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A User’s Guide To Getting Things Done in Government

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Nobody really loves government, but everyone needs it to work well: to defend the nation, care for the most vulnerable among us, maintain public safety, and provide numerous other services that make life livable.

New York Times columnist David Brooks described it best in a piece titled, “The Stem and The Flower.” Ideally, Brooks wrote, government is in the background. Its systems enable people to flourish, as stems do a flower’s bloom. Government, when in good working order, should be reliable, competent and innocuous.

Plenty of government officials want to be just that. But as many will attest, government is anything but smooth. Studies show most people think government is a terrible place to work. A 2016 Gallup poll ranked government dead last among all sectors, with a 28 percent desirability rating. Studies also show that the people don’t trust government’s ability to get things done. A similar poll in 2015 showed trust in the federal government at a record low of 38 percent. And of the people who do work in government, almost half of them are pretty checked out—only 59% of government employees report feeling engaged with their jobs.

In short, the data support the popular perceptions: government can be a rough place to work.

But if you have taken the plunge into public service, don’t despair. It is indeed possible to get things done in government; you just have to know how. With a little savvy, a lot of persistence, and some practical, low-fi hacks, any government official can turn their job into a gig to envy. Here are three tips:

Tip No. 1: Decipher the bureaucracy.

There’s no blueprint to the machine of government. The reason for this is that government isn’t a static thing. There’s a code—a set of laws, actually called the US Code. This “consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States” dictates what services government must provide.

To do your job, you need to understand what you’re doing. And there’s no better way to really get something than to break it down to its constituent parts.

To decipher the bureaucracy, take inspiration from former NASA roboticist (and creator of the web comic xkcd) Randall Munroe. In 2015, Munroe wrote a book called Thing Explainer, Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Munroe used only the 1,000 most commonly used words in English to diagram incredibly complex things—from tectonic plates to the International Space Station—using simple language.

If you really want to understand government policies yourself, or better yet, help the general public understand them, take the time to translate them into basic English. Use Monroe’s online tool, The Up-Goer Five Text Editor (“UpGoer” meaning “spaceship,” as in, “the thing that goes up”) or another tool to simplify the language and tell you the difficulty level of your text. Once you see where the jargon is, you can translate bureaucratic language into plain English. You’ll be better for it, and those with whom you interact will be grateful.

Tip No. 2: Accept anonymity.

One of the hardest things to adapt to in government is the fact that you will likely get no direct credit for the work you do. Instead of your name on that memo you slaved over, your boss’ name goes on it. Get over it. Government is no place for ego. It’s worth remembering that your boss is also the one who will get fired or disciplined if things go wrong. So, your job is to make your boss’ job easier. And that means it’s your job to get him or her smart, fast.

How do you do that? First, respect your boss’ time. Chances are good he or she is inundated with email requests, meetings and other demands you may not see. Keep this in mind when preparing information for him or her. Don’t be the jerk who writes email treatises. You need to provide information clearly and succinctly. Channel George Orwell, who wrote in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, “Never use a long word where a short one will do” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

Second, channel your inner librarian and neatly archive anything potentially useful. Many people in government share documents by emailing attachments. This means that if you’re not using an extremely disciplined filing system, you will forever be searching through old emails to find the most recent version of a document. Accidentally send the wrong version to your boss or a colleague and you will waste their time and look sloppy.

Third, wherever practicable present your work to the boss using the rule of three: three points for any document/program/issue/problem you’re presenting. Point out three aspects of a problem. Offer three potential solutions. Do your homework and be prepared to answer questions, but save the details for an appendix or if asked.

You may be anonymous to the world at large. But if your best work makes your boss look good, he or she will certainly notice.

Tip No. 3: Make peace with your orbit.

Think for a moment back to high school chemistry. Molecules. Each molecule has a nucleus. They’re orbited by electrons. To get closer to the nucleus, electrons have to expend energy. You are the electron here.

The boss with the most power--not your supervisor but The Boss (Ambassador, Commissioner, Secretary, POTUS)--is the nucleus. It may be tempting to maneuver your way as close as possible to the center of power, but it comes at a cost: your energy.

The key is to figure out how close you can get to the center of power without depleting an unacceptable amount of your energy. In other words, if you’re too close to power, you’ll burn out fast. Too far out, and you’ll have no influence on the decisionmakers. You need to find your orbit and maintain the appropriate distance to balance influence and self-preservation.

How? Make your peace with the notion that you are one of many; a cog in the machinery of governance. Find a way to be proud of your orbit and position as such.

As Matthew Burton, former Chief Information Officer for the US Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, wrote in his 2008 article, “Why I Help ‘The Man’ (and You Should Too)”:

“Elected officials don’t run our government. Government employees do. Every citizen interested in changing our country must understand this. Even if we elect good people to write good laws, those laws still need to be executed. That responsibility falls to the 3 million people who make up the federal workforce. They are the ones responsible for the day-to-day operation of our government.”

So be a proud government employee. With service to your fellow citizens as your North Star, you will make progress.

Alexis Wichowski works for the City of New York’s Department of Veterans’ Services and previously for the U.S. State Department. She also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The views expressed here are her own.