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Getting that government virus

By Arthur Goldstuck

About a dozen years ago, when the South African Post Office had just been “commercialised”, I had a rather unpleasant experience in a suburban post office, when I asked for proof of payment for a pile of stamps. The clerk said that the post office didn’t have to provide proof of ite obviously, this is directly repayment. I told him that, as a paying customer, I was entitled to it. He told me that I wasn’t entitled to anything. Then I made one of my biggest mistakes yet in interpersonal relationships: I told him that I pay his salary.

He literally began shouting at me that the post office was now a commercial business, it no longer relied on my taxes to fund it, and his salary was not paid by the taxpayer. I demanded to see the postmaster, who then quietly suggested to the clerk that he give me what I wanted – in those days nothing more than a scrap of paper with the amount written in pen and a Post Office date stamp. Not long after, the clerk disappeared for a few weeks – and returned with a new training certificate as well as an attitude upgrade.

Today the post office has real cash registers that provide real receipts, and generally it has staff that provide real service and understand the real meaning of the word “customer”.

But I was reminded of the clerk’s attitude about his salary while watching a documentary on the US and UK military’s management of news coverage of the war in Iraq. The combination of embedded journalists and tight control of official communiqu├ęs from US Central Command in Doha meant the only story that got out was the officially sanctioned, censored and manufactured version.

The main spin doctor, US military spokesman Jim Wilkinson, treated any journalist who showed a spark of objectivity with contempt. When one of them challenged him, he retorted: “General Franks signs my cheque and I make news based on his terms.” In other words, he was answerable only to the generals, because they were his paymasters.

There is one problem with his perspective, aside from its unbelievable arrogance: like the clerk in the suburban post office, it is indeed the victim of his abuse who pays his salary. Government employees, in particular, are ultimately being funded by the taxpayer. Whether it’s a commercialised enterprise like the Post Office, or a traditional department like Home Affairs, all of those workers behind the counters have their salaries paid by the person on the other side of the counter.

The belief that this is not the case, in the face of the obvious truth, can only be put down to the spread of a mind-numbing virus, which we can call the government virus, as it most often manifests itself in government departments and agencies.

The other consequence of this virus is that people like that clerk, and the Wilkinsons of this world, assume that once you have a mandate to do your own thing, as the Post Office had from the government, and the Pentagon certainly had from George W., you are no longer answerable to your public.

Of course, the opposite is true. You may be cut loose from the checks and balances of centralised government, but you take on an even greater responsibility to be answerable to your public. The extent to which you gain the buy-in of your public, whether they be letter posters or war correspondents, dictates the extent to which you succeed in your enterprise in the long run.

Quite obviously, this is directly relevant to the business world, where the experience of the customer dictates the success of the business. Not that you can tell, given the experience of many a customer at the hands of businesses.

Now this is not a call to treat the customer as king. This is a wake-up call to businesses that behave as if they are in government. This is a warning to be on the lookout for the government virus.The biggest culprits are those businesses that are so big, only companies of equal size or bigger are given respect, or with such a hold on specific markets, they can’t imagine anyone else ever threatening their power base.

But even the smallest of businesses get the government virus in their systems. Run and managed by their owners, they are often rough-and-ready establishments with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. They are staffed by a brand of Jim Wilkinson who believes he signs his own salary cheque. They tell the customer, as Wilkinson did to one incredulous journalist, “no more questions for you, why don’t you just go home?”

These tiny operations, from corner cafes to hardware stores, are no different from the representatives of multinationals who believe that their salary is paid by head office in a distant metropolis. If the local customer has the audacity to question their service, they pull out any number of retorts that translate into, “no more questions for you, why don’t you just go home?”

Companies that agonise over their inability to retain customers, to win new customers, to attract the small business sector, to break into new industry sectors, can sometimes blame the economy or market conditions, but usually, they themselves are at fault. And very often, they should ponder the question: have they caught the government virus?

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and managing director of World Wide Worx, South Africa’ leading independent technology research organisation. He can be contacted on

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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