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July 27, 2009
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Bureaucrat Fantasy Camp

One of the yuppie recreational phenomena of the last decade is the rise of “fantasy camp” experiences. These are rather expensive opportunities for people, often baby boom people, to recapture a memory from their youth and come close to living out an experience they always wanted to have but never succeeded in achieving.

There are baseball camps, football camps, race car driving camps, off-road vehicle experiences, rock and roll camps and much more. For some substantial fee, not to mention travel, lodging and other expenses a person can attend a camp and meet some aging star who has found a new financial opportunity by headlining at the camp.

The HR Doctor has discovered that for a fee, a person can even spend the night with an astronomer at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. You get a personal tour of the heavens, learn how to operate a variety of telescopes or learn to take astrophotographs. One of the HR Doctor’s favorite camp discoveries relates back to service in a prior life as an intelligence officer in Europe. During this period of service, what was the most advanced and highly secret fighter aircraft in the Soviet arsenal made its first appearance; it was code named MIG 29 Foxbat. Fast-forward a generation and one of the experiences available now is to take a ride in a MIG 29.

What is missing, however, is a fantasy camp aimed at sharing the experiences of seasoned bureaucrats with those yuppies who may secretly have harbored fantasies all their life to work in a government office. Therefore, as a public service, it’s time to design the basics of a three-day bureaucracy fantasy camp.

Let’s begin with orientation on arrival. Arrival, of course, would take place at an aging and poorly-designed government building that has not been properly maintained in many years. The furniture would date back at least a decade and display visible signs of wear, including nicks, fabric tears and various stains whose origin is best not discussed in polite company.

The orientation would involve showing 43 PowerPoint slides with no graphics and small fonts. The presenter would proceed for at least half a day to essentially read each word on each PowerPoint slide. Those who attend and are sleep-deprived would wake up much more refreshed.

The importance of available bathroom breaks would be highlighted, although the breaks would require a journey around meandering corridors only to find that either the men’s or women’s restroom would be out of service.

Breaks could be spent pleasantly in front of vending machines displaying processed and packaged snack foods placed in the machine at just the right angle so that no one could read the labels which say “…best if sold before January 1996.”

Now that the guests have arrived and have survived orientation, they begin to get a sense of the activities in store for them and the life of a bureaucrat. The remainder of the afternoon on the first day at camp would be spent organizing meetings, which generally would be designed in advance to be unproductive and take major chunks out of a person’s work day and life.

Meetings have been described as events where you take minutes and waste hours. Despite that, about a third of a person’s bureaucratic life is spent in meetings with others, so it must become an art form to be able to figure out how to further induce coma by learning the fine art of the endless meeting.

Dinner the first night would feature an array of carefully selected low-bid banquet food with the guest speaker for a two-hour presentation being the head of the federal purchasing system. After an exhaustive review of purchasing requirements leading to $700 hammers and extensive cost over-runs, the meeting is adjourned to the next morning.

The second day features a full menu of subjects primarily focused around the details of cost accounting and the intricacies of payroll processes. Each session begins with a biometric sign-in and sign-out in order to maintain accurate track of who attended each session and to simulate how attendance would translate into payroll codes. No doubt the keynote speaker of the day would be a Fair Labor Standards Act lawyer explaining the various “tests” that enable you to determine exempt or non-exempt status. A quiz would follow which would lead to the conclusion that even President Barack Obama could arguably be considered as non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The next session features a Sumo wrestling match between sheriffs and  fire chiefs over who gets the biggest share of general fund budgets and who, conversely, would take the least number of hits should the budget have to be reduced. Sumo is an ancient and honorable sport in which extraordinarily large people push and shove one another until one loses the battle by being bulldozed out of the fighting circle.

Of course, “Fire” has a particularly powerful weapon at its disposal. That is the ability of the International Association of Fire Fighters to compel bureaucrats all over the country to do whatever they do in a way that is consistent with the union’s action plan. This may explain, in part, the lingering inefficiency of a 24-hour shift schedule or the reluctance of neighboring agencies to consolidate to provide more responsible closest-unit response. 

The final morning would feature an action-packed session on the use of handcuffs. The lesson explores the reality of being a bureaucrat whose range of innovation or ability to make changes is hampered by rules and procedures designed a hundred years ago or imposed as unfunded mandates by State Legislatures and governors, if not from federal agencies.

Finally, as the end of three-day fantasy camp draws near, the bureaucrat wannabes are exposed to the glories of human resources. Here they can learn firsthand in exciting workshops the latest techniques in torturing applicants by subjecting them to processes that are inconsistent with the lyrics to the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”  The rules involve so many steps and repeat visits to the HR department that the candidate can’t even remember what they applied for in the first place.

The session involves a serious lecture on the impact of whining and of the lack of personal accountability behavior, performance or even personal health. A lecture then follows on the art of blaming other people and of avoiding a compelling sense of urgency to get things done. Included in the HR curriculum is a discussion on entitlements such as the Workers Compensation infamous “heart-lung bills” that add to local government costs and contribute to the relentless search by some firefighters, police officers and their ever-present attorneys for better ways to file claims based on the medical condition know as “hyper-pension.”

The final session allows campers to run through a gauntlet of disrespectful elected officials who all too often seem to take special joy in beating up their own staff members.

Finally, there is a graduation ceremony. Each bureaucrat camper receives a six-month subscription to the increasingly smaller and smaller local newspaper, so that they can keep track of the number of stories that purport to expose excessive waste in government.

Bureaucrat fantasy camp is only a fictional account. Any resemblance to actual bureaucrats living or dead is purely coincidental.

Use the fantasy camp experience to appreciate how lucky you are if you work in an agency where staff members are appreciated, and where rewards and recognition for their achievements are an essential requirement for great leaders.

These are the best fantasy — and real life — camps to attend.  The bureaucrats who graduate from these camps strive every day to create exceptional citizen service despite exceptional hurdles.

Use the fantasy camp metaphor to give a big hug to county and city managers who work hard in supporting the development of great staff, even in tough times, and whose daily mission is the honor and the privilege to serve others. The real bureaucracy fantasy camp would focus on these extraordinary qualities.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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