Good Enough For Government Work

In several articles I have written for PRB, I mentioned having grown up under the command of Lt. Col. Felix Bessler, U.S. Army. As I have grown older and more reflective, I really appreciate what a great job the “Colonel” did. While I don’t take the time to tell him often, I love him like, like a father—OK, very much.

Recently I responded to a citizen inquiry forwarded by a city council member, and I remembered one of those life lessons one gets from parents and maybe doesn’t realize until one is grown up. The Colonel used an expression with my siblings and me when we were involved hands-on with some special project, and he wanted to move on to the next thing--“good enough for government work.”

Sticking Points

He did have other good phrases and acronyms less suitable for this magazine. He even used to say, “Why are you standing around with your teeth in your mouth?” As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to what was meant by these military idioms, or whether they were any real expression of quality control. To me, they just meant I was finished with the chore, or close to it, and I could play ball or watch The Flintstones. How about that Barney Rubble? Talk about an actor!

Anyway, as I was drafting my response to the citizen, I found the expression, “good enough for government work,” sticking in my mind. Admittedly, the context was different, but the phrase provided inspiration for my response. It was a mental trigger, like a hypnotic suggestion. This citizen was concerned that the department was in the process of converting a field area into a community park, displacing habitat, insects and wildlife. She was opposed to park development--my business--so it was a challenge in addressing her inquiry. Here is an excerpt from my attempt:

“There has been some effort made to incorporate the existing native or habitat landscape into the plan, for example, maintaining the primary greenway native landscaping and corridor on both forks of Dry Creek, enhancing the existing wetlands on both Dry Creek and the irrigation lake, and using native grasses for our plantings wherever practical, to further diversify the habitat. That said, it would be disingenuous of me to paint a picture that this area will not be noticeably different and an active recreation area committed to community uses.

As government work goes, I have come to believe that municipal governance is the most difficult. Everything we as staff or our advisory boards and elected officials do is upfront and center stage. Involved citizens, special interests and the local media closely monitor and report our activities.

Our decisions and actions create both real and perceived impacts on neighbors, the community and, of course, our wildlife and environment. The challenge for municipal government has always been to try to achieve a balance among the sometimes far-ranging goals and philosophies of competing interests as best as possible. In achieving that balance, I believe that Longmont has done a pretty fair job and can do more. Let me explain a few relevant examples …”

Guidance And Growing Up

So what is the point of my sharing this experience? All of us routinely spend time responding to customer inquiries or complaints. As professionals we need to take the time to speak from the heart or from a position of vulnerability when we converse with our citizenry. More often, we unknowingly adopt a bunker mentality, and dig in for the assault. We reinforce our position, but in doing so we just disappoint the customer. At other times, in an effort to avoid conflict, we sugarcoat our response to the point that it either sells out our position and policies or at least represents a significant departure. The watching staff recognizes this as a weak form of leadership. I sometimes wonder, in extreme cases, why the real policy-makers--elected officials--don’t object about staff making policy on the fly.

I will be turning the big 5-0 this year, and nearing middle age, I find myself trying harder at being better. I seemed to have rushed through the first 25 years of adulthood. As a young professional, I was more concerned with quantity and not quality--more recreation programs, more ball fields with T-111 dugouts. More was better. In recent years, I have changed my focus to quality first, then quantity. The staff explains our quality control continuum as good, better, best, bessler’d.

I wonder if I have become smarter, or perhaps have realized that we will be judged by what we leave behind. Our personal legacy does matter to those around us. “Good enough for government work” as an expression between a busy father and a goofball son was a term of endearment, but in the adult world, as stewards of the public’s resources, we need a better attitude. My plea for all of us is to take the time to do the right thing. Beatrice Murphy, a wise lady at the age of 93, told me, “Try as you may, try as you might, things done by halves are never done right!”

Don Bessler is the Director of Parks, Open Space & Public Facilities for Longmont, Colo. He can be reached via e-mail at