How to succeed in government
April 12, 2005 4:22 PM   Subscribe

What is the best non-cynical advice you have heard (or can offer) on how to excel within a government bureaucracy?
posted by profwhat to Work & Money (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Always, always make the boss look good.

(Unless you're trying to make the boss look bad to take his or her job.)
posted by socratic at 4:25 PM on April 12, 2005

Best answer: I dunno that the advice below will make you excel, necessarily, but it'll make your life a bit easier, and if you like your job, the rest is sure to follow:

- Realize government is all about funding. Make nice with the people who get the money for your projects. Learn your budget. Understand where the money is coming from and how to get it where you need it.

- Be patient. What would happen with a snap of the fingers in the private sector can take weeks, nay, months in government. Understand that moving something forward quickly on your end does not always translate to an early finish on a whole project. (Which is not to say you should dawdle, but take it for granted that others downstream from you will.)

- The canon law: avoid at all costs the "not my job" syndrome. It is the hallmark of the ingrained bureacrat at every level. For whatever reason there is a subset of people who, like roaches, cling to the safety of their jobs, and do whatever they can to avoid doing anything not specifically in their job descriptions. Do not become this person. You will stand out if you are flexible and take on things with initiative.

- Understand governement-ese but take extreme pains to not use it whenever possible. Approach everything you write as if it were going to be read by an 8th grader.

- Deliver on your promises, and never promise anything you can't deliver. I work with plenty of people who see no crime in promising the moon and the stars to people, only because they're never going to be held to what they say.

- Retain your sense of humor. So much of government life is patently ridiculous, that if you don't see it for what it is, you might actually begin to take it seriously.
posted by contessa at 4:42 PM on April 12, 2005

"We must become the change we want to see."

"Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth."

And not so eloquently, I think a key to exceling in government bureaucracy is to not allow yourself to become part of the bureaucracy. "Good enough for government work" is an attitude that is contagious and must be constantly avoided.

Another good strategy is to bring your allies with you as you advance through the bureaucracy. If you make it to Department Director, but your assistant director and/or other department directors are not allied with you, you're in a position of weakness. So only accept as much credit for successes as you need to move forward, spread the rest of the praise around to your allies. Accept as much blame for failures as you can without being dismissed, never spread that around. Finally, remember:

"The evil that men do live after them. The good is oft interred with the bones."
posted by McGuillicuddy at 4:44 PM on April 12, 2005

To clarify the final sentence, I mean something along the lines of: help you provide others may not be remembered, but double-crossing someone will never be forgotten.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 4:47 PM on April 12, 2005

So, while we're on Shakespeare:
"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world!"
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:51 PM on April 12, 2005

Be very aware of the rules and regulations and, if you need to bend them, make sure you do so wisely and with the knowledge and consent of your superiors.
posted by orange swan at 5:22 PM on April 12, 2005

"The more you stand out the easier it is to lop off your head".

This is softened by "If you stand out enough, you'll be treated like a protected species".

For my government job, it was all about either how little you could stand out, or, in the rare case (mine) just how much hist you could pull off and get away with. I was untouchable once screwing with me started costing in the $100,000+ range. Getting to that sweet spot is tough so I really don't reccomend it. Of course, once you do, you can do anything your way and you'll never have to deal with BS.
posted by shepd at 5:40 PM on April 12, 2005

Shepd... how'd you manage THAT?
posted by SpecialK at 6:29 PM on April 12, 2005

Learn to kiss ass.
Learn to enjoy kissing ass.
Don't make yourself so indispensible that they can't afford to replace you when they promote you.
Bring in a box of donuts once a month.
posted by mischief at 7:26 PM on April 12, 2005

} I have 16 years of federal service, if that means anything. {
posted by mischief at 7:28 PM on April 12, 2005

Dude. DUDE. Okay, by the wording of your question, you clearly know that mucking around with an entrenched bureaucracy is like trying to change the laws of physics. That said, I've noticed a few things over the six years I've spent in my agency's main IT shop.

