I Have to Ask You: Local Government Stereotypes

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Samantha Timko, ‎Assistant Structural Innovation Manager at City of Fort Lauderdale, FL, takes on local government stereotypes.


By Samantha Timko

What stereotypes about local government employees bother you the most?

  • Stereotype (noun): a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. Synonyms: standard/conventional image, received idea, cliché, hackneyed idea, formula
  • Bureaucracy (noun): a body of nonelective government officials.  An administrative policy-making group.  A government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority.  A system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation.  Synonyms: civil service, government, administration
  • Bureaucrat (noun): an official in a government department, in particular one perceived as being concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs.  Synonyms: official, office holder, administrator, public servant, civil servant, functionary

You hear the word bureaucracy and shudder.  No matter who you are or what you do.  Yes, even us local government employees, who are, by definition, bureaucrats working for a bureaucracy.  

When you look at the definition of bureaucracy it’s pretty straightforward in defining local government.  We are a group of non-elected government officials, with specialized functions, adhering to rules, and operating in a hierarchy of authority. The bureaucrat definition, however, is a little annoying, particularly on the part of being more concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs.  That seems somewhat counterintuitive to government, which is really of the people, by the people, for the people, right?  But alas, here we are.

Bureaucracy has such a negative connotation, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published an article analyzing the extent of bureaucracy within organizations, based on 7,000 HBR readers responses to an assessment. By taking this assessment, an organization could determine what the authors termed the organization’s Bureaucracy Mass Index (BMI). Responses were organized into seven categories of “bureaucratic drag”: bloat, friction, insularity, disempowerment, risk aversion, inertia, and politicking.  The idea is that the responding organizations can now use their results to determine how much bureaucracy is costing their organization in time and energy.  Throughout the entire article, the word bureaucracy is surrounded by negativity: burden, bureaucratic sclerosis, hamstrung, chores, little or no value, swamped, slow, disempowerment, imposed, resisted, failure, indifference, skepticism, blight…should I go on?  No thanks.

So you ask me what stereotypes about local government employees bother me the most. Well, it’s all right there.  It’s the stereotypes that local government employees are slow or lazy, don’t care about what they do or the people in the community, operate in backwards processes and are resistant to change, and so on.      

Based on the results of the HBR BMI assessment, I think it’s certainly safe to say that it’s not just government and government employees that are impacted by the seven “bureaucratic drags” defined by the authors.  In fact, the assessment found that it was the customer service, sales and account management, production, distribution and logistics, and research and development fields that were seeing a greater growth in bureaucracy than human resources, finance and accounting, strategy and planning, purchasing, and administration.  When looking at the above, outside of customer service, government (or at least the government functions that are seen the most as being burdensome to moving projects/services forward), tend to fall in the second grouping.  How often do we hear the bureaucracy stereotypes applied to private sector organizations?  Not really that often.  More so we hear how government should be more like the private sector, should contract out more services, and adopt more of their practices.

Increasingly we are seeing and hearing about various local governments across the country implementing process improvement and performance management programs, in part to counter some of these bureaucratic stereotypes and issues (Let’s get things done faster! Let’s show our value!  Let’s provide services our community actually wants!  Let’s open up our data to be more transparent!).  All you need to do is browse the Governing, Alliance for Innovation, ELGL, What Works Cities, (and others) websites to see all of the great, innovative, and new things local government employees are doing to be faster, to enhance services, and to do more with less.

Better yet, you can actually talk to local government employees.  If you really want to see how much local government employees care about what they do and how well they strive to do their jobs, all you need to do is ask them to show you what they do.  You’ll see the most passionate Water Treatment Plant Operators, caring Code Compliance Officers, dedicated Utility Billing Clerks, creative Planners, and fun Police Officers.  Another idea, the next time you are interviewing job candidates, ask them why they want to work for local government.  The response I get, almost all the time, is because they want to make a difference (the local level is where it happens), be part of the community they are working for, or to see the impact, first-hand, that local services have at making a community better.  You do not hear responses such as, because it’s easy, because I don’t want to work hard, or because I really like shuffling around paper.  If you do, you probably want to reconsider them as a prospective job candidate for any job, local government or not.  

Check out the video below to see some of the great, non-sloth, local government Community Builders in Fort Lauderdale.

One Call Away_City of Fort Lauderdale from LCStudioS on Vimeo.


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