July 28, 2022

Government Competency

Our model of government is the best in the world. But the structure of our government is deliberately cumbersome and inefficient.

An oxymoron is “a combination of contradictory or incongruous words,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Think of the phrases “open secret” or “working vacation.”

This week, the oxymoron that came to my mind was “government competency.” I went to my local post office to mail a book to a friend. When I got there, the lobby was open, but the service desk was closed. The self-service mailing equipment in the lobby (scale for mailing and computer to figure out postage requirement) was not working. There was a sign hanging from the glass in front of the service desk that said, “Will Return at 2:15,” which was 30 minutes later. I had to mail the package, and it would take at least 20 minutes to drive to another location, and who knew if that would be open, so I waited and walked around the shopping center to pass the time.

When I returned and stood in line, I noticed a piece of paper that was taped to a side of a box that had been placed on a counter in front of a window where a postal clerk was seated. The paper said:

“ATTENTION Due to staffing & COVID 19 this location will be subject to close at: 3:45 p.m. Mon-Friday
Thank you for your patience! Have a safe day!”

Wow, closed for lunch and closing early! I was relieved that I had come back before they closed for the rest of the day. When I made it to the counter about 10 minutes later, the lady who waited on me was professional and courteous, but the line was slow since she was the only person at the counter.

It was not her responsibility to make sure that there was another staff person there to support the location. An additional staff person would have allowed the post office to stay open while the other worker had lunch, and possibly would have led to the post office being open regular hours. What should have taken 10 minutes ended up taking over an hour to complete.

Somewhere in the upper echelons of the United States Postal Service, management had failed to provide the service that is expected by us taxpayers, who routinely are called on to bail it out. I had a similar experience a few months ago when renewing my son’s passport. We had to drive over 30 minutes to find a post office where we could make an appointment, and the post office clerk told us that he often processed passports for people from out of state because many of the other post offices simply would not allow appointments. It’s not just the post office that treats its clients this way; when you think of government services in general, do you think efficient? Contact me if you do. I’m not holding my breath.

Our model of government is the best in the world. But the structure of our government is deliberately cumbersome and inefficient. We have an executive, judicial and legislative branch, which are equally important. The checks and balances of that structure allow for slow change, and guard against a potential dictatorship. But they do not allow for nimbleness and efficiency.

Let’s contrast my post office visit with my visit yesterday to my local UPS store. When I walked into the store, one of the three people who were working there helped me within seconds, and I was out the door in just a few minutes. Yes, it cost more, but the package will also be delivered in one day rather than in many. The customer service representatives were courteous, competent and efficient. Most importantly, there were three of them to serve the customers. It was a well-run organization. A public company, UPS has a $157 billion market capitalization and over 500,000 employees. The UPS strategy is “customer first, people led, innovation driven.”

USPS also has over 500,000 employees. It claims “our priority is you,” but my experience did not reflect that slogan, which it has trademarked.

Keep this contrast in mind as you hear people suggest that government control is the answer to our current problems. For example, let’s take student loans. The government stepping in and absolving students of debt isn’t the answer; educating students in high school in financial literacy and options for their future is the best solution. So, if government does not work well, what does? Entrepreneurship, resilience and creating an ownership attitude in which every person working within an organization is part of the team. This happens through great personal leadership that resonates throughout the organization. Think “customer first, people led, innovation driven.” That’s no oxymoron.


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