Ending the Government Hamster Wheel



The government hamster wheel. It is a phrase I came up with when I started serving on government boards. I also used it while I served in office. It is the perfect description of the abyss a person or applicant falls into when they get involved in government processes.

Getting onto the hamster wheel comes from many paths but is always originates from a decision to put you there. It could be an indecisive government employee who is afraid to make an administrative decision because they fear for their job or the publicity. It could be an employee who has an agenda and decides that no decision will make the world right. It could be an employee who is overworked and puts you on the wheel because they can’t handle your issue right now. Or it could be an employee who decides that they will wait you out, that you will grow tired of running on the wheel and quit.

Some of the decisions to put you there are unfair to government employees when they are doing the job of three people or were promoted without the needed experience because of a short bench. Other decisions are purposeful and violate policy established by the policymakers. In all cases, they result in the citizen, the hamster, expending unnecessary energy, time and money to get nowhere with no decision and finality. Instead of being told “no,” they are held there spinning endlessly without a way to get off the wheel by themselves; only the government can stop the wheel.

Imagine a citizen requests a permit to do something on their property. A government employee decides he needs to see the property and, to your surprise, brings 12 other employees with him. They check out the property and announce they need to all meet together to discuss the issue. You really aren’t entirely clear as to what that issue is. 

Weeks go by and you call, you leave a message and get a call back days later. Good news! A meeting is scheduled in a few weeks. You call back in a few weeks and leave a message. They call days later and tell you they did not have enough time to finish their discussion, they will let you know when another meeting happens. 

You call and leave a message a few weeks later, again. A second meeting is now scheduled. You call after that meeting and leave a message. They finally call you back, they have questions, they need to meet with you on the property. They will get dates to you. 

And it goes on and on and on without end, without a decision, without any way to get off the wheel. 

Sadly, we have grown to accept this from our governments. Few have the time or the thick pocketbooks to make an attempt to get off the wheel. This, unfortunately, is a part of government culture and it affects citizens and businesses alike. It hurts our government employees, too, and the good ones leave because the hamster wheel culture is tough to accept.

Improving government culture is an adopted Argus initiative. We will be analyzing government culture in the months and years to come and seeking to improve efficiency and service to our community. We look forward to bringing solutions to our community and ending the culture of the government hamster wheel. 

Christine Robinson is executive director for The Argus Foundation.

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