Real Work

Posted by jlubans on July 27, 2010

One contributing factor of the financial meltdown, including the Madoff fraud, was the seeming hapless laxity of the Securities and Exchange Commission – the government agency set up to monitor and control the bad guys. The media has set forth lots of reasons why a large regulatory agency could miss what was happening. They of course do not mention their (the business media’s) cluelessness!

What rang a bell for me was reading the report that some - over 30 - SEC staff were staring at pornographic web sites, sometimes for as much as eight hours per day.

This took me back to the time when one of my professors gave our Systems Analysis class a tour of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, not unlike this stock image from the 1950s
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He took us into a cavernous space with hundreds of desks in perfect rows, as far as the eye could see - an all too real caricature of a bureaucracy. I noticed (unlike this photo) that most of the seated workers were reading books. From a librarian’s perspective, that was great! From a taxpayer’s, less so. When I inquired about this, our professor said that the staff was reading books because it was past tax season. They had no real work to do.

At my Fulbright orientation in Washington DC last week, one of my fellow scholars told me about his experience while working in a state census bureau. There it was understood, when things were slow, you would invent work, and you would pretend to be busy. While they were indeed busy at times, there were long spells of nothing. Why these workers could not be moved to other areas in need of assistance was a taboo topic, according to my colleague. That we spoke about this in a city as if invented to demonstrate Parkinson’s Law made the discussion all that more poignant.

I believe that these workers’ behavior points to what is wrong with many bureaucracies or with any rigid and nonporous organization where staff are prohibited by management and union policy from helping out in other units or departments.

People want real work to do, meaningful work. When wasting one’s day is seen as normal the staff and the supervisors’ behavior becomes pathological - a Kafkaesque reality: "We'll pretend to lead while you pretend to work."

Leaders at all levels could make a huge difference by facilitating and protecting managers and staff who want to collaborate with other agencies, who want to help out where needs are greater. There should be flexibility in every organization to assure every individual has real work to do.

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