Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2012, 1:36 pm

Don't treat government as 'them,' Remember, it's 'us'

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By Don Wooten

The weather is tilting into winter, turning our attention to the dark, chilly days ahead. All the storm windows are in place at our house (the last one went in just yesterday) and a supply of firewood is stacked by the door. I even got my flu shot, having been warned that this year's version is a tough one. It was no trouble at all. I was in and out of the county health department in five minutes.

I am not one of winter's champions. I can think of three other seasons I like a whole lot more. But it has at least one positive aspect: it is a great time to cozy up by a fireplace, if you have one, to read and think and I have been doing a fair amount of both.

The recent trip to the health department got me to thinking about one of the great whipping posts of our time, governmental bureaucracies. Almost every time the term comes up in public discussion, it is said with a sneer, as if bureaucrats were some kind of subhuman species.

The truth is, I have found most government workers to be cheerful and hardworking. True, there are some who are indifferent, hostile, or lazy, but the proportion is about the same you'll find in the business world.

In fact, I have encountered more rudeness from people in service jobs than I have in bureaucracies. That's probably because I spend more time in stores, restaurants, and the like than in government offices, but I truly think those who work for the public get a bad rap. They are just folks; no better, no worse.

I realize that people are quick to be critical of government workers because "we're paying their salaries." Of course, we are also paying everybody else's salaries. It's just that the money goes through many different hands in the private sector; in the public sector, payment is made directly in taxes.

We can sympathize with a sales clerk who has been on his or her feet all day and has dealt with many customers who are uncooperative to the point of abuse. But we usually don't make the same allowances for the people behind government counters.

We really should, because people quite often enter public buildings in an unhappy mood and are ready to take it out on the first person they meet. I can recall one instance when the secretary in my Senate office was confronted by a man who had an unreal grievance and a very real knife.

I can attest from my days in the Illinois Senate that you seldom have people come to your office to tell you how happy they are about government in general or the job you are doing in particular. They tend to come with problems, arguments, and occasional threats. It's not easy to maintain a smile and constant good cheer in such encounters. But if you don't, you'll hear about it for an eternity.

Once I was standing in a filling station in Morrison looking for aspirin or anything to dull a crushing headache when a woman came through the front door and started to berate me for not fixing a state road. I was a state senator at the time and the western half of Whiteside County was in my district.

Barely able to see her through my pain, I responded, rather brusquely, that everyone has a highway they want fixed. She left in a huff and I realized that my discourtesy would be chronicled throughout the county unless I took remedial action.

So, on another day and feeling much better, I looked her up, checked out the problem and wound up using every ounce of influence I had to get some state-only funds directed to the road in front of her house. And that, my friend, is how the Chadwick Slab in Whiteside County was widened.

I wasn't always so moved by an unhappy constituent, nor so eager to correct a discourtesy. Some people became so offensive that it was hard to keep from shouting. And, once or twice, I didn't.

So, I give bureaucrats the benefit of the doubt when they don't leap to my assistance, greet me with a cheerful smile, or cut through layers of red tape to satisfy my every whim. I have shared something of their experiences and try to be understanding.

I know that it is unfashionable to speak kindly of public service or government employment these days. Most people who want to be part of government run against it, which is just as silly as it sounds. But it's easier to demonize government than to explain it or make it work, so the hypocrisy will continue until voters object. And they ought to object. Our government isn't a foreign occupation or a plot against humanity. It's an attempt to keep society operating fairly and efficiently. Those making the attempt are as human as the rest of us, which means they will get some things right and others wrong.
Except for the truly criminal or psychotic, no one sets out to screw things up. That means we ought to quit treating government as "them" when, in fact, government is "us."

Some years ago, the playwright Edward Albee spoke at the National Press Club and, in his remarks, reminded us that there are two things to remember about a democracy:
--- Voters in a democracy can have anything they really want and
-- They deserve what they get.
What do you want (and deserve) from government? It's something to think about on a cold winter night.
Don Wooten of Rock Island is a former state senator and veteran broadcaster; donwooten@qconline.com.