What It’s Really Like to Work for Government

This week I came to the realization that the majority of people have a totally wrong view of what it’s like to work for government. I guess having worked in government for so long now, I take for granted all the rules, regulations, oversight, and general culture in the workplace. And I assumed with all the attention we get as government employees that citizens were also aware of our work environment. But now I know that people in general really have limited knowledge about how it is to work for government. Thinking back, I realized I was also not aware of all this when I first started in the public sector. So I figured I would try to do my best to open a little window in the world of government workers. Most of these lessons I am sharing have developed over the course of my 30-year career, and as you will see, many of these lessons were learned the hard way.

Copies of all of our correspondence including emails can be requested by the public
With all the talk of FOIA and transparency, I figured everyone knew this. But now I know that there are people who believe government employees still have some degree of privacy. We do not. We work as if everything we write could end up on the front page of the newspaper because it can. And those employees who do not figure that out risk finding out the hard way.

How we write those emails is subject to public criticism and reprimand
Because our correspondence is open to public scrutiny, it only makes sense that what we write can end up critiqued by anyone. Therefore, we learn to be very careful in how we phrase things. I learned this the hard way many years ago by responding to someone I knew well who emailed me about a work-related issue. Because we knew each other well, I responded in an informal, yet still appropriate, manner. An alderman ended up seeing my response, and at a council meeting he publicly reprimanded me for my casual language.

Which brings up the fact that we can be publicly ridiculed and reprimanded at whim
As my example above shows, particularly those of us who are appointed, are subject to public criticism at the whim of elected officials. I also found this out the hard way, again many years ago, after requiring a contractor to submit a bond in order to drive multiple heavy loads on a rural road that was definitely not designed for it. That contractor  refused and complained about my requirement to the local developer to whom he was hauling the material. That developer complained to an alderman. Next thing I know, I am publicly reprimanded by an official council vote at a meeting. And all that for doing my job and looking out for the best interests of the public.

People take pictures of us during the day
Most of us are aware that this can happen, but even so, many times we end up in trouble because of it even though we have done nothing wrong. I once saw a photo online of a city van (can’t remember the city) parked at a retail store on a weekend. Based on the comments, it was obvious the public’s first thought was that the city employee was using the city van to shop at a store on the weekend. As a city employee, my first thought was the city had to have someone go out on overtime to answer a service call at that store for something like a sewer backup or water problem. The lesson here is that even though we are working somewhere legitimately, a picture can certainly be taken the wrong way.

We are never off the clock
My dad was a service manager at a Buick garage, so I know from his experience this is common to more than just government workers. But I think the difference is that my dad had a better chance convincing someone to contact him during working hours. Government workers are perceived many times as always being on the clock. And what I have found is that most of us also perceive ourselves in this way. Whether it is responding to a problem someone brings up at the grocery store or taking the time to stop and check out a problem we see on the road over the weekend, we have a hard time taking off our “city hat.”

The other problem with this is that while many people can take a 10 minute break during the day, if we stop somewhere for a few minutes to get a water or soda or use the restroom, we are perceived as lazy and not working. And someone might take our picture!

People yell at us and expect us to be silent and respectful in return
People working in government hear complaints on a regular basis, and we view this as a normal part of our job. Much like others working in the service industry, we are here to help and serve people in our community who have problems so complaints or questions or concerns are expected. We would rather have people call with a complaint than be worried and not call. However, there are people who feel because their taxes pay a portion of our salary that they can be totally abusive, and we are out of line if we do not quietly sit and listen.  And everyone working in local government has heard the “You have to do what I say because I pay your salary.”

We have to be ready to justify everything we do in a deposition
Cities get sued a lot. After sitting through several depositions for lawsuits – fortunately for issues not related to work for which I was responsible – I have gotten to the point that each time I make a decision, I imagine myself justifying it to a room of attorneys. I try to imagine every angle they could take with my decision. And only after I feel I have carefully considered every angle and still believe it is in the public’s best interest and meets the law, do I proceed.

