Education Lessons Nonfiction Policy Reflection Systems

What I Learned in Government.

It’s been nearly four months since I posted something here. Don’t be fooled: The lack of words here did not mean an absence of word salads tossing about in my head.

I recently resigned from my job. (All The Things related to that contributed to my silence here.) My job had two parts: One involved administrative work as the behavioral health medical director for local government; the other involved direct clinical service in a jail. I was in that job for over five years. It took me about two and a half years to figure out what an administrative medical director does. (As the process of becoming a doctor involves frequently feeling incompetent, this discomfort wasn’t new to me.) Now that I’m on the other side of this job, here’s what I’ve learned:

I believe government can do good things. You know that stereotype that government employees are lazy? I did not find that to be true. Every organization has a proportion of staff who do not seem motivated or interested. The proportion, in my experience, does not seem higher in government. If anything, many of my colleagues came to government with eager hopes of improving the community. They came in early, stayed late, and worked on weekends. They convened groups with opposing viewpoints, advocated for different populations in the region, and expressed dissent to people in power. They sought out and willingly worked on complicated problems. They demonstrated the humility that comes with the realization that tax payers are funding their salaries.

I do not enjoy the game of politics. Some people love it! They enjoy the contests of status, flaunting their connections, and attacking perceived enemies in public forums with the brightest of smiles. Sometimes people asked me to speak, not because they cared about the content of my words, but because of my credential as a physician. (“Let’s trot out The Doctor.”) I grumbled about “perception management”; often it seemed that the surface sheen mattered more than the substance underneath. (On the other hand, it is likely that my glittery MD credential is what allowed me to say to superiors that poop will never develop a patina. It is unfair that systems often value specific people more simply because of the letters after their names.)

Government work has made me both more and less patient. It takes time to elicit ideas and information from “stakeholders”, community members, and others. People want to and should be involved if a policy or program will impact their lives. They share perspectives that government never thought to consider. I respect that process. I am less patient with the nonsense people and systems can generate to subvert fair processes. Some people are more prone than others to misuse power. That’s hard to watch in a system like government, which has access to and authority over so much money… and, in our current system, whoever has more money almost always has more power.

I learned a lot about laws and regulations. I came to appreciate the value of regulations, though they tend to address the lowest common denominator. Government spends most of its time aiming low to define the floor instead of inspiring people to elevate the ceiling. (I wrote more about this here.)

Government administrators forget what happens in direct service. Though many people in government once provided “front line” services—as attorneys, social workers, counselors, activists, whatever—many of them seem to forget the challenges of systems that are intended to help people. This includes the thousand little cuts of too much paperwork and the major crises of people dying due to missing or underfunded services. My opinion that all medical directors should routinely provide direct clinical service has only gotten stronger with this experience. Someone has to inform the others at The Table what’s going on outside.

Systems are made of people. Contemporary discourse often focuses on systems, not people… but people make up systems (i.e., individuals create, operate, and maintain systems). As such, single individuals can still have significant impacts on systems. This includes grinding things to a halt… or breathing life into new programs. (This is where political gamesmanship can be useful.) The hierarchical organizational chart can lead people who are “lower” to think that their efforts don’t matter, but that’s simply untrue. Systems can change because people can change… whether that’s because people actually change their ideas and behavior or people in certain positions leave.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work in government. I never thought I would work as a civil servant (and, in fact, there was a time when I said I’d never work for government… which is why I’ve stopped making five-year plans). If for nothing else, now that I’ve been on the inside, I can use that experience and knowledge on the outside.

The outside suits me better. So it’s time to go back.