Mrs. Gouge's Dirt and Idea of Service

COMMENT

March 06, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer took office in Annapolis, he would call various departments to see how employees treated citizens seeking help. If the people who answered the phone were not courteous or helpful, they and their superiors would receive a blistering dressing down from the state's top elected official.

Since every civil servant's worst nightmare is to be at the receiving end of Governor Schaefer's well-known temper, a large number of civil servants cleaned up their phone manners and began responding more quickly to telephoned requests. They didn't want to run the risk of displeasing the "do it now" governor, whose laudable goal was to have the citizens treated as well as he was.

All this came to mind during the recent flap over Julia W. Gouge's dirt pile. The Carroll County commissioner was upset that she had been treated just like any other citizen regarding a sediment control violation at her Hampstead farm. Since she was a commissioner, Mrs. Gouge felt, the county civil servants should have afforded her special courtesies.

The incident raised the issue of the treatment that large bureaucracies -- public and private -- mete out to citizens and customers.

Mr. Schaefer's impatience with poor service and inaction goes back to his days in Baltimore City Hall. As mayor, he used to shake up complacent bureaucracies by sending them notes about trash-strewn alleys and abandoned cars he observed as he cruised the city streets.

In one oft-told story, the then-mayor told the city's Department of Public Works that he saw an abandoned car on a city street and wanted it removed immediately. He deliberately didn't reveal the location. Within a few days, department employees removed more than 500 abandoned cars in the hope they had towed away the one that provoked the boss' ire.

To a large degree, Mr. Schaefer's forceful personality energized the city and state bureaucracies and improved the delivery of public services. Tom Peters, the management guru and best-selling author, even dedicated his 1987 book "Thriving on Chaos" to the governor, noting his "raging impatience with inaction [has] inspired the most dramatic and fruitful organizational revolutions I've witnessed."

In Carroll County, the public bureaucracy seems to function at a relatively high level. For one thing, its small size means that people can't retreat into the bureaucratic maze to avoid responsibility. In some small bureaus, only one or two people do the work. They can't simply slip the unpleasant tasks to somebody else.

County civil servants also seem to take their jobs seriously. In my visits to the county office building, I have yet to see any of them filing their nails, or reading the paper with their feet propped up on the desk.

I have, however, experienced a few instances where county employees have not been very considerate to the public.

The clerks at the District Court are probably the worst offenders. There have been times in the past two years when I walked up to the counter and waited five minutes for one of the clerks to acknowledge my presence. They knew I was standing there, but instead of asking how they could assist me, they would bury their heads in their files and carefully avoid looking up.

For a long time, I thought the clerks were taking out their hostility on me because I was a reporter and would ask for files every day. It was reassuring to see I was not singled out. The clerks were equally bad to others, making them wait for extraordinarily long periods before dealing with them.

I never could determine why they did this. Was it because they were overwhelmed by the volume of files they had to deal with daily? Was it because they hated the tedium of their jobs? Was it because they just didn't care and their supervisors tolerated this unsolicitous behavior? Whatever the reason, their antagonistic behavior made each visit to their office unpleasant.

The clerks of Carroll's Circuit Court are at the other extreme. As soon as I walk into their offices, they drop whatever they are doing to ask what I need. They go to great lengths to find files and ensure that I get everything I want. I always leave their offices with a smile and a desire to return.

Comedians have made fortunes on jokes about inefficient and arrogant public bureaucracies, but some private ones are equally horrendous. Sometimes I feel that banks, insurance and utility companies consider customers to be nuisances.

When I had some problems with my checking account because a deposit was returned, the bank employees treated me as though I had been the person who bounced the check. I have also received some rather shabby treatment from insurance companies, particularly when I have made a claim. I know there has been a great deal of insurance fraud, but why do these companies insist on making those of us who are honest feel as if we are criminals?

Good service is one of those intangibles that can provide large returns. Astute managers should demand it from their employees. But there are times when even the most considerate service isn't going to make a difference.

While Mrs. Gouge may have complained about the impersonal (( treatment she received from the county inspectors, she may have been more upset about the violation. Receiving a citation is never going to create a warm fuzzy feeling, no matter how solicitous the messenger.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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