I was asked recently by a professor how my internship experience was and any insights that I may have had with such a unique opportunity.
Toney: “I learned that government is hard and complex”
Professor: “Really, that’s your key takeaway?”
Anyone probably could have come to the conclusion that I made without having the great opportunity of a 10 week internship, but I truly meant it, regardless of how trite of an answer it may have been. Before I thought of government as a monolithic institution where you put something into the black box and the box spits out a bureaucratic output. But I saw firsthand that government is really just a collection of hundreds of individuals, individual choices, opinions, circumstances of people just like you and me. Sure there are set policies, rules and procedures to ensure the same outcomes for certain things, but the people you choose to make those decisions from administration to street level bureaucrats like police officers has a profound impact on all of us.
And those people work hard at their jobs and sometimes they get tired and frustrated and angry and the decisions they make in those moments aren’t always what we intend. And other times people have great ideas and energy and they can get dragged down and become disheartened by the slow trudge of the bureaucratic process.
Additionally government culture is hard to change and maintain. Each department is set up in a way to prefer being in a silo than to collaborate. And there are many positions and departments that don’t have to work with others at all. And the work is sometimes so different that it’s hard to instill a work culture that doesn’t fit with the core duties of your job. What comes first, the culture or the work?
And that doesn’t even take into account the political and community pressures that you also have to deal with on a daily basis.
So yes, I still say that my main takeaway is that government is hard and complex. And it takes talented and dedicated people to do the work. Not only that but I have come to believe that effective government requires two things. An overarching vision of what government should be and the ethics and values that said government administration should embody. Second, a wide diversity of views and a culture that fosters differing opinions to be expressed in a productive way. Yes, those two things naturally are at tension with each other but I have seen that government can be susceptible to group think, thinking about problems in the same way. But government has to stand for something, must stand for something more than maintaining the laws and procedures.
I have heard some say that the scope and role of local government should be limited. That’s a perfectly valid philosophy and I understand why they make that argument. But I have also witnessed an undeniable truth. The world won’t wait for government to decide what it should and should not do. The role of local government can differ from place to place, but the essential function of all, to protect and provide for its’ citizens, is essentially the same. I believe such a charge cannot be accomplished through a limited scope. Not in the same way at least. Already, technology is creating tensions and demands on our public institutions that they aren’t yet equipped to fully handle. So they must change and are changing. We can’t wait for the next thing to come around and force government to change. Instead we should embrace government as a vehicle for positive change.
Government is hard and complex…as it should be.