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Being the other end

They have my number, so they call me.

Nothing about my job is life or death, but it’s not insignificant either. Parents, children, and court orders fill my day. The parents call me because they don’t know who else to call and I usually have an answer. They don’t always like the answer and I’m not naive enough to believe they always accept it (or act on it), but some do, and the course of lives change. It may not always be a big change. In fact it’s probably always a small one, but I like to think it’s a nudge in the right direction, making a few lives a little easier than they would have been. And they add up.

Other times, when I’m not on the phone, I’m a cog in the government machine, spinning out my little piece the best I can.

Or I’m a shot of oil, trying to help the cogs around me spin a little easier.

Or I’m a mechanic, putting a cog back in place if it needs a little help.

My job lets me do lot of different things, but in the end they’re all about helping someone else. Most of the time you’d never know. As long as I’m doing it right you wouldn’t, and that’s ok with me. I’m one of those people who’s uncomfortable with attention, even if it’s to recognize a job well done. My preferred reward is a calm, reassured voice on the other end of the phone, a coworker who’s a little more confident, or a service to the public that runs a little more smoothly with the odd line or two of code.

What bothers me… what I think might fuel my depression… I think you hate me. Well, maybe not you, but the public taken as a whole.

From my perspective, Republicans have spent the last forty years getting elected on the idea that government is THE problem (is there an antonym for panacea?), and doing a bang up job of making it true. It strikes me as a bit odd, to say the least… like hiring a manager for a sporting goods store who hates sports. But many of us keep electing these people, and the rhetoric seems to get harsher and angrier as the years pass.

Contrary to what some of you may think, we’re not issued a copy of the Communist Manifesto on our first day. We don’t observe a moment of silence on May Day, mourning the fall of the evil empire. We don’t spend our lunch hours thinking of ways to make your children gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We don’t attend secret meetings plotting new ways to subvert the constitution. Well, not since Bush left office anyway.

But what do I know? I’m just one person. Maybe most of my fellow civil servants don’t care. Maybe they don’t welcome accountability or relish the opportunity to serve. It may not mean much, but most of the people I work with care – and it’s a privilege to work with every one of them. At times we skip lunch, clutching a snack in one hand and pecking at a keyboard with the other, or work long days, like many of you do. To some extent, we even accept the stigma many of you associate with government work. These days we’re grateful just to be employed, and particularly mindful of our obligation to help those who need us that much more.

I believe government does good. I believe it does certain things for us the private sector can’t, won’t, or is ill-equipped to provide. I believe unregulated capitalism gives us ample reason to believe it doesn’t always produce the greater good, in the short term or long term.

It hurts when we’re treated like the enemy. It felt that way when our former governor stood on the steps of the capitol and waxed poetic about the day the government offices around him would be empty. It felt that way when the news showed scores of people shouting about taking their country back – as if we were all trying to take it away from you.

Boo-hoo, right? I understand I work for something that, as a whole, has a great deal of power. We should be watched carefully AND treated with a healthy dose of skepticism/wariness. I recognize not everything should be regulated. Government power should not be omnipresent or unchecked. But I also believe there’s a role for government – a necessary one – and we do ourselves a disservice when we demonize it, and everyone who works for it. I believe when you habitually treat the word “bureaucrat” as an epithet, you only succeed in driving away those of us who do care. I believe you create the thing you fear.

I believe attitudes have swung way too far to the extreme. Rather than working towards building an apparatus which serves us all, under those circumstances where it’s uniquely positioned to do so, we’ve become an angry mob… not just willing, but eager to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I’m not a soldier, but I am out there every day working to make your lives better; and every day I turn on the news I feel like someone’s spitting on me. The easy answer is to turn off the news, but that doesn’t solve anything. Not really. This post won’t solve anything either, but I hope it’s better than just sticking my head in the sand – or worse – quitting.

Maybe it was just the depression talking, but the other day I was talking to Cheryl and I asked her if it seemed like people (in general) grow more cynical with age. Maybe there’s good cause. Wouldn’t (doesn’t) that make a hell of a cycle?

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  1. I have been and have known many very dedicated civil servants who take their jobs very seriously, who work long hours with no extra pay, who battle to get things accomplished in a policy-heavy bureaucracy to do their bit to improve the lives of others.

    There is a psychological push back people have about products or services for which they pay (i.e. taxes) without having a say about what they are, how they operate or how much they cost. So citizens kvetch.

    In addition, government is the only organization that faces such intense scrutiny about how it operates rather than solely on what it does. Imagine if big business faced this same type of public examination?

    Hmmm…. not bad idea.

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