It's not fair to bash government employees


July 21, 1996|By BRIAN SULLAM

AMERICANS ARE in a surly mood, and, of late, much of their indignation has been directed toward government employees.

It doesn't matter whether these workers are federal, state or local; they are treated with contempt usually reserved for the most indolent and nonproductive members of society.

We got a glimmer of the intensity of this earlier this month when the Anne Arundel County Council heard testimony on proposed changes to the county pension system designed to save taxpayers money.

Dvorak's expletives

Anne Arundel's Chief Administrative Officer Robert J. Dvorak, himself a highly paid public employee, exploded at a council hearing amid snickering by much-lower-paid county workers.

Using expletives usually heard at bars -- or in newsrooms -- Mr. Dvorak basically accused his fellow workers of being simpletons who do nothing but collect paychecks. His broadside wasn't too far from a similar charge hurled by an elected official in Howard County recently. County Council President Darrel E. Drown reviewed a consultant's report on county compensation and proclaimed his county's work force underworked and overpaid.

Making public employees scapegoats for every societal problem, from breakdown of the nuclear family to stagnant real wages, is in keeping with the ethos of the times: Somebody must be responsible for our troubles because we didn't cause them.

Arriving at these conclusions, however, is a sign of the lazy and vague thinking that passes for informed analysis these days.

National, state and local governments are uniformly considered to be performing poorly. Self-appointed watchdogs such as Robert C. Schaeffer of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association easily toss off such blanket statements as: "Government has done such a poor job over the last years of doing everything."

Things we take for granted

It doesn't take much to riddle such glittering generalities with holes, however. All you have to do is think about the routine government services services we take for granted.

Anne Arundel's government seems to have done a superb job of providing customers with fresh, wholesome water 24 hours a day. It has also done an adequate job of processing the copious amount of solid waste citizens produce.

Most traffic lights function properly, and when they don't, the repairs seem to get made as quickly as possible.

Most of us can grab a bite to eat at any restaurant in the county and not think twice about food poisoning. Part of that confidence is due to the vigilance of the health department.

Senior citizens regularly find companionship and activities at county-run centers.

Dead animals are cleared off the roads. Tens of thousands of books, records and videos are distributed weekly through the network of public libraries.

And despite all the griping about schools, more children are graduating today than ever, and the vast majority seem to find their way into colleges, jobs and the service, thanks to the public school system.

Public employees make this happen. Although the stereotypical public worker is a laborer leaning on a shovel, a bureaucrat with his feet on the desk or a secretary polishing her nails, the majority of public sector employees work as hard as their non-government counterparts.

To demonize them, as has become recent practice, is to miss the real opportunities we have to make government more efficient.

That is not to say that the county government works perfectly or that all employees are dedicated and hard-working. Yet, any objective analysis shows that governments, like any human institutions, function with mixed results. Unlike many other institutions, however, including corporations, churches, community associations, universities and charitable organizations, governments ultimately are democratic and responsive to the public.

Abdicating responsibility

The problem with all levels of government is that too many of us have abdicated our role to others. We are not informed, we don't participate and, all too often, we aren't very happy with the results.

The bedrock belief of a democracy is that citizens through common action can correct problems, not only for themselves but for society as a whole. If we are to solve problems -- and not just argue about them -- we need less polarizing rhetoric.

In the case of pension reform, for example, the public and employees need an objective delineation of the costs, benefits and alternatives. Overheated accusations from either side do not bring us any closer to a satisfactory solution.

If we are really to make government more efficient, we have to start looking at its operations with a more selective and careful analysis.

If we don't, we run the risk of eliminating the good along with the bad.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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