We work in conservative surroundings with few special amenities
The public does usually support and take pride in a nice city hall, but there is still a limit on the amenities allowed in our work environment. Government work places could never have the same type of benefits enjoyed by private business such as work-out rooms, saunas, special coffee and beverage machines, lunch and break areas, sports facilities, etc. It would be considered completely unacceptable.

Where we shop is subject to review and criticism
This condition under which some of us work might not be true for everyone. From my experience it is more likely to be found in a smaller community. The reason this happens is because people feel they pay our salaries. So in return, we should only buy from businesses in our community, even for our personal purchases, regardless of cost. Knowing this, I did try at my last job to buy as much as possible from businesses in our city.

But when we built our own house, we bought from businesses in our city and also from those in neighboring cities. We just could not afford to do otherwise, and not all the items we needed or wanted were sold in our city. The home improvement store owner/employees in our city complained to the mayor and felt we were wrong to give the sales tax to other cities. What they did not realize was because of where our home was built, we were not paying sales tax anyway. But had they figured this out, I am not sure it would have lessened their frustration that we purchased outside the city nor stopped them from complaining about me to my supervisor.

All of our income and other benefits are subject to public scrutiny and criticism
Because we are paid by public funds, the amount of our income, terms of our benefits, and pensions amounts can be obtained by the public. And as many have recently witnessed, this information can often end up the subject of lengthy and very public discussions or become a pawn in the political arena.

Everything we do has to be done within the constraints of numerous rules, policies, regulations, and laws
So many times people contact us wanting us to do something that they perceive is a simple task. And many times it does appear to be so. But what people do not realize is that we now operate under a load of regulations, rules, policies, and laws all passed by elected officials to protect the public interest. So tasks that appear to be simple usually end up complicated and take a long time as we ensure we are not violating any of these conditions.


There are many other conditions under which we work, but I will stop there with the thought that those are probably the most obvious ones people might not have known about. Certainly, I do not intend to give the impression these conditions are negative, wrong, or should be changed – they just are part of the job. If someone cannot accept working within this environment, then they do not stay in government. For those of us who do stay, we do accept and understand the environment and are thankful we have been given an opportunity to work building and maintaining our communities. If you’re a government worker, feel free to share work conditions you think might not be obvious to those working in the private sector.

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Virtual Worlds: The Next Level of Government

Crowd by davidChief on FlickrIn small numbers, people can usually self-govern themselves. But as the number of people in a group grows, better control is needed. So history has shown anytime a large number of people start hanging out in a particular place, a government structure is formed. In our world today, we have nations which then have further divisions of government down to local or neighborhood levels. And while most of these levels of government are considered public, a small number are privately held and yet still considered a governing body by upper levels of government. So applying this to virtual worlds, have these digital places evolved to the point that another type of government level needs to be formed?

I would expect many people, particularly those who have not yet ventured into a virtual space, would scoff at the idea of creating a new type of government subdivision for computer-generated worlds. During my first few years of hanging out in places like Second Life, I had not considered the need for governance. But during those years, I observed many parallels between the growth of Second Life and the development of a city. And recently, the discussions surrounding the struggles of Linden Lab to address the needs of Second Life "residents," have me more closely analyzing the governance idea.

Although I don't think Linden Lab started Second Life with the intention of creating another governmental entity, it is interesting to see elements of local governance in the early days of the grid. Philip, the creator of Second Life, was labeled Governor Linden, and the users were called residents. Experiments in zoning took place on at least one of the first sims. And the subdivision and sale of land and payment of tier (tax) for that land is an emulation of land ownership in the U.S.

