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» Hatrack River Forum » Active Forums » Books, Films, Food and Culture » Government Employees (Or: Dan's Exciting Morning!)

   
Author Topic: Government Employees (Or: Dan's Exciting Morning!)
Dan_Frank
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So, I want to relay an anecdote that happened to me this morning. As is my wont, I also took this opportunity to think about government employees and how I might characterize them.

First, the anecdote, devoid of political opinions:

Necessary pre-story knowledge: My car is busted, so I am currently using an older-than-dirt loaner pickup truck. It's normally quite reliable, despite being at least as much rust as steel.

So, I had an important client event at the office today (spoiler: it's going wonderfully, hurray!) I left with huge lead time, both because I wanted to arrive early to ensure the space was prepped right, and because I wanted to allow for potentially horrendous rush hour traffic (when we don't have events I come into the office at off-peak hours to avoid rush hour). I left so early that I missed rush hour completely. Everything was going swimmingly.

I was just a few exits from my destination on the highway when the tire blew on the truck. And when I saw blew, I mean the damn thing freaking exploded, nothing but frayed strips of rubber and twisted metal.

Sadly, I don't have Triple A or any similar service (I know, foolish of me.) But never fear! The truck had a spare. The owner of the truck also had a lug wrench, so I was in business. Except... where's the jack? What good is a lug wrench and a spare tire and even a fully loaded tool box if there's no jack?

(Admission of Dumb: It turns out the jack was under the hood, which was the one place I didn't check, because, well, what the heck? I'm a small car kind of guy, not a pickup guy, so if this is common thing for pickups I guess I'm just showing my ignorance.)

So, with no jack, I was basically outta luck. I bit the bullet and called a towing service. The initial quoted price sounded painful but tolerable, since I really, really had to get to work. But when the local guy called and said they had to add another hundred bucks for X reason, I started to choke.

As I was trying to decide, up pulled a highway patrolman on a motorcycle. I hung up with the towing company, and the cop clearing the highway so that I could make my way to the shoulder (the tire blew when I was in the left lane, so I'd pulled onto the center divide gap instead of the much larger shoulder.) He also said he had a Freeway Service Patrol truck coming to help out. I'd never heard of these guys before, but I was about to learn. Oh my yes.

So during the brief period of cleared vehicles I limped the poor truck over to the shoulder, and waited. The FSP truck showed up a little while later, and a smiling young guy hopped out, discussed the situation with me, and then proceeded to change my tire. He was quick, friendly, and efficient.

I thanked him for being a lifesaver, and made it to the office with 20 minutes to spare.

It was a crazy morning, filled with ups and downs, but I probably managed to boring it up in the retelling. Anyway, this brings me to the rest of my point, which is what I was thinking about while I was waiting, and then on the drive to work.

---

Here come the thoughts on government employees. Political musings ahead!

I was thinking about how grateful I was to the cop, and the FSP guy (who, I now know, was technically a private worker in a public partnership, but I think that public/private partnership jobs tend to shake out in a similar way to straight government jobs, so I won't dwell on that.) They saved my bacon. And they were both incredibly kind, friendly, and helpful.

Contrast this, say, to my experience at the DMV, or with the TSA. In both cases the employees have a strong tendency to be officious, pedantic bureaucrats that demand respect and submission instead of offering friendly services. Don't get me wrong, I've seen some grand exceptions in both of those departments, but they were the exceptions. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Why is this?

I'm going to oversimplify government jobs into two categories.

Obviously, people are unique and have unique preferences and predilections, so bear in mind that in the upcoming generalizations I'm knowingly glossing over this a bit. I'm judging them collectively. ( [Wink] to Tom, if he's reading)

Also, I know that some government jobs just wouldn't fit into my categories very well. In that case, just ignore that job for now. I'm aware that I'm oversimplifying a bit, but I think it helps to throw these two ideas into starker contrast, so I'm going to go ahead and do it.

The two categories I'm thinking of are: government employees in service to the people, and government employees as gatekeepers of government-controlled goods/services.

In the first category: FSP workers have their job because people need help on the freeway. That's it! So sure, some guys may still be bitter, just doing their job for it's own sake, but the natural inclination of a job like that is going to be, at some level, what I'd call customer-service oriented. There's no special rules people have to follow to get their help; the only requirement is that you need help.

In the second category: The purpose of a TSA agent's job is to, in some small measure, control you. You have to pass their requirements to receive what you want. If you don't do things correctly, they can (or are even required to) bar you from your desire. They aren't providing you a service, they're a barrier you have to overcome to get a service. They exercise real, tangible power over you.

FSP agents have "power" over you the way that Wal-Mart might have power over you: they offer something that you want. The FSP system is set up to offer it for free, which is great for people like me, but even if it was a voluntary service that they charged you for, there's no reason the dynamic would change. If the price was more than I wanted pay, I'd decline and be no worse off than before. I'd have lots of alternatives.

But TSA agents have the power to interfere with what you've already paid for, if you don't jump through their hoops. If you don't respect them enough. You have no alternatives, other than completely removing yourself from the market the TSA controls.

Ditto for the DMV, and the IRS.

They don't provide a service that we get to experience firsthand, but the armed forces are an example of an agency sort of like the FSP: As everyone says, they fight for the protection of civilians at home. One could argue that by the fact that civilians need not experience it firsthand, they've provided their service.

I think the causality of this runs mostly in self-selecting patterns; people go into the job that suits their preexisting attitude. But I wouldn't be surprised if there is also a lot of worldview distortion caused by this, with people shifting their behavior based on the needs/culture of their business.

