Should Undercover Boss take on a Governmental Agency?

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This topic contains 50 replies, has 35 voices, and was last updated by  Sterling Whitehead 11 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #92418

    I don’t know if you’ve seen Undercover Boss on CBS on Sunday evenings yet, but it’s a fascinating concept. The idea is that executives try out various entry-level/frontline positions within their own companies over the course of a week to see what’s really going on. They assume a different identity for these interactions and then reveal to employees who they really are at the end of each episode. So far, Waste Management and Hooters have been featured. These executives return to the corporate offices with a renewed perspective and then make policy changes, recognize or promote employees, interact differently with the field, etc.

    Do you think Undercover Boss should be taken to a governmental agency or department? Which ones? What would they find? What improvements would be made in the way the agency operates? How would communications be improved between the frontline and executive management?

  • #92518

    Sterling Whitehead

    Fantastic idea. DHS and DOL immediately come to mind.

  • #92516


    yes yes yes!

  • #92514


    I agree that it is a fantastic idea, but I’d wonder if the “boss” of an agency is recognizable to the people of the agency, which defeats the purpose of going undercover.

  • #92512

    Sam Allgood

    Yes … in fact, I had the same thought when I saw the Undercover Boss commercial again recently.

  • #92510

    Steve Ressler

    It would be great to do it right before a new head came in and before his/her face was put all over office buildings.

    Department of State and all the embassys would be interesting as well.

  • #92508

    Scott Horvath

    It’s a great idea, but it might even be smarter to get someone who’s been entrenched at higher levels of the agency for many years and KNOWS the agency from THEIR perspective…then send them down to the trenches, away from HQ and see what happens.

  • #92506

    e. tyna coles

    I think this would be a rewarding and enlightening experience for senior managers. DOL and VA come to mind but any agency could benefit from having those who manage the organization understand how the work is actually accomplished. A great opportunity for the bosses to get a handle on how the work is done and view for themselves how public policy is implemented where the rubber meets the road.

  • #92504

    I think this would be a wonderful idea. Especially when it comes to internal policies and processes. Often times these are created in a vacuum by upper management without any lower level involvement or input. I believe this is exactly what this show demonstrates is missing.

  • #92502

    Justin Williams

    I think Gov employees are much more intune with their leadership. I don’t think an agency director could go under the radar like they are able to in the private sector.

    Of course It would be interesting….

  • #92500

    Don Jacobson

    I don’t think the big bosses would even need to go “undercover.” The key is that they carve out time to stay in touch with what’s really going on at the front lines.

    In his fabulous book Many Unhappy Returns, former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti describes how on several occasions he went out to IRS field offices and spent an entire day with a front-line employee to get a feel for the challenges they were dealing with on a day-to-day basis. Those experiences had a direct impact on how he approached his [inspiring and highly successful] efforts to transform the IRS. Rossotti’s method of getting a feel for the real work of his agency would be very easy to replicate for senior executives in any agency. The key challenge for them is simply making time to do it. Senior executives are often reluctant to break away from their hectic daily routine, but getting this kind of reality check is one of the best investments of time they can make. Just as employees need to be in alignment with their agency’s mission, senior executives need to be in alignment with the needs of the employees they are there to serve/support.


  • #92498

    Teri Centner

    It would be cool if Secretary Napolitano spend a day with five different organizations with DHS so she can see where they do/don’t work together well.

  • #92496

    Teri Centner

    Oh, yeah. I like the VA idea too. Send the big boss down to be an orderly, pharmacist assistant, receptionist, etc. That could be good.

  • #92494

    Teri Centner

    During the Hooters episode, Coby Moore said he thought he would be recognized, but he shaved his goatee and all was well. I think if somebody isn’t *expected* in a certain location, they can change their appearance just a little and get away with the charade.

  • #92492

    It’s amazing what can be done with small changes like facial hair, glasses, caps, and clothing.

  • #92490

    Amanda Blount

    OH YES!! And one area I think should be visited – Military hospitals or clinics. Send in a congress person as a private E-3 into a military clinic or hospital and see the ropes these poor soldiers have to jump through just to get good care. This would be very eye opening to congress. I am an officer and I hate the way soldiers are treated when they need care. I really would like to see a real honest to goodness story done on that alone.

