I was lamenting to a colleague one day about how difficult it was to focus and get things done when they told me a giant stuffed panda arrived in her office.
They went on to explain that a caring community member has somehow inherited a 4-foot tall toy panda and didn’t want it to go to waste. Of course, this person couldn’t find someone willing to adopt the panda, so they called the public library. And then, they delivered the panda.
While perhaps there are hundreds of uses for a stuffed panda, my colleague was much more concerned about the literary well-being of the community they served. They worked in the library, after all.
And soon, it became apparent that the panda might be physically obstructing hall space — a fire hazard. There was no place to properly store a large stuffed toy since the library had limited storage. Moreover, the panda’s former foster parent wanted to ensure it benefitted children, so that narrowed the solution pool.
My colleague just wanted to get back to work. Instead, they spent several hours trying to give the giant panda a new home.
While this sounds like a scene from Parks and Recreation, municipal employees often solve issues we didn’t quite expect, and we can’t always control. Some are more serious and sad, others are annoying, and others — like our stuffed friend are funny, but a total time suck.
Productivity pandas have several standard features:
- Well-intended and unexpected. They sound sweet. They are soft and cuddly. They are often delivered with kindness but weren’t on your schedule.
- Notes of quick and easy heroism. Pandas are laughable, but can still be pretty tempting, particularly in a thankless job. They tend to appear like small tasks but are actually mini-projects that take your time away from what’s important. In reality, your heroic efforts will take much, much longer.
- Politically driven. A chief concern is who has delivered the panda — is it a well-meaning politician? A donor? A persistent advocate? Often, government work is impacted by requests that don’t align with the priorities of our job. Instead, they are guided by the politics of our organizations.
Productivity pandas aren’t just detrimental for your work; they also deter from the greater public good.
But, there are several things you can do to rid yourself of a panda.
- Say no early and often. Perhaps my colleague could have politely declined over the phone. Saying yes to one thing, person, or panda means you are saying no to many other things without uttering a word.
- Don’t be a hero. Set expectations and clarify your priorities. Accepting the panda might be okay if you weren’t giving up on your actual job to manage the panda. Starting the conversation with “thank you for the gift, but my priority today (or this week, year, etc.) is helping children by working on our outreach program (or insert your critical project here).”
- Refer to the (actual) process or lack thereof. Bureaucrats often know this technique well because it’s the process that often saves government staff from focusing on politics instead of their job. After all, things that occur outside of a queue or a process are often complaint-driven and political. Of course, if your organization doesn’t have a process for managing pandas — say so. An example response could be, “Thanks for offering up the panda, but we don’t have a process to accept large stuffed bears.” Pro tip: You don’t need to sound like a robot, just be honest.
Ultimately, when you work in a resource-strapped organization like a city government, it’s essential to focus, because your attention can be easily deterred. While the rush of heroism is tempting, avoid managing pandas at all costs. After a while, a flood of pandas, giraffes, and other creatures will invade. The creep of creatures might initially look cute, but instead of an accomplished public servant, you’ll have taken ownership of a zoo of responsibilities.
Thoughts? Let me know what you think in the comments — or if you have had a “productivity panda” and how you dealt with it.
Mai-Ling Garcia is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She strives to make the government simple and easy to use. She developed and executes digital strategy and service delivery for the City of Oakland as the City’s Digital Engagement Officer. She works to bridge the gap between rapidly evolving technologies and their use to benefit the Oakland community. She founded the City’s first Digital Services team focused on improving the public experience of government for Oaklanders, including Oaklandca.gov. You can read her posts here.