-Before anything else, get a feel for the turf wars in your workplace. The high percentage of "lifers" in any government agency + usual workplace bullshit = a whole lot of long-standing, incredibly bitter (and often very personal) feuds between divisions. Survey the field, and pick your sides--and battles--very carefully before plowing ahead. A misstep could follow you around for years, depending on the particulars. This is especially true if there's been a recent reorganization/merge.

-The flipside, of course, is that knowing the right people will get you everywhere. Working hard is all well and good--but without that connection to the person/group that holds the real power, your reward will be more hard work (since people know you'll do it) and a nice chunk of Lucite at the annual awards meeting.

-Ask forgiveness, not permission (if possible). If there's a better way to do something, go ahead and do it if you can. You'll make far more progress bludgeoning at the stupidity with an excellent working example than you ever will by trying to change the rules.

-Okay, I know you asked for non-cynical advice, but the most apt description of bureaucratic life I've heard is this: The purpose of a government agency is not to help people. Helping people is strictly a serendipitous side effect of bureaucracy's true goal, which is to attain as much as possible of just three things--cubicle space, staplers, and full-time equivalencies (money to hire more bodies).

On preview: everybody loves donuts! Go with that, too.
posted by Vervain at 7:54 PM on April 12, 2005

socratic wins with the first reply.

Vervain: except the people on Atkins & South Beach....
posted by Doohickie at 7:58 PM on April 12, 2005

Write it down becaues you never know when it will come in handy.
posted by govtdrone at 9:03 PM on April 12, 2005

posted by govtdrone at 9:03 PM on April 12, 2005

Best answer: 10 years Federal service in - man, two weeks. I'm old.

Take an interest. Find out what other people are doing. If it seems interesting, say so. Follow up - "by the way, how are you guys doing with the Pinsky file?" People will remember you when a spot comes up, or a project expands.

Get to know people, especially people outside your team / section / branch / division. Having a big network makes most things much easier. People like to help people they know, even if it's just a casual acquaintance. Say thank you - people like to feel appreciated, even if they're just doing their job. Be there for those people when they need you.

Talk to people. Pick up the phone, or see them in person. Don't be just another e-mail.

Take note of your accomplishments. I always get my maximum performance bonus because I can show what I've done and back it up with evidence at review time. It's amazing how people forget.

Share the love. When you get an attaboy, make sure you give credit to each and every person who had your back, no matter how small the contribution. Let those people know - "hey - the VP gave us a pat on the back for the XYZ thing. We did a great job there."

Tell the truth. This isn't the same as giving your opinion all the time or being an asshole like most "straight talkers". Think about the issue, then give your best answer - don't hold back information, don't have a hidden agenda, don't twist words, don't hide behind shades of meaning. You won't get anywhere if poeple don't trust you, and you won't sleep well at night worrying when your bullshit is going to catch up with you.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:23 AM on April 13, 2005

Has the French bestseller of Corinne Maier already been translated into English?

Don't be fooled, it's not about slacking. It's a guide on how to survive sanely in large bureaucracies.
posted by ijsbrand at 1:07 AM on April 13, 2005

Diarise everything
posted by bunglin jones at 1:51 AM on April 13, 2005

Wow, other Gov't lifers here? Fifteen years federal service for me.

It;s all been said above, but yeah.

Pick your battles. Develop that acceptance, wisdom, courage thing with respect to change. Realize that the only constant is change, and that this too shall pass. Things like TQM, Quality Circles, Zero Defects and Continual Process Improvement are just waves breaking on the beach. The pendulum swings and then swings back. It will all become clear in the fullness of time.

Oh, wait, on re-read you said excel. In my agency that now seems to mean that you'll need a Masters Degree to get enough education points to convince the Resumix system that you should make the list to get referred to the panel who will be conducting the interview for the promotion that you want. So education might be important.
posted by fixedgear at 2:52 AM on April 13, 2005

Remember that you work for your boss, not for the government.

If your boss is advancing, the best way to rise in the bureaucracy is to help your boss rise in the bureaucracy. Help your boss get work done. Help your boss look good and feel good. Help your boss get promoted. Always define your job in terms of how you help your boss. Do a great job, but make sure the boss knows that your great work helped the boss. You will rise with your boss. Your boss will make sure of it.

