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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 2 * January 29, 2001

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Trafficking in Public Administration

The HR Doctor is dictating this article while commuting to work in heavy traffic. Actually, it is more like “parking” to work than driving. My colleagues in the traffic engineering profession — usually a county government function — including Florida Traffic Engineering Director of the Year, Jihad El Eid, tell me that traffic jams are of three basic types.

The first is generic and relates to population growth — more cars trying to use roads designed and built for a less crowded time. This is essentially an infrastructure problem as well as a problem, caused by the basic allegiance we feel to the single-passenger car.

The second involves some obstacle, such as a construction zone, an accident or a school zone. The third pattern-disrupter is the mystery slow-down: Traffic creeps, then traffic flies, with no rhyme or reason.

So, HR Doctor, what’s your point? The point is that as we do our work as public administrators, we are also easily susceptible to administrative traffic jams in our workload and in our ability to get a particular project completed.

First, public service is more complicated, more liability prone, and more likely to affect the lives of individuals than ever before. We have more laws, more lawyers, and more to consider in making policy decisions. The flow of public administration in the last generation has been toward the complicated and that means our workload goes up.

Next, the workload increase is infrequently matched by a resource increase. Those new positions requested in last year’s budget were regrettably not approved. However, the new assignments were! It is true that we automate and try to move toward “paperless e-government,” however, the very act of committing to automation means more complications and adjustments.

In our work as public administrators, we often encounter the unexpected accident or construction zone. As we move down the path to accomplish work, however well we might plan the effort, it is no longer unusual to run into “change orders” or the unexpected road blocks that result from new laws, court cases, staff turnover, power failures, auditors or acts of nature. As mere humans, we try our best to plan.

Finally, as we struggle to put together the pieces of a complicated administrative puzzle, we may find slowdowns that were not only unanticipated, but seemed to suddenly clear up as mysteriously as they appeared. Ask any PC owner about the sudden system trouble that freezes the machine. After all of our frustration, a simple reboot of the system solves the problem.

What does the HR Doctor prescribe to create a “survival kit” for the administrator under these conditions?

First, the public official who wishes to remain sane through this process must recognize and understand it. When a project is planned, build in a “Foreseeability Analysis” (see the HR Doctor Article of the same name at

Second, be flexible and nimble in the sense of being able to rapidly adjust and identify an “alternate route.” Be prepared to divert resources to another project temporarily so that staff members do not become frustrated. Maintaining a sense of humor is a key ingredient in any “treatment plan.” The person who lacks a sense of perspective and a sense of humor will not do well in terms of personal health or professional success in the long run.

Finally, think often of the Beatles song “I Get By with a Little Help From My Friends.” We need a network of colleagues “at home and abroad”: professional associates who can be a source of advice, help and sympathy. If for no other reason, this access to colleagues justifies NACo membership many times over!

In fact, the HR Doctor suggests that our membership costs should qualify as medical insurance co-payments since what we are really talking about is a form of group therapy.

Follow these HR Doctor steps and, even in the middle of a traffic jam, you can substitute constructive work or fun for the dangers and the destruction of road rage.

Best regards,


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