Respecting Government

Remember comic Rodney Dangerfield and his “I don’t get no respect” routine? Recently, a faculty colleague told me a story that illustrates perfectly why so many of us view government with a mixture of bemusement, annoyance and even contempt—why so often, government gets even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.


My colleague’s fiancée had just completed renovating a double in Lockerbie Square. He’d finally moved in, and needed garbage cans. Lockerbie is one of the central city neighborhoods in which  homeowners are required to use garbage cans provided by the City that have been engineered to be picked up by automated garbage trucks.


My colleague called the Mayor’s Action Line and asked for two garbage cans. She was told that she would first have to call the police and report the old cans as stolen. Once she had obtained an incident report number, she was to call back, and the cans would be ordered.  She patiently explained that no cans had been stolen; they simply hadn’t gotten any because no one lived there during restoration. She was told that truth was immaterial; if they wanted garbage cans, they had to follow procedure and report that the old ones were stolen.


When she called IMPD, she felt compelled to tell the person on the phone that there hadn’t really been a theft. (As she said when telling me this, “Isn’t filing a false police report a felony?”) The person on the other end of the line said it didn’t matter, this was “procedure.” She was then required to give her driver’s license/social security number in order to get the report issued.


Eventually, she got the incident reports, called back to the Mayor’s Action Line with the required numbers, and the garbage cans were duly delivered. Why the “theft” charade was necessary remains a mystery.


In the scheme of things, the saga of the garbage can is a minor irritation. But there’s a lesson here.


So often, Americans remain fixated on policy itself, on the question “what should government do?” In this case, for example, policymakers have determined that municipal governments should collect garbage. Public administrators then decided how to deliver the service—should employees be hired, or private companies contracted?—and how to fund it.  Those are all proper matters for public discussion and debate, because decisions about what government should do and how are most likely to be driven by ideology, and thus most likely to generate political conflict.


Those of us who teach public administration must focus on a different question, however, and it is equally important. Once policymakers have given administrators a job, how well do they perform?  Are they efficient? Ethical? Competent? Do they treat citizens equally and constitutionally?


Respect for our governing institutions has taken a real beating lately. Local governments can’t do much about the daily drumbeat of reported corruption and incompetence in Washington. But citizens might feel better if we didn’t have to visit an alternate universe just to get a garbage can.