If your boss is going nowhere, you (also) have to play to the boss's boss and to the bosses of other departments, because you need to sidestep or hop over your boss (or replace your boss if your boss retires or is canned).
posted by pracowity at 5:45 AM on April 13, 2005

6 years service, probably a lifer, here. I agree with most of the above.

In addition to the many unique parts of government work, there are quite a few non-unique parts, too, of course. Government work is different from private-sector work, but it's not completely different.

One big difference is that there are certain types of folks who go into government work. I mean, we know we won't make the most money, so we don't see a lot of the go-getters that you might run into in the private world. Typically, we're either really interested in our work, or we're taking the trade-off of not having to really work that hard, or of having lots of stability. You have to keep that in mind in every interpersonal interaction--these are not the folks you'd run into in the IT department of a Big 5 accounting firm.

For me, it's played out like this: In the private sector, my boss would see that I'm good at something, and would therefore want me to keep doing it, no matter how difficult it may have been for me. In government, my boss perceives that something is difficult for me, and thus wants to save me from it, no matter how good at it I am.

I'm sorta the communications liaison type person in an IT department, the only non-programmer amongst programmers. Communications ability is definitely not the forte of most people in my department. They hate writing emails and talking to outsiders. So when the opportunity came for my boss to re-define my job role, I had to be very specific with her that I loved the communications aspect, that it was the most important part of the job for me, that I wouldn't want to work here without it. She was completely surprised at that. She was trying to save me from what she considered to be an odious task, out of friendliness and loyalty to me; she didn't want me to have to do all that hard work.

This all is just in addition to what those above have said, and, again, in some ways it's not that different from non-government work. You need to be your own advocate. You need to be sure your boss knows what you're doing, and what you like doing. You need to take full credit for your accomplishments. But there is a slightly different slant to it all.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:39 AM on April 13, 2005

My mother, who is a state university department chair, says that the single greatest factor in her ability to work around obstacles and still enjoy her job has been her "willingness to suffer fools gladly." I think a lot of the concrete advice above really boils down to that.

(Also, I think that people on Atkins and South Beach probably love doughnuts more than anyone else - their seductive curves, their wicked glaze ... the doughnuts populate their dreams and infuse their days with feverish desire.)

(So be gentle.)

I worked at the same university as my mother for about 5 years, and it's not that there's a lot of fools about - my mom and I do healthcare-related work, which is filled with wonderful, intelligent, creative, committed people who deeply care. But in some ways that makes some of the classic obstacles that much more painful to encounter.

In my low-level job, I excelled in more or less exactly the ways described above - service to the program, making superiors' lives easier, and looking for creative ways to solve problems within the (considerable) constraints of the institution. Basically I looked for ways to complete my work faster, with results that were more easily usable downstream, so I could take on more interesting work.

The advice not to make yourself unpromotable is absolutely crucial. Heed it at your peril, because there is nothing a bureaucracy likes better than stability. MrMoonPie's example applies best to people who have some prerequisite for promotion (which, as the Resumix comment further above demonstrates, can have nothing to do with work experience and ability).

My experience is that in corporate, obvious excellence is more likely to get you promoted to managing others who get to take over the work you really liked - whether or not you can manage your way out of a paper bag. Whereas in government, there are vast layers of jobs in which, if you're really really good, the institution conspires to avoiding "fixing what isn't broken."
posted by caitlinb at 8:30 AM on April 13, 2005

I must have meant "ignore it at your peril," but I think it's also clear that I'm ambivalent about government work.
posted by caitlinb at 8:32 AM on April 13, 2005

SpecialK, unions, unions, unions.

It came down to this: The College I worked for did not consider me a union employee, yet in the summer I worked full time (it was a helpdesk/support job to supplement my student bank account). It specifically said in the union contract with the college that all employees that put in over 24 hours a week were union employees. Also, during the summer, I paid union dues.