Second Life has gone through phases regarding these issues: tier is still paid and users are still residents, zoning has been created on a much larger scale with the division of adult, mature, and PG spaces, Philip is no longer referred to as Governor although public land is still held by Governor Linden. And as the Lab struggled to determine their policies in these areas, similarities between the problems faced by Linden Lab and those we face as city officials grew. Today there are demands by residents for better functioning infrastructure and platforms through which to voice opinions. Businesses are continually pushing for economic tools, incentives, regulations, and opportunities. All issues faced every day by those of us working in local government.

Server Farm photo from Sugree Phatanapherom on FlickrPost-Victorian water mains by Lars Plougmann on FlickrAt this point, Second Life has evolved to where the primary differences I see between its digital space and the physical space are in the type of infrastructure and the international population. And even the infrastructure, while different, still has many similarities to the operation and maintenance of infrastructure in the physical world because it is part of that physical world. Cities have water mains and roads; Second Life has computers and code.

So, the most challenging difference I can see is the International aspect of the Second Life population; governments in the physical world are based on geographic boundaries. Cyberspace has no geographic location in the physical world. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access places like Second Life. So if a digital space became a governmental entity, into which governmental structure would it fit and in which country? And whose laws govern each person's behavior in that world?

If I travel to another country, I follow that country's rules and yet I am still bound by some of the laws in my own country. If I visit a digital space, I follow the terms of use for that world no matter where it is based in the world. Yet, because I am in the U.S., the U.S. government could argue I need to also follow laws of this country because I am using federally regulated bandwidth to access that world. So some might question, if there are already terms of use for visiting virtual worlds, why aren't those rules good enough?

Terms of use seem to work well for regulating behavior in digital spaces when user freedoms and choices are limited. For example I don't see Blizzard dealing with the same issues facing Linden Lab. Both companies have created virtual worlds, but the MMORPG offers a more structured space with well-defined and limited abilities for its users. While in Second Life, the users have many more freedoms and choices. I compare the MMORPG to a museum I would visit in a city like Chicago. My museum visit is structured and defined by the rules and environment created by that museum. While my behavior and actions in Chicago are only bound by the laws of the city, state, and U.S. government.

City Hall by Editor B - Bart Everson - on Flickr

Even with the growing similarities between digital and physical places, governance in virtual worlds is probably not on the immediate horizon. People are still just getting used to the idea of a digital world. But this concept of a virtual world functioning as an actual place could help companies like Linden Lab better understand what they have created. And as the Lab is finding out, running local government is not easy. But it is an age-old practice with thousands of years of models and literature available for guidance. Maybe what Linden Lab needs now to sort out all their issues is someone with a background in public administration.

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The Computer Named My Subdivision

Sometimes, naming a subdivision can be easy – for example a subdivision located in a shady grove of oak trees might be called Shady Oaks. But how do developers choose a subdivision name if there isn't an obvious candidate? Last week I was surprised to find out there are online generators designed for the sole purpose of naming subdivisions. Here are the links to a few:

A random subdivision/housing development/rest home name generator

Generator Land: Subdivision Name Generator

ikeepitreal

Real Estate Subdivision Name Generator : This one will generate "nice" names like Willow Vista and "negative" names like Putrid Gorge

Town Name Generator

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A Brave New Grid – Post 2: The Virtual Plan

Ontario Build in Second LifeIn the first post of this series, I explained my decision about moving my efforts related to building government/public works/engineering sites in virtual worlds from Second Life to OpenSim. And I invited anyone interested to read along or visit as I make this move. From here on out, I will continue to write about the thoughts and processes an agency follows to create and operate a virtual site:

Just like any good story, this one starts at the beginning—back before an agency even sets a digital foot into the virtual arena. Today many agencies might not have even heard of virtual worlds while a few others have heard of them but not yet thought about leveraging this tool to deliver value to citizens. But, eventually someone, either staff or citizens, will bring up the possibility of using virtual worlds to enhance service delivery. At that point the agency must decide whether to ignore the suggestion or investigate virtual solutions. If the agency decides to go forward, the first step is to create a virtual plan. Here are some ideas about how an agency would go about developing their plan:


Developing a Virtual Plan

Create a Project Team

Assuming an agency decides to venture forth, my first suggestion is to form a project team. Team members should be comfortable using online technology, possess good assessment skills and articulation, and have a comprehensive understanding of the agency’s general structure, goals, mission, and strategy. It would also be helpful to include a few community stakeholders on the team such as members of the agency's leadership, residents, business owners, and leaders in community organizations.

