Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mars and Venus

"In his speech, [Kevin Lynch] told bureaucrats he was ‘greatly troubled’ by the view that Ottawa is isolated and out of touch with Canadians, like ‘they're from Venus and we're from Mars.’"
- The Ottawa Citizen - Feb. 21, 2008

That’s the Clerk of the Privy Council speaking recently to a group of federal public servants. Mr. Lynch, the government’s only CR-43, thinks that criticism of the federal bureaucracy is overblown, that the gulf between us and the public is far narrower than between Mars and Venus.

Frankly, I’m not so sure. As a 26-year veteran of the federal public service, I think the Mars versus Venus comparison may not be so far off the mark. In my experience, we public servants are different from other folks.

The Mars and Venus analogy is, of course, the creation of pop psychologist John Gray who has used it for years to describe the great divide between men and women. Mr. Gray acknowledges the differences between the sexes and prescribes remedies to help minimize the problems that can arise from those differences.

In the words of pop psychology, I think Kevin Lynch has to recognize that denial is not just a river in Egypt. It’s time he accept that we and the public come from two different worlds and that the best way to deal with the situation is to adopt John Gray’s prescriptions and apply them to the government setting.

First of all, like Venusians, the public likes to talk and express their needs and emotions. They’re constantly calling up government workers and asking us to listen to their problems and how they "feel" about them.

We’re from Mars; we don’t like listening to problems or discussing someone else’s feelings At the end of the day, we just want to retire to our cave or cubicle, decompress, surf the Internet and unwind. Life in government is stressful enough without people constantly demanding our attention.

A related problem is the Venusian public’s desire to meet with someone face to face or to at least talk to an "actual person" on the phone. The public seems to think that it’s their right to have an interpersonal contact with a government employee whenever they want.

We Martians don’t like interpersonal contact. We’re firm believers in the old saw: "Familiarity breeds contempt." It’s not that we want nothing to do with you. But can’t we just restrict our dealings to fax, voice-mail, e-mail or, better yet, a good old telephone tree?

The public also displays their Venusian-like personality by trying to impose their to-do list on others. They’ve got forms they want completed or decisions they need rendered or questions they want answered.

We’re not averse to dealing with these matters but we’d rather do it on our own time. After all, what’s the rush? Do you really need that passport this month? Won’t your savings tide you over until your pension cheque arrives? How important really is that certified copy of whatever? Surely you can wait just a few more weeks to cross that chore off your list.

Then there’s the public’s desire for change. Change, change, change. If that isn’t a Venusian mantra, I don’t know what is.

We’re from Mars; we don’t like change. If we liked change, do you think we’d be working for the government? Like that old, torn t-shirt or that hole-filled pair of underwear, we like things pretty much the way they are.

That’s not to say we won’t consider change. Even Mr. Lynch knows that the federal bureaucracy periodically implements new initiatives designed to overhaul the bureaucracy. Initiatives like La Réleve, PS2000, the Universal Classification System or VASE, the Visions and Strategies Exercise.

But I think it’s a little unreasonable of the public to expect that something useful will actually come out of these exercises. Let’s all just agree that looking at change is worthwhile but that actual change may not be such a good thing.

Think of the last time a policy, process or plan in government did change. Did it make things easier for you? Did it help answer your questions or deal with your problems faster and more efficiently? Exactly. See what I mean?

So let’s all take a deep breath and think about this problem. Heck, let’s take the afternoon off and really give it some thought. Surely we can come up with a mutually satisfactory solution. But not today. How about I get back to you, say, in a week? And remember, don’t call us, we’ll call you. Promise.

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