Friday, April 28, 2006

Government Work – Take 2

Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility. ~Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The reader of previous entries to this blog (whoever you are) will recall that I have been known to take my potshots at government. But the perceptive reader (should I ever have one) will note that my beef is with politicians, not the average employee. This gibes with my feeling about corporations in that the average joe or josephine is doing his or her level best, but the guys at the top have pretty much the same motivation that politicians have. That is, they're out to get theirs, whether “theirs” is power or money or (more likely) both. Whether you get it from lobbyists as “honoraria” or from stockholders (and your customers) as “bonuses” and “perks”, it's the same thing.

Having got that out of my system, I'd like to address some common misconceptions about so-called “differences” between government and business operations. Take notes; this will be on the exam.

You can't fire government employees.
Sure, you can. It happens all the time. Just as in business, you have to follow all the appropriate procedures to do so, and those are pretty much the same procedures. Businesses, though, often fall back on layoffs, which are not as easy in government. To avoid the termination process, they declare someone to be “surplus”. Then they wait six months, while everyone works extra to cover the job that supposedly wasn't needed. After that period, they can hire anyone for the job. This is why you have all those lawsuits, because people aren't stupid and know when they've gotten the shaft.

Government should be run like a business.
To do what: Make a profit? Government is here to provide needed services. When government starts acting businesslike, the services suffer, the voters really get mad, and they elect people who'll run government like government. When corporations make bad business decisions, like ignoring what your engineers tell them, you get product recalls. You want an example of government trying to make decisions like a business would? Think NASA and Challenger.

Government regulations are just so much red tape.
Ok, it's hard to argue with this. There is no doubt that government agencies get a little nuts when preparing rules, but corporations are not so different. In Take I, I detailed one example of corporate silliness in the standards area, but if you think that was an isolated incident, here's another for you. Early in my career, right after I started at a small company, I was presented with the proper procedure for stapling pages of a report, complete with the dimensions for the location of the staple. The president of the company apparently felt the need to create this document because there isn't a federal regulation governing staple-placement.

But, bad as they might be, government regulations ensure that things are done the same way for all people. In corporations, there can be distinct differences in how rules are applied. Ask anyone who has ever wondered how the CEO got a big bonus when the company is in the red.

The government has way too many employees.
Well, there's a lot of us, to be sure. Large companies, though, have a lot of surplus running around, too. I was commiserating with a white-collar auto company employee about pending layoffs. He snorted. “No one gets laid off. One division makes a big white-collar layoff, and everyone transfers to another division until business picks up again. Hell, we even get paid relocation.” Yep, you gotta love those lean, mean corporations.

Businesses move faster than the government.
Not if you follow the rules, they don't. In fact, I have seen that both government agencies and businesses can move really fast if they feel the urgency to do so. The trouble is that government tends to do this in emergencies, businesses do it because the new CEO wants headquarters relocated nearer to where he'd like to live.

Bureaucrats can be corrupt.
Yes, some are. However, let me offer you one word: Enron. Or how about Tyco? Or maybe Adelphia? I know of two very profitable companies that managed to run into cash flow problems (for different reasons, but the end result was the same: not enough cash in the bank). In both cases, the chief financial officers diligently worked out new financing to get the companies back on solid footing. And in both cases, the financiers insisted on the CEO's being replaced. By the chief financial officers. In government, that would be considered unethical at the least; in business, it's call quid pro quo. Or “business as usual.”

Believe it or not, every government agency I've ever been associated with regards as its main purpose to serve the public. Most of the time, when agencies fail, it's because of the people that elected officials have placed in charge. You can do something about that every election day. But when corrupt corporation is screwing employees and consumers alike, you can only wait for the whole rotten structure to collapse.

When I'm standing in front of Saint Peter, I think I'll be happier to tell him I was a bureaucrat than if I'd had to tell him I was an Enron executive.

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