Police are an interesting case, because they essentially alternate between both roles, depending on circumstance. Most of the time, when I need help, I find cops to be really friendly and helpful, and when I've transgressed against the law, they're usually less so.

There are more exceptions in both cases, I think, probably because of of the dual nature of the role: People of both predispositions can self-select into the job. So you run into the very friendly laid back helpful guy at the speed trap, and the awful, power-tripping jerk responding to ostensibly help you and take your statement.

I think teachers are actually in a similar boat as cops, due to the authoritarian fabric of the school system contrasted with the primary goal of helping and benefitting kids.

Anyway, that's the sum of my thoughts while sitting on the side of the road trying not to completely lose it over the prospect of being late to today's event. As best as I can recall them, anyway.

I kind of suspect people will either decry these musings as oversimplified to the point of uselessness, or so patently obvious as to not even be worth saying (prediction: someone says both)... but it was fun to type up anyway, so I don't mind.

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TomDavidson
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I don't think it's even a government thing. I think people who provide services directly to the individuals they encounter will have very dynamically different interactions with those customers than people whose jobs do not involve customer service -- and may in fact negatively impact the people they encounter. Consider the classic example of a private gatekeeper, the insurance adjuster.
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Dan_Frank
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Good point!

Yeah, on reflection I remember my time in the financial sector also demonstrated this to an extent.

Back office processors were much happier to levy punitive fees over trivial issues, send harsh letters, etc. while most customer-facing associates were at least a bit more sympathetic to a given individual's situation.

Come to think of it, in general, because of the wonky relationship between an individual and their bank, even customer facing bank associates had a stronger tendency to take on the gatekeeper role than any other customer service position I've ever seen.

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rivka
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I suspect pay scale matters a lot as well. It has been my impression that DMV employees don't get paid all that well, and it's certainly true for TSA.
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Dan_Frank
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Interesting suggestion, Rivka. To a certain extent that may be true, but I can perceive some pretty notable gaps. For example, I have good experiences with most low-end food service workers... dive diner wait staff, QSR employees, and even a good percentage of fast food workers, all of whom I suspect make less than TSA agents.

Although this may be one of those cases where it helps to know how to speak someone's language, so to speak, since those above groups are notorious for not having sterling customer-service skills.

Also, how do IRS agents stack up for pay? I have less personal experience with them, but what little I have had was mostly... unpleasant. Perhaps that was isolated, though pop culture and google suggest otherwise.

Hmm, the more I think about it, the more I think the pay scale issue isn't a huge factor in what I'm talking about. I think pay scale definitely corresponds with competence and positive attitude. But a surly fast food worker is just generally rude... he isn't really trying to control you, or demanding you treat him with "respect," the way, say, TSA is notorious for doing. Heck, wasn't it the higher ups (presumably making good money) within the TSA that pushed to make it potentially illegal to satirize their organization? That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. Do you see what I mean?

And I think perhaps IRS agents are less surly and more professional than most TSA workers, but still trend towards a fundamentally... hmmm... haughty?... attitude. Ditto for the power-tripping cops, who make plenty more than most food service workers.

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rivka
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Of course pay isn't the only factor. But the combination of low pay and a lot of power is a very bad one.

I wonder how much of the rap IRS auditors get is because people have a great deal of fear and loathing before they even meet them? Have you ever watched Stranger Than Fiction?

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Dan_Frank
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I'll agree to that completely. Low pay certainly makes it worse.

Re: IRS auditors...yeah, I've wondered that too. It's got to be a factor, but I have no idea how much of one.

Haven't seen Stranger Than Fiction. Sounds familiar. Oscar bait?

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rivka
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You should watch it. I bought the DVD, and I don't buy many. But I re-watch it every year or so (this week, most recently), and it's awesome.
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kmbboots
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I love that film.
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Jake
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Me too. Probably about time for a rewrite.
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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by kmbboots:
I love that film.

Yeah, but you have to. [Wink]

quote:
Originally posted by Jake:
Me too. Probably about time for a rewrite.

I see what you did there.
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Samprimary
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Our DMV is funded based on 1980 dollars and 1980 census figures. How they manage is anyone's guess
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Dan_Frank
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Just goes to show you we could cut the budget and staff of all DMVs to 1980s levels and they'd be able to get by! [Wink]
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BBegley
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As a government employee (I write software for state police), I can confirm that government workers fall into two categories, but I disagree with your reasons why.

We all know that government employees are difficult to fire. They also cannot be paid more (outside of seniority or step raises) than anyone else doing the same job. The supervisors have neither carrot nor stick.

What that means is that the people who want to be productive are productive. The people who don't, aren't.

You may be more likely to run into a friendly officer than DMV worker. I'm not sure that's true, but let's assume it is. The officer is almost certainly in his chosen profession.

I've never met anyone whose lifelong ambition was to be a dmv clerk. It's a way to make money, and because of the way government retirements are set up, it gets harder and harder to leave every year.

At DMV, you are typically interacting with the portion of the workforce that hasn't moved into management. Those people have often been in that role for years, with seemingly endless years on the horizon ahead of them.

I love writing code, but I struggle from time to time with the mindless bureaucracy that surrounds me. I can't imagine what it would be like if that's all my job was.

All that said, my last two trips to the DMV were both pleasant and quick.

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Dan_Frank
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Yeah, BBegley, that makes a lot of sense.

In fairness to all the DMV workers reading this, I've also had pleasant experiences there. Particularly at the small-town DMV I went to in Arizona. A bit less so here in CA.

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