Photo by seanbjack on Flickr.
Please, offer your nearest local government employee a hug or at least a handshake. Repeat often.
I recently took a job in the nonprofit sector after eight years of working in our local government. First as a Council staffer, then a mayoral aide, then an agency spokesperson and senior manager, I have worked with hundreds of my fellow District residents in resolving their issues big and small.
I’ve been involved with everything from purchase orders to potholes, legislation to liquor licenses and most recently, DC Water’s massive engineering solution to the flooding problems that have plagued Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park for generations.
In doing this work, I’ve met plenty of incredibly kind and supportive people both inside and outside the government. Some have even become lifelong friends. But like many of my colleagues, I’ve also taken a beating from plenty of constituents or customers.
Especially when hidden behind a keyboard, some people apparently feel free to unload their frustrations in ways that far overshoot the bounds of civility.
Over just the past several months, my agency and I have been called insulting, negligent, cowardly, incompetent, inadequate, frustrating, cheap, clueless, mouthpieces, cowardly, villains, obstructionist, inferior, demeaning, unwilling, empty and inconsequential. My boss, a member of my staff and I were told repeatedly and publicly that we should resign or be fired. Note that all of this came from a single customer.
My message to those who say things like this is simple: knock it off. Government isn’t something that happens to people without their active involvement, and government employees are not the help. When they fail you or give you an answer you don’t like, they’re not working to make your life less pleasant on purpose.
At their best, I believe this is a group of people called to serve a greater good. Even at their worst, even if only motivated by a desire to earn a paycheck at a steady and stable job, they deserve no more ire or disrespect than any other professional in a different line of work. Would you direct words like these at a doctor, a grocery cashier or a dog walker? Hardly.
The other problem with this uncivil discourse is that it tends to be aimed squarely at people who either didn’t cause the problem or are actively trying to fix it. Taking the present management of an agency to task for something their predecessors didn’t do decades ago is neither fair nor wise — especially when they are doing it now.
It is not the DMV clerk’s fault that the law requires a certain type of document to prove your identity. And the workers standing calf-deep in cold water to fix the pipe outside your house didn’t cause it to break and interrupt your water service. Yelling at them not only demoralizes people who are working to help, but distracts them from doing the actual helping. Folks, it’s really time to stop berating the surgical team while they’re standing over the bleeding patient.
What if we instead approached our public servants with kindness, patience and gratitude? My suspicion is that we’d end up with happier people, less burnout and better government as a result.
It has been nearly 8 years, but I will always remember the words of one particularly grateful constituent in Columbia Heights long after I forget her name or the service I performed on her behalf. She wrote, “You have single-handedly restored my faith in the institution of government.”
At the time, I took great comfort in her words and hung them on my cubicle wall as a shining example of what I wished I heard more often. Today, I realize that if one’s faith — or lack of faith — in the institution of government depends on the actions of a single person, government’s relationship to its constituents is precarious at best. Even though improving that relationship isn’t my job as an employee anymore, it will always be my job as a private citizen.
And I owe those on the other side of the service window, the phone line or the email inbox the same courtesy I hope they will extend to me.