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.

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