  • #92488


    No, The government is not a corporation,

  • #92486

    Dawn Boyer


    Send them into the procurement offices to see where the procurement staff (new, naive, relatively new to the business) are screwing up!

  • #92484

    Anybody see last night’s episode with Mayor Mark Mallory of Cincinnati? Way to go, Mayor Mallory, for taking this unique look at the city, its operations, and its employees! I commend your efforts. I wonder if he saw this post of mine…

  • #92482

    Steve Ressler

    Was awesome especially as Cincinnatian by birth.

    Wish they would have shown some knowledge worker jobs too (IT, HR, budget, procurement) but I guess that would have been more boring

  • #92480

    Stephen Peteritas

    Man that would be awesome BUT would this help or hurt people’s perception of gov’t? The one thing I learned in TV is if you shoot enough footage you can make reality seem like anything you want it to be.

  • #92478

    Denise Petet

    I think it can’t hurt.

    All too often the leaders of any organization end up in their ‘ivory tower’. They see what middle management wants them to see, hear what MM wants them to hear, etc. (And, of course, there are those that just dont’ care and like it nice and isolated fromt he riffraff 🙂 )

    Leaders often get the ‘i want this done so make it happen’ attitude. Perks of the job I guess, but then they don’t understand when the rank and file can’t do the same. they’re the boss, they really have no one to answer to, in my position, at one point in time, I had two nitpicky ‘i’m just sure you’re cheating so let’s micromange you to pieces’ managers above me.

    For example, there was one time I was supporting the big boss. The vehicle I had to drive was a 16 passenger van. The boss was like ‘why are you driving that beast?’ I said ‘it’s what I have to drive’, the reply ‘tell your boss you can drive your own car’. The boss drives their own vehicle and is reimbursed for mileage. Yet I had a manager above me who had dictated if we chose to drive our own car, we would not be reimbursed for mileage. We HAD to take the van, despite the fact that it was a gas beast as compared to my vehicle.

    I couldn’t tell the big boss ‘well so and so says….’ because I wasn’t going to start that battle since I knew any and all fallout would land squarely upon my head. So I just said ‘thanks’ and dropped it.

    The big boss is used to wanting something done and its’ done. But it’s not that way for the rest of us. We have hoops to jump through and no shortage of people ready and willing to tell us no.

    That said, bosses don’t necessarily need to be undercover. Get out of your office. Get to know regular employees, and not just those that middle management wants you to talk to or steers you towards. Sure, there are some bad apples and some people that they’ll walk away thinking ‘wow, who hired that guy???’, but, I think more than that, there will be a lot of employees, often with good ideas, that end up being stifled by middle management.

    Maybe, instead of going undercover, the big boss has a monthly/biannual ‘lottery’…where lower level folks are randomly chosen (and i mean real random, not just who the middle managers funnel up), to have a open forum with the leader. let them sound off, let them show ideas, let them talk about what they see as lapses or strangle points in the work flow.

    Have the big boss open him/herself up to the lower employees and see what happens.

  • #92476

    Mark Hammer

    Although it would be unlikely for a senior manager in any federal agency to remain incognito for long, it is important for the effective planning in any organization that those tasked with higher-level planning have a clear idea of what happens on the front line, shop floor, or whatever metaphor you want to use.

    We had a program in our federal agncy in which the VP of each branch would spend a day in an entry level job in a different branch. The intent was to give them a better sense of how the operational side of that branch worked. Good program. Too bad it ended.

  • #92474

    Allen Sheaprd

    Yes- but I doubt they understand the business. The CBS show features a boss who knows the business. I do not get the same “warm and fuzzy” feeling with Federal government nor at times local government Yes that could have been a “career limiting statement” If I’m right then it points to something that needs to be addressed.

  • #92472

    Allen Sheaprd


    A few “open forum” meetings I’ve been in lacked real honesty. People where worried about loosing their jobs.

    I would rather the boss sees what goes on for themselves. Even do the job for a few hours.

  • #92470

    Allen Sheaprd


    I think it would help. Often the people at the top are either elected or brought over from another branch. Few ever work their way up in the branch they control.

