It’s a Stretch

For many, the age-old jokes about government work are no laughing matter.

Twentieth-century humorist and actor Will Rogers spent a good part of his career poking fun at the bureaucracy. "I don't make jokes," he would say. "I just watch the government and report the facts."

Another favorite: "Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for." And one from his pre-World War II career shows things never change: "Lord, the money we do spend on government and it's not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money 20 years ago."

Rogers wasn't the first jokester to get laughs at the government's expense, and he certainly won't be the last. Federal workers can use punch lines involving their employer more than anyone else. Think about how many times you have heard a fed start a speech with the old saw, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Ba-da-bing.

Over the years, federal government reformers have taken such jokes the wrong way -- as an indictment of civil servants. To many defenders of the federal workforce, the underlying themes of government jokes-mediocrity, waste, laziness and passivity-aren't so funny.

To some, the jokes manifest a perception problem that public servants face. The constant barrage of anti-government rhetoric feeds cynicism that deters good people from seeking federal employment. Or it feeds hostility in the public that makes the work of civil servants all the tougher.

To others, the jokes represent a truth that hurts. Some reformers believe the reality of the government is reflected in those zingers. In their view, the government needs to be restructured and revamped to work more like a fine-tuned business and less like a bungling bureaucracy.

In some cases, federal managers really are mired in cultures that reflect the good-enough-for-government laugh line. But private sector managers deal with such workplace attitudes as well. Did you see the recent NBC News investigation that found lingerie store workers apathetically putting used underwear back on the shelves for sale? In the waste, fraud and abuse department that ranks up there with federal executives playing golf on the government's dime (see "Losing Their Religion," July 2004).

Clearly not all federal managers work in a lackadaisical atmosphere, but they do operate within a system of laws and regulations. Speed and efficiency are not the main attributes of a legal system. Fairness, accuracy and adherence to rules also are defining principles. That can't be changed about the federal government, nor should it.

Sometimes we joke about things we can't change. Humor helps us deal with those things, especially when they are frustrating but immovable facts of life. Jokes about life in government make that life easier. They are a way of acknowledging the downsides of working in a legal system and then moving on to get the work done within that system.

So go ahead and laugh. And remember that Will Rogers saved his best one-liners for the lawmakers who create the system you're stuck in. "With Congress, every time they make a joke, it's a law," he said. "And every time they make a law, it's a joke."

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.