I recently ordered something from Nordstrom and checked the box to pick it up at my local store. After arranging my schedule to make time to go get it in person, driving over, parking and waiting in line, the saleswoman couldn’t find my order. “We think it will be delivered. Here’s the number to call if you don’t get it. You’ll get a busy signal but keep dialing over and over and eventually you’ll get through.”
Well, that’s exactly what happened. Except, it didn’t happen with Nordstrom. Had it been Nordstrom that iconic store most likely would not have messed up in the first place. Had there been an error they would not have put the onus on me to track down the missing item. There also would have been a heartfelt apology along with some compensation—perhaps a refund or a complimentary gift.
However, the above story didn’t happen with a private business such as Nordstrom. It took place at the United States Post Office.
A few months ago, my husband and I were away taping television for a week and we filled in the USPS form to hold our mail and deliver it on our return date. That day, upon our return, I met our local mail-woman on her daily rounds expecting her to have our accumulated mail. No such luck. She said, “Oh, I forgot it,(insert expletive). I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
Trying to avoid the same problem on a more recent trip, I checked the other box on the form saying that we would pick up our mail ourselves at our local branch. Trying to do exactly that triggered the above response.
One of the things that delights me about President Trump’s administration is that if he heard the above story, I don’t think his response would be either, “Well, what can you do? That’s the Post Office,” or “We need more tax money to make the Post Office function better.” I think he would be appalled and determined to cut the Post Office’s budget while improving the service.
The civil service was instituted in the late 1800s to solve the problem of federal administrations handing out government jobs as prizes to cronies, relatives and supporters. In contrast to the spoils system that preceded it, it was meant to be a merit system allowing those who could do a good job to do so regardless of their political party affiliation or connections. Over recent decades it has changed from a merit system to one of entitlement. Jobs are distributed based on distorted notions of fairness rather than merit, with less and less expected of employees and little accountability. Not surprisingly, private delivery companies constantly win greater market share while many of us avoid using the government-operated post office as much as possible.
Our just-returned-from trip was for a family wedding in Rome. We found Italy with its 2,000+ year-old Jewish community fascinating and the people we encountered were warm and friendly. However, we could not help but notice numerous examples of what appeared to be a labyrinth of a bureaucratic system.
What struck us, however, was that upon returning to America we encountered a baggage system at Newark airport that was so horribly incompetent that it could only have been designed by a fiendish brain harboring a diabolical malevolence towards the traveling public. Upon finally recovering our suitcases, we gratefully headed for Customs and Luggage Control. To say that this next government function made the Italians look like juggernauts of Germanic efficiency would be too generous. The mindless and meaningless contortions to which this part of the airport subjected us, made us feel we were unwitting participants in a Marx Brothers movie. Except that at 11:00 pm after a long flight, it was far from funny. It was abundantly obvious that jobs that weren’t needed had been created and that no one really cared if the system served the public well.
The United States has neither the antiquities nor the Mediterranean warmth and charm of Italy. However, it did used to be a land of opportunity with a dream of moving upwards each day to an ever better tomorrow. Dissolving that old spoils system over a hundred years ago was partly what made American efficiency the envy of other countries.
I know I am not being realistic but the best way to raise government approval ratings a little closer to those of Nordstrom would be to dissolve the civil service system as it now stands. Is it time to privatize all its functions? The many civil-service employees who want to do a good job, and are capable of it, would be hired privately and those who think that taxpayers owe them a living would not.
I don’t really expect Donald Trump to solve the challenges caused by America’s increasingly intractable public sector. But perhaps he is taking us back a little to a line from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”