By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Must civil servants be boring?

There may be nothing more useful to say at this point about the GSA conference scandal. Yes, the San Francisco regional leadership made some appalling, wasteful choices about conferences. And no, problems such as these are not why we have a budget deficit, though many would like to think otherwise.

There is, though, one feature of the media and public reaction to all this that deserves note for its implications about the recruitment into and management of federal agencies. Two of the most arresting and oft-shown videos growing out of the notorious Western Regions Conference showed a clown, in bright red and other clown-typical colors, appearing at the conference and a GSA employee performing in a rap video about being commissioner for a day.

On the one hand, an important part of the ghoulish attraction to these videos involves the belief that the taxpayer was paying for the clown and that the rapper would waste money on big-screen televisions if he were commissioner for a day. However, my guess is that another part of the attraction of these videos is simply the fact of a clown at this conference and the fact that an employee was rapping.

I have heard the suggestion that the clown was in fact a government employee and therefore didn’t cost the government money (except for the costume), and that the clown was being used at the conference to make some points about management in a humorous way. I do not know if these claims are true. But I am guessing that even if they were, many would still rail at having a clown appear at a government conference. I am guessing as well that many see something scandalous in civil servants doing rap videos, regardless of the content.

What I fear is that part of the message that will come out of the GSA scandal is that civil servants need to stick to being boring. No clowning, no rapping. At all.

Now, compare this with the variety of the over-the-top features available for employees at Google headquarters. These are generally presented in the media as more than just employee perks – they are presented as a reason it is so cool to work for Google, that they do all these creative things at their office, which in turn encourage employees to be whimsical, creative, and motivated to work hard.

Federal workplaces already have a reputation among young people for having a colorless, drab, conformist, and boring culture. I fear that a lesson learned from the GSA scandal – especially since it is typical for government organizations to over-interpret lessons from problems such as these – will be that government people should stick to dark suits and to listening to boring presentations. This is not exactly a way to make federal employment attractive for a new generation of young people, or to get the  creative young people who may be exactly the kind that many agencies need.

Posted on Apr 24, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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