Itsa Trap!: Get out of the “can’t, won’t, don’t” mind set

On Friday, I attended training for Congrats to the GSA team and ChallengePost for a sexy, sleek platform for us govies to use easily and relatively headache-free. Unfortunately, I could have walked away very demoralized by that experience. First, it was a Friday afternoon and no coffee allowed in the computer lab. My head was already dragging before we began. Second, it was also about a bijillion degrees out and my 6 block walk, which is usually beautiful and pleasant seeing the White House and other landmarks, was brutal. Third, instead of being excited and happy for the awesome platform, I heard a lot of “can’t, won’t, don’t” from the bureaucrats.

So a little divergent story. I promise it is related. I went to a women’s college in Pittsburgh. We were big on reclaiming words or using words with pride. For instance, being a feminist is a huge, yucky no-no. Feminists hate men, burn their bras, and won’t cook. We reclaimed being feminists as being world ready women. We are smart, we have practical skills for work and life, and we are feminists. And while my husband does most of the cooking, I don’t hate it. He’s much better at it– you know, division of labor and productivity.
So getting back to bureaucrats and their “can’t, won’t, don’t” attitude. It is time for us, as bureaucrats, to reclaim our title. There was once a time when good enough for government work meant it was the highest standard of excellence. Now, there’s Sleepy Sally or Napping Ned just scraping by doing the bare minimum. And whenever someone has a good idea, Sally or Ned find every reason not to change.
“We don’t do it that way.”
“We can’t do that because of regulation/policy.”
“We just won’t do it.”
Don’t get stuck in that mindset. Policies, procedures, and regulations can be changed. Technology is easy to adapt, adopt, and use. People need a little boost to remember they are capable of good and great things. Reclaim that standard of excellence so when you say you work for the Federal government people cheer instead of snicker.
How do you plan on getting from can’t, won’t, don’t to can, will, and do and reclaiming the title of bureaucrat?

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This blew me away the first time I heard it 2 years ago – “There was once a time when good enough for government work meant it was the highest standard of excellence. ”

Perhaps a theme song is needed – “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” by Young Gunz

Can’t stop, Won’t Stop
Rocafella Records cause
We get down baby, we get downnnnnnnnn
Girls to Girls they love us
Cause we stay fresh to deaf
We the best nuthin less

Christopher Parente

Applaud your sentiments. Not clear why you liked the platform, if all you heard was naysaying.

I’m not in government, but have seen how personal excellence comes from within. It can be supported externally, but not created. So you’re already on a good path.

Is supposed to be a repository of crowd-sourced government solutions/best practices? Don’t we have that already, called GovLoop?


I totally agree with the article. I’d love that world. I try to work this way and it either goes over great with stakeholders, or like a lead balloon. Sometimes both at the same time on the same project, which is fun to navigate.

I’ve found in government that an ethic of personal excellence is noble, but nobility alone can’t shift the haters, especially if they are in management or have decision making capability. It takes a core motivation of Hurricane-Katrina-like intensity to maintain your drive for excellence in this kind of quicksand. Not everybody has that perseverance inside them, and find it all to easy to capitulate to “The Mediocre Majority”.

Excellence has to be expected of people, from the top down. There has to be some kind of reward or incentive for being great, even if it’s just congratulations and acknowledgement. Someone said it in another post, but there is often a climate where success and excellence are red flags and people will try to sabotage success even on their own team by ignoring it until it goes away, or working counter to excellence and quality so it never takes root.

We’ve all seen the big top-level presentation about everyone pitching in to innovate and be clever, but the really clever and creative things that cause disruption and real results are never celebrated or chosen to spotlight. It’s often something else that didn’t really effect true improvement that’s called out as an example of excellence. When it’s that watered down, who can get excited about it?

Employees who have worked longterm in pre-retirement-cruise-mode must know what excellence is in undeniable and even quantified terms for it to make any sense. There has to be accountability where it matters – on the performance review. I’ve personally seen the negative reaction to the expectation of excellence, ownership, and craftsmanship in people who have been coddled and allowed to float by for years on end doing very little that’s meaningful. When this attitude is supported and tacitly encouraged by management, it’s hard to remain optimistic. Not everyone wants to be the best possible. Shocking to admit, but there it is.

My optimism waxes & wanes depending on the last meeting or incident, but I think overall I’m optimistic things can get better as the internal cultures of each department or office change over time. Especially if there are enough who are as tenacious as a Rottweiler about being excellent.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Hi. Great post. I like the previous comments and find it interesting how language can be both empowering and also stifling as Harlan points out.

Re: positivity – A leader I interviewed once told me his motto was to be positive be professional and always have a great work ethic. It’s the first word that counts most. BE POSITIVE. Anyone can talk about doom and gloom.

How do you fight the naysayers? Some ideas

1 – Set an example – if you want progress then do something concrete to make it happen rather than just advocating

2 – Encourage others to rediscover the spark they once had and then lost

3 – Volunteer for unglamorous projects that management wants done and then show how they can be enhanced with an innovative approach

4 – Respectfully challenge processes that undermine stated goals

5 – Forget that you work in government and imagine that you are simply in another kind of business…that of serving the public. That’s where a bottom line orientation comes from. Somehow people associate being in the public service with being a socialist who doesn’t understand money or motivation.

BTW to Christopher’s question – what is Is it live? Wouldn’t it be nice if all of the agency sites dedicated to social media type stuff were somehow coordinated?

Rachel Lunsford

BTW to Christopher’s question – what is Is it live? Wouldn’t it be nice if all of the agency sites dedicated to social media type stuff were somehow coordinated? is a Federal-wide platform developed by GSA for any agency to use to issue challenges. I don’t think it launched yet, but the GSA team is working furiously to get something awesome for us to use. go check out

Dannielle Blumenthal

Thanks. I just looked at it. What interests me about the GSA is that in trying to lead the way by creating brainstorming sites and codifying social media policy, they also bump up against criticism that they’re not being progressive enough (see link below).

I think a serious issue that agencies are confronting now is that with social networking, you can’t draw a neat line between people’s personal and professional lives anymore. Who you are off the job can affect the reputation of your employer. It is something I personally think about a lot and am very mindful of. In particular, though it can be repetitious at times, I am a strong believer in disclaimers.

Neil Tambe

I think there’s a lot that can be done by reforming systems and process…workforce stuff. I think attitude is great. The nice thing about reforming systems is that it can help cultivate that attitude in others and take those that are already motivated and vault them to do great things. No?

Here’s an example: take your comment “People need a little boost to remember they are capable of good and great things.” To me that translates to employee recognition and engagement. There are lots of ways to do this in a systematic way across an organization – having accelerated career tracks, compensation, informal cultures of appreciation, formal awards of excellence, high-performer development programs, etc. There are so many levers, I think the hardest part is figuring out how to bake these initiatives into the fabric of an agency.

Anyway, not to be a total wonk…loved your post. Keep fighting the good fight!