Public Service Tip No. 7: Practice Your Duck and Cover Drills


In 1950, the Civil Defense community created a movie called "Duck and Cover" which featured Bert the Turtle. Bert became a cultural icon. By default, he also became the mascot of many public sector employees. (See Bert in action in "Duck and Cover" (quicktime).)

To illustrate this, one of the people who worked for me in Utah told me once (with a straight face), "I was starting on that, but I began to notice that I was out in front of everyone else and that's a very uncomfortable position to be in. They might not follow." This was a person who was supposed to be in a leadership role, but he was also a long-standing state employee who had survived a number of administration and leadership changes. He'd learned the art of surviving in public service: never take a position.

This duck and cover mentality is a critical skill for public sector employees. In the private sector, you live and die by your opinion and your judgment. After all, the way you shine and come to the attention of your boss is to express yourself and take a stand on important issues. In the public sector nothing could be further from the truth. When you take a position, you run the risk of having someone call you on something you've said. Taking a position makes you accountable.

Part of this is just normal office politics. However, there's a much more acute awareness of this and expertise at exploiting it in state government. There are a few good reasons for this:

  1. Mistakes can be deadly. Because of the very close relationship between government and the press, the press will magnify any mistake you make. What's more, the legislature does not have the time or inclination to understand why a problem has arisen. One of my staff advised me my first week on the job that I could never recommend canceling a project once it had begun. There was no room for error.
  2. As I've mentioned before, process is more important that results, so there's no need to take a position, just make sure you're following the process and everything will be OK.
  3. When you are trying to get something done, the past can come back to haunt you. The less of a past there is, the less likely that the past will get thrown in your face. A common political strategy for dealing with a project or proposal that you don't like is to publicly attack the person making the proposal on another issue and tie up your opponent with other problems. You may think that this isn't applicable if you're not running for office, but this strategy can be used equally effectively against appointed officials and other managers as well.

One of the consequences of all this is that people in the public sector are constantly striving for "consensus." My experience, however, is that this is not the true consensus that comes through leadership and trust, but just a "participation" exercise that let's everyone find the least common denominator and to gage where others are so that they can assure that they're not "out in front." As a result, you see a constant effort to "study the issues" and "vote on direction." I used to want to scream "you work for a democracy, not in one!" but it wouldn't have done any good.

There are a large number of excellent people on the public sector payroll. I worked with a number of them. Even so, I met few who were willing to take a stand in public. Plenty would say "you're doing the right thing; keep at it" in a private conversation, but they were timid to take a position even half that strong in any public setting. That limits progress significantly.