  • #92468

    Candace Riddle

    FYI – They did take on a Governmental body last night…the City of

    Cincinnati. I thought it gave public servants a very human face and rasied a good point…those in the public sector are just as passionate, and work just as hard, if not harder than those in the private sector. I had a little quam with the Mayor stating “I’ve been in contact with my friends in the ‘corporate world’ and we would like to give you $10,000 towards…”. It is typical for all past Undercover Bosses in the private world to give bonuses or trips etc. to employees that they worked with while undercover, but I thought this looked a bit corrupt for a public body. It doesn’t mean that the employees weren’t deserving, but as a government body it is important to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

    @teri Centner – FYI The Hooters’ episode featured Coby “Brooks”, not Coby Moore. Coby is the CEO of Naturally Fresh, Inc., an Atlanta, GA based food services company and the maker of the famous dressings served at Hooters. Naturally Fresh, Inc. was rebranded as such from Eastern Foods in 2002; the same year that Coby’s father, Robert H. Brooks, acquired Hooters of America, Inc. from the 6 original owners in Clearwater, FL. Upon Robert H. Brooks’ passing in 2006, Coby Brooks, and Bob’s daughter Bonnie Belle Brooks, were Willed as successors. The operations of each company continue under Coby’s leadership today.

  • #92466

    Megan Dotson

    In fact, this is the mentality of this show too. I know of people involved with the Choice Hotels episode of “Undercover Boss” and they said they took weeks of footage and kept filming until they had a handful of “warm and fuzzy”stories to run with. All of the clips are 100% real; they just may not me the first 6-7 people that were involved with the undercover boss. I think this is the same approach they take for all their episodes, including last nights with the Mayor of Cincinnati which they didn’t spin negatively because it’s not what the show is about.

  • #92464

    Eric Erickson

    I seriously doubt any agency would give the green light. As Jay indicates, the bosses generally go back with a renewed perspective after discovering room for improvement. How would taxpayers and politicians react when they see operational flaws in their government. It’s one thing to talk about the need for change…it’s quite another thing to actually see it on television. Finally, there is quite a bit of rhetoric in the media right now being spewed against government employees, something like this could actually fuel the anti-government fire.

  • #92462

    Denise Petet

    very true. People are worried about losing their jobs. Or opening themselves up to payback.

    any employee criticizing the process usually opens him/herself up to ‘how dare you speak against me’ reprisals.

    I’d like to see them do the jobs.

  • #92460

    Lori Lewellyn

    That would definitely get some good ratings!

  • #92458

    Stacy Rapp

    I actually wonder the same. It might give people an even worse perception of government employees then before. However, it does shed light on major issues of concern to the busy workers at the bottom of the organization.

  • #92456

    Chris Stinson

    While I think it can be pulled off (a undercover boss operation in government), I don’t think in many cases, those who manage have the power to change a thing. In many levels of government, at some point, all things become political (departmental or ideology lean at some degree and level), and not practical.The “Undercover Bosses” have had the final say, and carry the weight to create the change. At the government level, you could expect a report, to be reviewed by a committee, to create another report on the findings of the first report, that would then be distributed to the next level (up or down the chain of command) for comments. 4 years later…………….

  • #92454

    Stacy Rapp

    I worked for Frontier Airlines during their buyout by Republic Airlines, which also bought out Midwest in the same month. Bryan Bedford became the new CEO of this large airline merger. It was a huge economic impact to the cities of Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Denver. After this transition, employee morale had gone down tremendously and if you have ever been through this process you probably know what it’s like to be stripped away of this and that through a merger.

    Well, for whatever reason, he decided to do the whole undercover boss thing. To see him working next to a ramp agent or as an airline steward was a very interesting concept to see. It was probably a great way for him to gain some knowledge from an operational stand point as well. Policy is sometimes made without considering the operational impacts. I think this whole concept sheds alot of light on the reality. Whether or not their is positive change as a result is dependent upon the CEO though.

    I would love for a senator to be willing to participate. Maybe just on the inefficiencies that the lack of a true budget can cause interdepartmentaly. We might all learn something as we watch C-Span and congress battling out a compromise in Washington, while the largest employer in the world is left unsure of their budget. I think it would shed a huge heap on inefficiencies that Americans would either:

    1) Be outraged

    2) People might actually turn to their senators and congress and expect them to be able to come up with better compromises. (Although I don’t think this would solve the whole “I’m not going to reach across the aisle problem”.)

    I would love to see a senator step up to that challenge!

    As far as the disguise, Bryan Bedford pulled off the disguise and I wouldn’t have recognized him either even though his picture was commonly on our Intranet website as well as in our inflight magazine. I think if you don’t know the person, how they talk etc. you probably are not going to recognize them.

