forward to a career of dribbly grounders that never let you see first base.

Susan Thomas

@Ed, It’s all about them (the Congress). Most are neither concerned about their constituents nor the welfare of people. They are dedicated to their self-interests and continued employment and perks. As we have lately seen, the personal conduct of some is disgraceful. I believe some of the them would be happy to push the economy over a cliff. Term limits are required.

Carol Davison

Another part of government is our negative imagination. Yes I notice that the post truck was driven home and parked in a handicapped spot. Were either of these two acts wrong? Did the poster talk to the post man or merley imagine they he was? One percent of government employees are disabled and I know post men with replacement knees because I’ve spent lots of time in phsyical therapy myself.

Susan Thomas

Unless this mail carrier is disabled or physically challenged, he has no business parking in a handicapped space.

Dannielle Blumenthal

If there was ever a picture that says it all, this is it.

3 suggestions:

1) Employees choose their own projects – not told what to work on – and are rated on performance on these projects by a panel of 2 dozen people at the end of the year. Compensation is based on answer to one question: How much value did employee add vs. others? See Gary Hamel blog on W.L. Gore (also mentioned in Harvard Business Review webinar this week).

2) Focus the entire organization on helping frontline employees deliver value to the audience being served (see “Employees First, Customers Second” which is available for $2.99 as an electronic download from Amazon – you can read it on your computer with the Kindle app)

3) Organize the organization NOT by functional specialization but by audience served. Whoever touches that audience does so in an integrated way so that all of their needs are handled in one shot – they should never have to go from department to department. See a blog I wrote about this.

Most importantly we have to have the will to fix things despite all obstacles and refuse to listen to any negativity whatsoever. It’s about solving the problems, that’s it.