Set Goals and Strategies

The team’s first order of business is to determine what the agency would want to accomplish with the use of virtual worlds. These goals should align with the overall goals and strategies for the organization. This is also a good time to think about the targeted audience—who will visit this virtual space? Below are some suggestions for both virtual spaces and related audiences:

  • Engage local citizens.
  • Attract potential tourists and deliver visitor information.
  • Recruit potential employees, citizens, businesses.
  • Plan proposed development and receive input from citizens and developers.
  • Present 3D representations of code and ordinance requirements so residents/business owners can more easily understand and access regulations.
  • Train employees.

 

Decide on Software and Hosting

In order to develop, access, and maintain these virtual spaces, the agency will need to acquire a software package and possibly a hosting plan. Although virtual worlds may seem like a brand new tool, they function in a manner similar to a traditional Website. By this I mean that the agency will use development software to create the world and the content within. Then others will use a software program to access the agency’s site. And just like a Website, the digital space will require a computer on which to reside. Therefore, the agency will need to determine if their virtual space will be served out from their own computers or through a host.

Here is a list of the more common solutions currently in use for enterprise and government purposes:

Virtual world development can be complex so it’s critical the team identify features and requirements for each software package from cost to performance to ease of use and support. This is where tables and charts come in handy. Here are some suggestions to consider including in the analysis:

Developer    Purchase and Annual Cost    User base    Technical Requirements    Security     Scalability    Backup Capabilities    

Database Requirements and Compatibility     Storage Requirements

The team can assess each program by assigning a ranking for each feature and requirement. For example, if a low number is chosen to indicate a more beneficial choice, then the purchase price could be categorized by the following numbering system:

1 – $0 to $999

2 – $1,000 to $4,999

3 – $5,000 to $9,999

4 – $10,000 and greater

 

Technical requirements could be simplified into the following categories for ranking:

1 – Basic computer system costing less than $1,000

2 – Average computer system costing between $1,000 and $2,000

3 – Moderate computer system costing between $2,000 and $3,000

4 – Loaded computer system costing more than $3,000

 

Categories and rankings should be chosen to best describe each agency’s assessment of needs and capabilities. After assigning a rank to each category and adding up all the points for each feature and requirement, the team can rank the software packages.

 

Visit Virtual Worlds

Next the team should download the virtual tools and spend time in virtual worlds created by each software solution under consideration. It’s helpful to document observations and first impressions because this can offer insight into how the agency’s user base will experience their first visit. Team members might also visit existing government sites in virtual worlds. Usually people managing these sites are more than willing to share their experiences with others.

 

Establish a Virtual Site Policy

Visiting virtual spaces can also help the team formulate a virtual space policy for staff and visitors. For employees this policy can address their appearance, communication procedures and guidance, hours of work, and other issues related to representing the agency in a virtual space. For visitors the policy will cover how they should conduct themselves, what they will be allowed to do in the space, how they can dress, if they can access all or just a portion of the space, and consequences for not following the rules.

 

Develop Virtual Site Designs

After spending time in each world and interviewing managers of existing sites, the team can begin formulating a more specific idea of what they will want to create for their own agency. A framework for each can be designed to meet the agency’s goals and to fit within the constraints and structure of each software package under consideration.

Based on the type of build desired and the goals the agency wants to achieve, the team will develop alternative designs for the site. At this point, designs do not have to be detailed. Simply showing a square labeled “Central Business District” can indicate a design that includes a 3D representation of the agency’s downtown. The most important step is to make sure the designs include elements that allow the agency to achieve their stated goals.

