The Government is People with Jobs
If you’re encountering any part of the government for the first time, a lot of things will be confusing. In the first place, you won’t understand legal or procedural technicalities. But in the second place, you’ll be surprised by the human behavior that you encounter. This is probably the most mystifying thing for many people.
For example: if you attend a city council committee hearing, the city council members don’t always behave or look like Important Legislators. They get visibly bored, play on their phones, hunch forward in their chairs, go off into a corner of the room (the room here literally being the main council chambers) and snarf a bodega sandwich, show up late, not show up at all, and more.
You might wonder: why aren’t they taking this seriously? Do they do any work at all? Why don’t they dress the part? Why are they late or absent?
If you try to interact with any administrative agency (the department of education, sanitation, parks, transportation, and more), you’ll often get stonewalled without any kind of response, even if you send an email to the appropriate channel as indicated on their website.
You might wonder: why aren’t they doing their jobs? Are they deliberately ignoring me? Is this a symptom of the government being broken? Is there nothing I can do?
I could go on, but you get the idea.
To understand why members of the government (hired, appointed, or elected) act the way they do, you need to use and shift between multiple lenses at the same time. One is the lens of sophistication: remember that government is a difficult field, and you shouldn’t assume you’d be able to generate good explanations of observed political behavior without investing effort into deliberately studying it.
But the one I want to highlight here is the job lens: members of the government are people with jobs, just like you.
What do you do when you have a boring, recurring meeting on your calendar? Do you perhaps try to get out of it, show up a little late, and fiddle on your phone as much as possible while other people talk about things that you don’t prioritize? Do you zone out when people you think aren’t very smart keep talking?
Do you sometimes show up late to work, not dressed to impress, glad to have that one extra backup outfit in your desk?
Do you phrase things in a way that would be intelligible to the general public (or even just the smartest parts of the general public)? Or do you use industry jargon and rely on communication shortcuts that have been honed in both your industry and your office?
If you get an angry or impatient email from someone who clearly doesn’t understand what you do, especially if you get a lot of them, do you prioritize responding to these people over their opposites?
Although the job lens is not sufficient to fully understand the behavior of members of the government, it is necessary. Think about how much of what you observe can be explained by it with reference to your own knowledge and reflections on the working world. Once you use the lens of government as people with jobs, you might find that you already have knowledge about how best to approach them—because you already do that in your own life. For example: some jobs involve more stakeholders than just you, are harder to reach by random outsiders (with good reason), respond more quickly to people with concrete questions, etc.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the book Arbitrary Lines (2022), by Nolan Gray. He’s a former city planner with NYC’s Department of City Planning, and here he describes one regular part of that job. Every member of the government could write many such stories.
When I started my first planning job in New York City, like all new planners, I was expected to man the zoning help desk at least one day each month. It’s an important rite of passage for entry-level planners. In many cities, this is the front line of planning, where anyone and everyone can call in with a zoning question and get help from a planner. Some of my colleagues loathed the work, and not without reason: it takes your full attention, and a good deal of the inquiries come from people who are either mad at you (homeowners) or trying to off-load their work on to you (real estate brokers).
I nonetheless came to love it, volunteering for desk duty many months after it was required. In a job where projects can stretch on for years, there was something invigorating about solving an issue in a matter of minutes. After a week writing dry reports and managing emails, nothing rekindles the spirit of public service like helping someone work through a problem. On top of all of that, having to field dozens of questions each day helps you to come to understand the messy reality of zoning, which is why desk duty was expected of new hires.
The main thing I learned at the help desk is that most people don’t know the first thing about zoning. Take a call I received from a lady who lived along Staten Island’s eastern shore. In a harried voicemail, she explained her circumstances: She was trying to sell her home. She told the broker to list it as in the neighborhood of Dongan Hills, but the broker said that wasn’t allowed. According to the broker, our agency had “rezoned” her home from Dongan Hills to South Beach, so that’s what must go in the listings. The questions came frantically at the end: When did your agency “rezone” me into another neighborhood? Why did you do that? And can you “rezone” me back?
At first, I was bewildered. I had never heard of zoning designating specific neighborhoods—this certainly wasn’t the case in New York City. Could she be referring to some other change in local zoning? The zoning in that area of Staten Island hadn’t changed in over fifty years. Maybe she had in mind some special purpose district? That wasn’t it either. At a loss, I decided to give her a call. After hearing the spiel for a second time, with added flavor about how she had lived in the neighborhood her entire life, I gently explained that zoning doesn’t designate neighborhoods.
“Well then, how do I know what neighborhood I live in?” she asked in exasperation.
By this point, the call no longer had anything to do with zoning. But she seemed genuinely worried, so I decided to work with her. Knowing almost nothing about the area, I pulled up Google Maps and plugged in her address.
“According to the label on Google Maps, you live in Dongan Hills,” I said.
“Where does that label come from?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. Let me put this to you a different way. Do you live near the Dongan Playground?” I asked.
“Yep, I went to elementary school right next door,” she said.
“And you live quite close to Dongan Hills Avenue, right?” I asked.
“It’s on the other side of Buel Avenue, but yeah, it’s about ten minutes away,” she said.
“Well, based on the weight of evidence, it sounds to me like you live in Dongan Hills,” I explained.
After a sigh of relief on her end, we chatted a little more and (at her request) I coached her on how to explain all of this to her domineering broker. First call of the day done.1
Chapter 2: How Zoning Works, from Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, by M. Nolan Gray (2022), p. 31-33.