'Bad Idea Jeans': Why Do Governments Keep Making the Same Management Mistakes?

States and localities keep trying on the same pair of pants and expecting them to fit differently.
by | March 26, 2012

Do you remember that old Saturday Night Live sketch called "Bad Idea Jeans"? It was a commercial parody that mocked the '90s retail ideal that we're defined by the denim brand we choose. In the sketch, a group of middle-aged guys reminisce about decisions they've made while wearing their shared brand of popular jeans. Each of their stories involves the same theme: They've all had some really bad ideas.

That commercial has been replaying in my mind a lot lately. Why? Because, collectively, we may have put on some Bad Idea Jeans this first quarter of 2012. I believe there are many paths to good government. But every morning when I read the latest headlines, I can't help but see the logo for those jeans: Bad Idea.

It started with one state touting savings from shrinking the size of employee cubicles. I have to admit in the story they almost made me a believer that a square foot here and there adds up to millions of dollars in savings. The only real loss is employee morale, right? (Well, that and all the facilities time to make the adjustments, and the design teams that obsessed over the new plans, and the offices that spent countless hours reorganizing. Not to mention the endless hours of water-cooler conversation required to joke about how the new cubicles don't even meet Geneva Convention standards, let alone OSHA code.)

But no worries, because these smaller cubicles will rescue government! You'll be getting improved government services by year's end. And if you don't, well, at least you can take comfort in the thought that those fat-cat government workers are just a little less comfortable.

When it comes to worker angst, shrinking cubicles are nothing compared to another state, which this week announced a plan to convert all public-sector workers into "at will" employees. Able to be fired at a moment's notice. Efficiency and accountability by scaring the crap out of 30,000 workers. This will allow government to behave more like the private sector. Of course, in the words of Peter Gibbons from that great paean to the private sector, Office Space, "My only real motivation [was] the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired." When in doubt, bet on Office Space.

Not all bad ideas from early 2012 are new. In one southern state, a large privatization project recently came crumbling to the ground before the promises of massive savings could be realized. Say it isn't so! I thought the private sector was supposed to teach us how to run like a business and save us from ourselves. How can it possibly have failed?

Why do we continue to put these jeans on? Simply said, we look great in them: Improving government, saving dollars, creating accountability, bowing to the private sector. These are all things that make great soundbites and headlines. But are they good ideas?

I'm certainly not condemning these states for trying something. We are all under enormous pressure to continue to cut costs, find ways to improve customer service and get better results overall. The problem is that all of these ideas have been tried, and I am unaware of any time these jeans have done anything radical.

Radical change comes from radical ideas. Radical ideas have to take the focus off of the people in government. Outsourcing and personnel accountability systems are not radical. Shrinking buildings and workspaces may bring about savings, but they rarely impact how we work. We need to get past who is working and where they are working and get down to how they are working. The how is in the pipes.

The next few Public Great posts will focus on finding the radical ideas in your pipes.

For now, though, let's see how many pairs of Bad Idea Jeans we can clean out of our closet. New or old, this administration or last — what are some of the best Bad Idea Jeans examples you've seen?

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