Greenies from Second Life

Choose the Development Team

The team must next consider whether the agency can build the virtual site with in-house staff or if a consultant must be hired to perform the work. If the work can be down by agency employees, the team should identify members of a potential development group and their corresponding skills. In making this decision, the team needs to keep in mind not only staff abilities, but the availability of content for each virtual solution. Some worlds, like Second Life, offer extensive ready-made content and building tools that allow most people the ability to create an acceptable space. However, other software solutions require more extensive software skills and offer little to no content.

If a consultant will be hired, the team might want to research potential companies experienced in the creation of virtual worlds. It is important to identify which software tool each company has experience with and visit sites they have created. Interviewing past clients can offer insight into whether the company has the desired experience and understanding to handle a government agency’s requests and needs. Also check to see if the company has retained the employees who created past builds or if you will be working with a new and less experienced staff. Another important consideration is to check with past clients to make sure the company met deadlines and came within budget.

Establish Operations and Management Procedure

Once the site is established, there will be management needs. So the plan should include a section addressing how the site will be staffed and managed during the first few months and then for the long term. Decisions to be made in this step could include if the agency is going to staff the site with existing full or part-time employees or if new employees will be hired. Virtual sites are open 24/7 so the agency also needs to decide on what hours staff will be available at the site. If the agency intends to host events, the hours and staffing for these along with a proposed list of events should be included.London Re-creation in Second Life

Agencies also prefer to assess operations on a regular basis. If the site is created, this assessment needs to become part of the overall operation and management plan of the agency. With this process in place, the project team can be utilized on a regular basis to review the site on an annually and submit a report indicating how well the site is meeting the goals and objectives laid out in the plan. This procedure can also allow for amendments and changes to be made through an established process.

 

Compile the Plan

At this point, the team can begin compiling the virtual plan. The plan should include the following elements:

 

  • General proposal and description of what a virtual site is intended to accomplish

 

  • Specific goals, objectives, and strategies and how they fit into the overall agency plan including references to targeted audience/user base

     

  • Listing and discussion of available software solutions with a summary of the team’s findings (a more detailed report can be included in an appendix)

     

  • Proposed virtual site policy

     

  • Concept designs

     

  • Suggested development team

     

  • Timetable for execution of the virtual plan

     

  • Marketing and/or advertising plan including intended channels to be used

     

  • Short term and long term management of the site including staffing proposal

     

  • Assessment procedure

     

  • Budget for software purchase, development, and management

 

Once a draft of the plan is complete, it is advisable for the agency to host a few public meetings to get input from residents, businesses, and other community stakeholders. Comments should be discussed, and if appropriate, incorporated into the plan. Minutes and comments from all public hearings should be added to the plan as an appendix. The agency's attorney also needs to review the plan at this point and offer any needed revisions.

When the report has been finalized, the team can present the plan to the agency's board or council for formal approval.


 

 

Related reading and resources:

"Virtual Spaces: Enabling Immersive Collaborative Enterprise, Part 1: Introduction to the opportunities and technologies" IBM article

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Augmented Reality for Public Works

Construction siteAugmented reality (AR) has been gaining ground over the last couple years—most likely as a result of an increasing number of applications incorporating AR and an increase in the capabilities of supporting technology. But while the advances have been useful and impressive, I have not seen much related to the public works industry. This surprises me because AR could be incredibly useful and could increase efficiencies and decrease costs. So I thought I would post a few ideas of ways in which AR could be applied to the public works field with the hope that someone takes up the challenge and implements these tools:

Utility Locates:
Utility locating can be a pain, but it is important to prevent damage to the utility or injury to people working near the utility. Current tools of the locating trade can include a map on a laptop or on paper, locating devices for accurately pinpointing the utility location, shovels, picks, probes, and paint or flags for marking the location in the field. The reason this task is so challenging is the need to rely on maps that many times are not accurate enough to allow the locator to just walk right up to the utility.