  • #92452

    Justin Mosebach

    Yeah they should! To make it even more wide-spread and affective, what if local news stations did a special on this for their local government? CBS could do it as a special day that all of their affiliates showed their local gov’t at a certain time.

    Full-disclosure: I work for an IT company that works w/ local gov on things such as video.

  • #92450

    Ilyne Miller

    I’ve never seen the show, but wonder what effect this has on trust. I do like the idea of senior managers participating in the trenches for awhile to get a better understanding of the challenges their employees’ face. But, I prefer that it be done honestly and openly, building trust and respect at all levels of the organization.

  • #92448

    Ed Albetski

    Having seen the show, one of the highlights at the end of each show is having the boss reward the unsung hard-working employee. Federal work has limited “carrots” as well as limited “sticks” at bosses’ disposal to mete out. The justifying paperwork and all the regulations might make this a nightmare. Also we don’t need any footage to reinforce the negative stereotype all ready in too many folks’ minds about public service workers. It might be a tough sell to any agency. It would be cool to see though…

  • #92446

    Caryn Wesner-Early

    David Kappos, at the US Patent & Trademark Office, has a “lunch with the director” program where people just sign up, and can eat with him. He also eats in the cafeteria, along with everyone else. We’re all impressed!

  • #92444


    Amen – and it has to be somebody with the ability to make direct changes vs somebody who can only start up a committee to noodle it for an eon. If a soldier blogged this, it wouldn’t move mountains. If a journalist exposed it (like many have) it would only cause cover-up, not real significant improvement. It has to be a commander or somebody really high up who can make things shift.

  • #92442

    Christina Evans

    CBC television (in Canada) has been running a series called “Make the Politician Work”, where they take some fairly high level political leaders and put them to work “in the trenches” of an industry related to their job for a couple of days. They put the Defence Minister through field training for deployment to Afghanistan, an East coast provincial premier worked on a lobster fishing boat, a western political leader worked on a cattle ranch, etc. Nothing secret about it, everyone knows who they are, but designed to really be an eye-opener to the politicians as to what “real people” do for a living. Make the Politician Work


  • #92440


    I respectfully disagree. The only difference is that the government isn’t out for profit. It’s still big, bureaucratic, and has decomposable units with hierarchical management. It has operations with staff, budgets, missions, and values. The government purveys services and information to constituent consumers.

    Too many times I see management blindly trust (or maybe they don’t care) that lower level management is doing what they’re supposed to because the status report looked OK. If senior leadership can’t get in there and follow up for themselves, they won’t ever have the insight they should to make beneficial changes.

  • #92438

    Denise Petet

    As far as the disguise, Bryan Bedford pulled off the disguise and I wouldn’t have recognized him either even though his picture was commonly on our Intranet website as well as in our inflight magazine. I think if you don’t know the person, how they talk etc. you probably are not going to recognize them.

    sometimes the biggest disguise there is is them simply being there. Do you expect to see mister 9 million a year bagging fries? Or see the CEO fishing poo out of a pool?

    I gave up watching UCB because it all seemed so rigged to me. The CEO always runs into people that touch them ‘just’ where they need to be tuoched (as in the woman who’d lost her child etc, they tugged on just the right emotional heartstrings). That said, in some of the earlier episodes there were examples of ‘ok, that policy sucks, let’s tweak it to make ti work better’. In the later episodes it all seemed to be a ‘undercover boss lotto’, where the 4-5 people they interacted with got nice big ‘prizes’ and the rest pretty much got ignored…it was heavy into individual recognition rather than looking at bigger issues. just teh same show week after week….we the viewer see just how incompetant your average CEO is, those lucky few that interact with him/her got nice vacations or raises out of it and nothing in the company was really going to change.

  • #92436

    Denise Petet

    maybe to make it work it’s a combo of trust and integrity.

    the boss isn’t under cover. There aren’t any huge cash prizes or bonuses. But the boss doesn’t come to see the sugar coated job either. They don’t come to do the cherry picked ‘let’s not make them get dirty’ job. They honestly and truthfully work. And are held accountable for their work. If they don’t fill the pothole right, then they do ti again….just like the regular workers.