So I got myself a union card a few years ago, and encouraged others to do so. I also encouraged one of my 5 quarter-bosses to become union steward, which he did (I had like 5 or 6 bosses total at the time, it was ridiculous). I also managed to procure a copy of the union/management agreement and regulations governing employment there. Whenever I was told that "surfing the web is NOT something you should be doing when you have no work, just 'look busy'" I'd pull out these. That alone _very_ quickly gave me a free ride to surf the web during downtime! :-D

Then I started prodding people to put in greivances about things (for example, while in the union the college must pay for your work-related courses at the college, which they were loathe to do). Eventually it all came to a head, and all students in the entire department complained, which meant something like 30 grievances for 5 years of back holiday pay (which we never got), back pay for courses, etc, etc.

I know my total personal grievance bill was the highest and would have amounted to at *least* $5,000, likely much more. The result of these grievances were closed door meetings which we weren't allowed in (the union was in STRONG cahoots with management, what a surprise). It was said, through a slip of the tongue by a certain union person whose initials are "AW" (anyone strong in Ontario unions definitely knows who this is), that this was basically a problem swept under the carpet years ago and it was a pact between the union and college that the discrepancy would never be mentioned to the students and hopefully nobody would ever find out. Heheheh...

I talked to the head of the student union, who was politically active at the time. He looked into the problem and found we weren't the only college with it -- he also discovered how high the stakes were for me and others. :-D

In the end, since the fight took over 1 1/2 years, I moved on to better, less caustic environments, and let the matter slip. Last time I looked into it, I discovered that the problem had once again been swept under the carpet, but that the union had used this leverage to squeeze out much more than $100k in bonuses for "real" union employees.

I considered suing the union for misrepresentation, but what's the point? Anyone that crooked is going to have enough lawyers to make me look like a joke. In the end, I just took out my anger by letting AW know I'm a skeleton in her closet. Since I'm now a business owner, and a hardcore union buster (at any cost, including going out of business -- I won't let my employees end up with the same problems I had under union representation) one day this skeleton will probably manage to take her ill-gotten position away. But, of course, bitter people never win, so I'm just going to let life take its course. :-)

In the end, we left our lasting mark at the college -- the college hired twice as many students because they will not let any student work more than 23 hours a week, lest they risk this problem coming up again.
posted by shepd at 8:53 AM on April 13, 2005

I'm new to the whole government bureaucracy thing, and I'm finding it really frustrating (after only 7 months in). Most of the frustration I can brush off by just remembering that I work for the GOVERNMENT.

However, there's one thing in particular that's driving me absolutely batty. I was part of a group of new hires that came in within a 4 month period. One of this group (a guy straight out of college) seems to have no regard or respect for how the workplace functions. He's arrogant, ignorant, irresponsible and obnoxious. So, every day he's allowed to get away with his abhorrent behavior, it's like a slap in the face to those of us who actually WORK and have a sense of what is and is not appropriate for the workplace. Management knows about the problem, but is reluctant to take action (fire his lazy ass), even though they're still within the year long "probation" period where getting rid of a bad apple is easy.

I've made casual statements to my manager, but she's completely ineffective. She even complains about him to ME. I know that they (management) think he's a problem, yet they're doing nothing to correct it. Even worse, they moved this guy from an out of the way cubicle to directly across from me, so that now I have no choice but to notice every single thing he does. I don't want to be a tattle-tale, but I'm starting to dread coming into work everyday because I just can't stand to have to put up with his crap anymore. What recourse do I have? How do you guys deal with these situations?
posted by MsVader at 9:19 AM on April 13, 2005

What recourse do I have? How do you guys deal with these situations?

No recourse. We just ignore them. There's a guy who sleeps at his desk. I'm pretty sure that he's not a figment of my imagination, and he doesn't appear too transparent, so I'm pretty sure other people can see him too. But no one wants to do anything about it. The civil service system has so many layers of protection built in that it can be difficult to get people moved, let alone fired. They tell me that the the new pay banding/pay for performance based system will change all that, but I kind of doubt it.
posted by fixedgear at 10:13 AM on April 13, 2005

What recourse do I have? How do you guys deal with these situations?

Officially, nothing can be done. Unofficially, I suggest a good pranking. Take the wheels off of his chair; switch the "m" and "n" keys on his keyboard. Hide the stinkiest tree-shaped air fresheners you can find all over his workspace. Fill his desk drawers with styrofoam packing peanuts. Does he have any action figures in his cube? Kidnap one and send ransom notes. Drag it out for months if possible. This might not actually help the situation, but at least you'll get a good laugh.

