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By Steve Kelman

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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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Reader comments

Fri, Apr 27, 2012 Alan

The Google comparison is not persuasive because the Google people are spending Google money that Google earned. The GSA people were spending taxpayer money that the Government taxed to allow it to perform its enumberated powers. In general, people who are tightening their belts due to an economic downturn do not like seeing their money spent in this fashion.

Thu, Apr 26, 2012

I think you're on to something Steve. The overreaction will do more harm and cost far more than the GSA conference. This week, across the executive branch, employees wasted many hours responding to a data call to report on several years' worth of conference travel and expenses. I wasted an hour. If 20,000 people like me wasted an hour at an average of $50 / hour, the data call cost the taxpayer a million dollars. Crazy. "If reaction is good, overreaction must be better."

Thu, Apr 26, 2012 Mike

I certainly appreciate the question as one that needs to be asked and reflected upon. Unfortunately, the political dialog or lack there of has become quite toxic in these days of "newsbites" substituting for real honest debate. As you state, there were obvious abuses - ridiculous abuses that seem on the face to lack any sense of common sense. Yet, these abuses are obviously not isolated to the GSA or the Federal Government. What seems to annoy the most vocal of critics is the way "our" public tax dollars are spent. This is not new, however, the idea that every expenditure has to be somehow scrutinized in such a manner that it doesn't offend anyone or that it must somehow be found to be acceptable to everyone is unreasonable or a foolish way to manage public functions or expenditures. Public administrators should be held accountable, however, the government spends money on things that everyone doesn't buy-in too all the time. So we should instead empower those administrators to spend their funds in the most effective ways possible. To Google managers (to use the example) that meant funding activities that in the long-run leads to more creative and effective solutions for the company. While, unconventional, if it doesn't work - would their corporate boards continue to finance such ideas? I think not. So, as in the private sector, we need to entrust our public administrators to invest in similar ideas and acts, so that overall performance is more effective and efficient - thus producing in the long-run more "bang for the buck" and better results in the spending of taxpayers dollars.

Thu, Apr 26, 2012

People get paid to prepare and give presentations all the time. What's it matter what the presenter wears, or whether the presentation format is a powerpoint or a rap song? There may have been excesses, but many of the things being complained about are just silly. Do people think conferences just happen without prior preparation? And that no one should visit ahead of time to make sure the facilities are adequate? Most of the complaints are not only silly, but mean spirited and ill informed.

Wed, Apr 25, 2012

To take such a blatant waste of taxpayer dollars and try to make it into an act to break up the dulldroms of working in a government office is a stretch. However, government offices (at least the one I work in - the only one I have) is very boring and melancholy - similar to a morgue.

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