    So you need the boss with the right attitude (which is the saddest irony about UCB in the first place…those that need the attitude adjustment the worst are those that are the least likely to ever ‘lower themselves’ to do it), you need the ‘guide’ for the boss with the right attitude (not a suck up, but a person that isn’t afraid of said boss) and you need real situations for the boss to deal with, not set up ones organized to protect said boss.

  • #92434

    Allen Sheaprd

    Thank you Denise.

    Also by doing the job they not only see how difficult it is but what is important.

    Its something I’ve learned to do. A DBA does not know how to work the application but it helps. It helps a great deal in understanding their job. Its easier for me to learn their language than ask them to learn mine.

  • #92432

    Allen Sheaprd

    Having the boss come and work my job would be great.

    Its easier for him see my job than it is for me to explain it to him in a way that fills in any misconceptions.

    I’ve learned its easier for me to learn their language than ask them to learn mine.

  • #92430

    Carol Davison

    Send them to the organization with the worst turnover rate.

  • #92428

    Shannon Kennedy

    I think that’s an awesome idea and a great question. People have their opinions about government agencies and employees, but what would they say if they actually got a look inside an agency?

  • #92426

    Kay J. Blake

    That is a fabulous idea. It would show the everyday happenings and what really makes government run.

  • #92424

    I think they should go undercover at a typical staff meeting. See how leadership communications are processed, reflected on, critiqued by the people. Though we all know who the Secretary and Commissioner are I think. And they’re already pretty down to earth.

    Wait, I have an idea. They could go to the gym…where we all look so shleppy that you can’t tell who’s who 🙂

    Seriously. The difference between gov and private sector (VERY very generally) is that in gov it is the midlevel career manager who is most vital to supporting the frontline employee. The word may come down from above but the manager is the one in the trenches whose support makes it real. Vs in private sector when the CEO speaks everybody listens.

  • #92422

    I think they should go undercover at a typical staff meeting. See how leadership communications are processed, reflected on, critiqued by the people. Though we all know who the Secretary and Commissioner are I think. And they’re already pretty down to earth.

    Wait, I have an idea. They could go to the gym…where we all look so shleppy that you can’t tell who’s who 🙂

    Seriously. The difference between gov and private sector (VERY very generally) is that in gov it is the midlevel career manager who is most vital to supporting the frontline employee. The word may come down from above but the manager is the one in the trenches whose support makes it real. Vs in private sector when the CEO speaks everybody listens.

  • #92420

    Denise Petet

    I’ve seen just as many cases of ‘the governor wants this, make it happen’ or ‘the secretary wants this, make it happen’ as I have ‘the ceo wants this, make it happen’

    To me the biggest difference between public and private sector is – generally – in the private sector ‘success’ is profit orientated, which leads to those that can achieve profit goals getting promotions, raises and more power, while in the public sector it’s less ‘money in my pocket’ (largely because public employees can be statutorially prohibited from getting bonuses) and more power orientated…those that can make the boss’ goals come true get promoted into positions of more power. And then in using that power, they can make their money.

    And what gets lost in both public and private sector is the cost to the employees….such as ‘sure, this way is the most efficient way to drive a trash route, but it means that employees can’t even take bathroom breaks and maintain their quota of pickups’ (as was seen in a first season episode of undercover boss. The CEO literally had no idea that people weren’t allowed time to go pee on their routes, all he knew was that they had a goal of so many pickups in a certain time span.)

    The disconnect between big boss (ceo, secretary, governor, mayor whatever) and ‘grunt’ is still there, and middle managers are still motivated to keep the boss happy, sometimes regardless of how employees are treated, and the big boss has no idea how the middle manager REALLY gets things done.

    At the end of the day, I think that’s the goal of undercover boss, to remove all the middle managers and allow the bosses to see how things really happen vs what a middle manager tells them.

    Middle managers can be, in my opinion, the biggest obstacle for any company, be it public or private. Some are good, some are truly horrible. If you have a big boss that gets out of his/her office and looks around every once in a while, then it sometimes helps the lower level employee. But, all too often, what there is is a big boss who either lacks the time or initiative or really doesn’t care HOW things get done, as long as goals are met and quotas made.

    And then you end up with a middle manager that truly makes work atmospheres horrible, employees unhappy and fed up, and the real root of the problem is never addressed, because the middle manager sure isn’t going to speak up and say ‘umm, think i’m the problem’.

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