For example, a locator might have trouble finding a water shut off valve in someone’s yard if it is buried under snow or dirt. If there are accurate measurements to the valve, the locator uses a measuring tape and map to find the general location of the valve. And if there are not accurate measurements, which is often the case, the locator would have to randomly search the area with the locating device. Once a probable position is determined, the locator digs for the valve with a shovel. This can result in multiple holes being dug before the valve is found. If other utilities are in the area, readings can be inaccurate which makes finding the valve even harder. The whole process can be very time consuming.

Some cities have their valves in a GIS allowing the locator to walk to the approximate location with the help of a GPS device. This is very useful, but how much better and more intuitive would it be if the valve could be projected digitally onto the ground using augmented reality. The locator drives up to the site, gets out of the vehicle and puts on a headset or uses a mobile device, and all the utilities show up on the ground through the use of augmented reality.

Engineering Design:
Using this same idea, engineering design could be greatly simplified. If an engineer needs to improve a road by installing curb and gutter and a new storm sewer, maps must be collected and utilities marked in the field to designate locations of gas, electric, water, etc. Only then can the engineer determine the best place to put the curb and sewer. If all an engineer had to do was drive out to the job and use augmented reality, the best locations for the new improvements could be determined faster with more accuracy.

Engineers could also use this if a resident calls with a problem. Many times, when we respond to residents, we do not know exactly what the problem really is until we get to the site. So we might not have everything we need to determine if we can help with the problem. But if the resident had a question or problem related to a utility such as needing to tap onto our sewer or water or if they had a drainage problem and needed to tap into our storm sewer, I could not only determine right away if there was a feasible solution, but I could also show the resident by having them use the technology. Seeing the line on the ground would mean more to them than looking at a line on a map. And how much better it would be for them if we could animate the line somehow showing water flowing.

Maintenance and Construction:
Augmented reality could also be used to make sure crews are working on the right asset in the field. If we could digitally mark the manhole that needs to be fixed or the tree needing to be pruned, or the area in which I want landscaping planted, we could reduce confusion or errors in the field.

And if a contractor is installing a pipe, he could use augmented reality to see where he needs to dig. This could also assist the city in showing property owners where improvements will be made. Residents could use AR technology and actually see how the new road will look.

I could have also used AR when I was putting up the trim at my last house. This would have prevented me from drilling into a pipe or it could have helped me find the studs.

There are a lot of other uses we could figure out to help us better perform our job in public works. Hopefully this post helps generate some more ideas and maybe even challenge someone to develop an AR for public works tool.

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CityCamp – Talkin’ Government & Gettin’ Scrappy

Last weekend I was fortunate to be able to spend the entire weekend at the UIC campus in Chicago hanging out with about 100 other people who are interested in local government. The event was CityCamp – a conference held in unconference style where the attendees determine and host the sessions.

While there were several GIS professionals there, I found no other attendees working in public works or civil engineering. In a way, I was not surprised – we are used to working behind the scenes and trying to remain below the radar. Our collective tendency to lie low is because about 98% of the time no one even realizes we are there – everything is running as it should and no one really notices or cares why. However, it is that small percentage of the time when things break down and cause a disruption in services that we are thrust in front of the cameras or the reporter’s pen and taken to task as if we have been doing nothing or purposely neglected our duties. And even though we try to explain our job and what caused the disruption, the resulting public article often leaves many of us end up feeling unfairly beaten up by the press.

But if we choose not to get involved in this new social media stuff due to past issues with public relations, it doesn’t mean we will be ignored. And yes, public works was brought into the discussion at citycamp. So we can stay out of the online channels, but it won’t mean people aren’t talking about us and what we do. As an example of this, I embedded a portion of an interview between Tim O’Reilly and Chris Vein, CIO of San Francisco. From about 7 minutes in to about 9 minutes, public works is the topic of discussion. At some point, we need to ask ourselves, “can we really afford to stay out of the conversation?”

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