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Close Enough for Government Work


July 20, 2012 by Lynn Nordby
Category: Management

There are always words or catch phrases that capture people’s imaginations and seem to be just the right shorthand to express a thought or make a point.  After a while though, they simply lose their impact through overuse and are no longer clever and need to be retired.  I don’t need another “wake-up call,” unless I’m in a hotel and might miss my flight; nor do I want to “take it to the next level,” unless I’m on the “up” escalator.  "Close enough for government work" (CEFGW) is one expression that I want to eradicate from our lexicon forever.

I was enjoying an afternoon working with a friend in his garage on an old car (not the kind that could justify an expensive restoration, just a nice old “driver” he was fixing up), when he used the expression to indicate that he’d gotten whatever it was he was working on into acceptable shape to reinstall.  I stopped him immediately and asked him not to use that expression around me again, ever.  At first, I think he thought I was kidding, but I told him emphatically that that expression insulted and offended me.

That was the first time I’d ever spoken up about it, but it wasn’t the last.  Like all such expressions, it evokes an image that the speaker and the hearer can quickly absorb without further elaboration.  Just like a racial slur, it depends on stereotyping for effect.

But just like racial stereotyping, it does a disservice to the vast majority of the people it lumps into a single category.  It’s not necessary for me to provide any examples of the negative racial stereotypes various slurs represent, but just imagine for a minute if the CEFGW stereotype were truly representative of some of these professions: Police detective, firefighter, paramedic, crossing guard, prison guard, public health nurse, restaurant inspector, traffic engineer, air traffic controller, prosecutor, accountant, meter reader, water treatment operator, auditor, and SWAT team.

From my experience with “customer service” at many businesses, I’m tempted to want to try to coin a new phrase like, “close enough for the private sector,” but that would be just as wrong.

With any denigrating process, an unfortunate byproduct is for the targets of the slur to “live down” to the stereotype, willing to accept in themselves what others expect to see.  As leaders and managers, we work diligently to motivate and inspire the people in our organizations to serve the public efficiently and effectively, now more than ever.  We have to fight any tendency to accept less than the best and defend the reputation of people we lead.

Next time you hear that expression, speak up.  Don’t let it go without a response.  Maybe we can make it just as unacceptable as any other insult based on stereotyping and crude generalization.

And while we’re at it, can we get rid of “wake-up call” too?

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career includes 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is a Credentialed Manager through the ICMA Voluntary Credentialing program.

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