You could also go reverse-psychology route--talk him up in an effort to get him transferred or promoted out of your section. If your boss also thinks he sucks, so much the better (and easier).

ALWAYS remember that once you've reached a certain point, you pretty much can't be fired without years of documentation and/or having been caught doing lines off a hooker's ass in the boss' office. This can work for you as well as against you, grasshopper.

Hang in there. You can't beat 'em, and you don't want to join 'em...but there are ways to play the system. For example: Last year I learned that in my state (Washington), full-time gov't employees can take up to six credits per quarter at any state university for a nominal fee. As a result, I've been skipping out an hour early two days a week to learn Russian. A very cursory Google search suggests that NJ might have a similar deal, though you might have to go to the colleges' own websites for more details.
posted by Vervain at 11:46 AM on April 13, 2005

One other thing: Understand the power of "Memo to File".

Basically, it is a very detailed, dated and signed memo
From: You
To: File
that describes who did what, when and where, and if known, why.

This is known as CYA, cover your ass. Another acronym, one you want to avoid, is CLE, career limiting event.

Have fun!

Oh, and if you get bored, determine how many man-hours of tax-paying McDonald's workers are required to pay your salary.

posted by mischief at 1:41 PM on April 13, 2005

Secretaries know everything!

Do branch managers still rate a secretary? If not, the division director's secretary (or your equivalent) is even more powerful now than when I worked for the feds.

Buy 'em lunch occasionally. A branch level secretary every 6 weeks, a division level secretary 4 weeks before the end of the fiscal quarter. The regional administrator's at 7 months before and 1 month before the end of the fiscal year.

You can piss off your chain of command, but do your damnedest to never piss off a secretary.
posted by mischief at 1:57 PM on April 13, 2005

Some thoughts:

(1) If you break the rules (and there may be a lot of opportunities), only do so when it's for the good of the organization, not for your own sake. There's an easy test for this - if an accurate newspaper story appeared that said "X is the agency rule, but in situation Y, the agency allowed Z to happen", would this be a good thing (to a taxpayer reading the story) or a bad thing? In other words, if you're asking forgiveness rather than permission, make sure it's foregiveness for a good thing that a poor rule didn't allow, rather than for a bad thing that you did to make your life better.

(2) Share drafts (well marked as such) with peers (including those in other departments) who a current or future stakeholders, rather than hoping that wnen they see what looks like a close-to-final version, they won't be irritated (and that there won't be technical mistakes that will put them off).

If you don't want them to share (say, it's a very preliminary draft), then offer them a printed copy, not an electronic version (as well as indicating that the draft is preliminary).

This technique is called "getting other people's fingerprints on a document", and it's a way to build support. You don't have to accept all the proposed changes (people typically want to have their input honestly considered; they understand that there are factors they don't know about), and you generally can limit your feedback to "thanks" (and a copy of the final version, if you think they may not see it). If you run into a strong opinion that you can't agree with, take the time to talk in person - ideally; second best is by phone) that understand and appreciate their suggestion, but [and you can be vague here if the alternative is to say bad things about someone in power, like your boss].

(3) If you are pushing for something that takes a lot of resources (signoffs), don't commit significant amounts of time (and other internal resources) until you've gotten agreement of all those who are needed to make the project a success. In other words, be prepared to do a lot more planning and consensus-building than you might in some private organizations, and to do a prototype or model or test project even though the risk of failure may be small and the delay in full implementation may be significant.

(4) Understand differences in rules for budgets and personnel. In the private sector, additional money (resources) for your division can come from increased sales (revenues). In the public sector, unexpected revenue generally goes into the general "pot", not to your division, so "spending money to make money" doesn't work. [That's one reason why the IRS is so underfunded.] In the public sector, supervisors aren't rewarded for cutting costs, generally, as much as for good service and for dealing with (and not creating) problems. So instead of trying to cut positions, think about redeploying individuals, if you have an interest in improving efficiency.
posted by WestCoaster at 10:59 AM on April 14, 2005

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