What Is It, You Would Say, You Do Here?

The title of this post is obviously the classic line from the 1999 flick, Office Space, and has come to define so much of how we understand what happens in industries that we don’t understand. We gaze over the tops of rows upon rows of light gray cubicles in back offices in office parks in suburbs from sea to shining sea, and wonder how many of these people are actually working. How many contribute to the bottom line and, conversely, how many get paid to take orders from the customers and pass them to the organization’s doers?

In private industry, we dispassionate observers can forgive some of the organization’s “people persons” taking up space because the company is still making money (or else, we’re told, they would quickly be out of business). We don’t know exactly what it is they do, but somebody in charge has a need for them, and in the black box of business, that’s acceptable.

But, what about in government? Remember, in government, they work for us, we pay their salaries, dammit! So when we peer over the slightly (or not-so-slightly) out-of-date light gray cubicles full of government workers, is our reaction as forgiving? Are we as dispassionate as observers? What the hell are they all doing?

Okay, sure, I’m not talking about the cops or the firefighters. Or the DEA, or the nurses, or the letter carriers, or the drivers, we get their jobs. They are government widget-makers. They do an easily definable thing that has an input (salary and benefits) and an output (criminals in jail, mail delivered, fires extinguished).

c/o https://www.learyfirefighters.org/

But, the rest of you, you government workers. What is your job about? How much solitaire have you played today? If you’re all done screwing up healthcare.gov, why haven’t you started providing the rest of us with an easily quantifiable, tangible thing that we can point to and say, “Your job is productive, you may stay.”

As a government worker with a very ill-defined job in the very poorly-understood field of public health, I’ve been promised that when the pitchfork-wielding anti-government head hunters come calling, my office is near the top of their itinerary. I’m no nurse or doctor, my car doesn’t have flashing lights or sirens, there aren’t really any concrete answers to the problems that I work on. Squishy is how I define my job. Relativistic.

But. It’s important work. And so is all of the work that my colleagues do. The accountants and human resources folks. The epidemiologists and sanitarians. The record keepers and front-line office staff. And it’s not just in public health, the same bias of assuming that government office workers are somehow less acceptable than private industry office workers permeates us all.

After all, they work for us, and what they do isn’t easily understood. Isn’t tangible. Every time a news story comes out about government, it’s about hours wasted online, loads of laundry done, work NOT done.

Where are all the stories about what’s gone right? The stories about the kids who don’t have asthma because we’ve cleaned up the air? The stories about the disease outbreaks that never get started because everyone is vaccinated? The stories about the restaurants that are closed before a single person spends two days moaning, a vomitous mess, on their bathroom floor?

Where are the stories that detail the epidemiologist seeing disease trends shift to a new zip code, which prompts the department to shift their condom giveaway program and six months later sees the incidence of those STDs drop back to normal?

They don’t exist. This isn’t to say that positive government stories don’t exist, they do. But they are overwhelmingly about some fancy new initiative. And if you can interview a twenty-something-year-old who’s applying private industry techniques to government work, it’s that much easier. But nothing about the day-to-day slog. Nothing to combat the negative stereotypes that so many of us hold.

So, this means that if government workers want their story told, they need to realize that no one but themselves will do it. The only chance to fight against negative stereotypes and work toward rebuilding their image lies in doing it themselves. Because thy’re government and they can’t count on some fancy PR firm to come in and spruce things up. (Unlike private companies can.)

This is an image rehab that won’t be conducted with a slick mass media marketing blitz, but instead will be successful only if one person sees the value in the work being done, and helps convince a friend. It will be done slowly, and at no cost, and not consistently, and often not well. But it will be done. It will be done, or those lactation consultants won’t be around much longer to ease new mothers fears, and those inspectors won’t be there to make sure the public pool is clean enough to swim in (if there even is a pool still).

So, what about you? Are you that person that sees value in the work that faceless, nameless government automatons do? Have you said anything to your friends about how they’ve kept you safe? Or are you just waiting for it to get really bad before you start helping?