Why Govies Sometimes Act Like Zombies

Zombie activist

Thanks to Redbox we were enjoying family movie night and the show was a third of the way through.

In this scene the main characters have to go to the local government office and get some help.

Right away the first word out of the clerk's mouth is "No."

They peer over at her workstation. "Why not?" says one.

"Because it's not in the computer."

"But that makes no sense," says the other.

"I'm sorry, it's not in the computer."

The first one has to restrain the second one from lunging over the desk.

Later in the movie they have to go back to the same government office.

"Come back in three days," another clerk sitting in a basement office says.

"Why three days?"


Basically it's going to take three days.

I cannot count the number of movies I have seen where government workers are portrayed as mind-numbingly rule-driven brain-dead zombies.

The reaction of the normal person, played by the main character, is always the same: Utter frustration.

They had a special on CNBC the other night called "Customer Dis-Service" that talked about the phenomenon of - well, you guessed it - customer dissatisfaction with the state of customer service these days.

Someone in the show made the point that ironically, people have less money to spend than ever and yet when they go out they expect customer service to be almost perfect.

Reminds me of when we were in Florida and someone was ordering a deli sandwich at Publix. He was haranguing the woman putting the sandwich together (this is a cold cut hero for goodness' sake) to this kind of a tune:

"That's right, put the lettuce on just like that. Now the tomato. Add the cheese....I want it just the way I want it. You know I think you were born to do this job!"

I kid you not, this customer was completely serious. It was his moment to get that sub and by golly he was going to make the absolute most out of it.

Back to the government. Why do people think we govies are stupid? I have worked with a lot of government people over the course of my career - in fact I've spent most of it in public service - and I can tell you that my colleagues are no slouches.

Yet the stereotype persists.

Having completed many projects, involving lots of task forces and cross-office meetings in a variety of agencies over the years, I think I have a hypothesis as to why:

The expectation of the customer is that we will meet their individual needs, while government is set up to meet the needs of many and varying stakeholder groups simultaneously.

This creates an inherent conflict for the government employee.

Think about it: Government bureaucracy is a set of rules meant to be applied impartially to serve a vast, vast audience.

When we do things we are not like the handcrafted jewelry makers at Etsy.com.

We are more like the hamburger makers at McDonald's.

When we make a decision we have to think about how it will play out over hundreds, thousands, even millions of subsequent reactions and interactions.

So what seems like a simple thing to the customer (the end user) can be a tremendously complicated thing to us.

And if the government employee takes matters into their own hands to provide superior customer service, what is the return on that investment for the public?

Certainly for the individual being served the return is a closer and more trusting relationship with the government, more willing compliance, and positive word-of-mouth.

But for others who may be shortchanged as a result of that interaction - because special customer service was not extended to them in particular - the actions of that individual could result in later cause for complaint.

Or, perhaps the employee who was motivated to "think different" tried to help the citizen, but along the way misstated a fact or forgot about a rule and that action was later cited as precedent for uneven compliance.

I was impressed by someone in a meeting the other day who responded to a suggestion that sounded innovative.

The person said, "I like that idea, but just keep in mind the consequences if that were to play out." And went on to list the various possibilities.

What is missing from the conversation about why govies sometimes act rigid, or like they don't care, is a broader contextual picture of the unique demands of the environment in which we find ourselves.

Actually most people do give a damn. The issue is, how do you equip them to effectively handle situations where the cut-and-dried approach just isn't going to cut it?

It's something to think about, but I liked the approach of that one employee. Who said, in effect, I'm not closing innovation down, but let's think about the risks ahead and navigate them effectively.

Hope you're enjoying the holiday weekend everyone; have a good one; and good luck!

Photo by Paradigm via Flickr
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