It Comes Down to People

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I have mentioned there is little difference between government and big business; both are run by bureaucracies not known to be customer friendly. This issue is important on two fronts we are currently dealing with: the housing crisis and health care reform. Bureaucracies create rules employees then follow, but often employees ultimately determine what policies will be followed.

A couple of personal examples:
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we had the opportunity to go to Washington DC to do an internship for my last semester at school. Kelly had been getting our health insurance through her employer. Before we left, we called to see what insurance coverage we could get after she quit. We found out we would not be covered by Cobra insurance because she had not worked for her employer long enough to qualify. The insurance agent on the other end of the phone understood our predicament and then did the unexpected, she went to her supervisor and got approval for us to be covered even though we technically did not qualify. Her actions saved us a considerable sum of money at a time we could not afford to spend it; if we had talked to someone else the result could have been very different.

I have been working with my old business bank, dealing with a former loan so we could buy a house. After making multiple attempts to come to some sort of agreement where we could either pay the former loan off over time or in a lump sum, I was told by the bank executive, “if you lived locally I would walk with you down to the courthouse to declare bankruptcy.” Basically, their only solution was that I had to declare bankruptcy in order to deal with the issue and they had no desire to accept any sort of payment plan, even though the bank would get nothing in the bankruptcy scenario. Again, a different person in the position and the outcome could have potentially been very different. I could relate both good and bad examples in dealing with government bureaucracies as well.

It does not matter whether it is big business or government; much of our experience, for better or worse, is based on interactions with employees of those organizations. As we discuss critical issues, like the way banks are handling the mortgage crisis or insurance companies versus government health care, it is easy to talk in stark generalities and say government could do a better job than insurance companies or vice versa. We can all relate positive and negative experiences dealing with those organizations, in some measure driven by the personality and helpfulness of the person on the other end of the line. It is easy to trot out people who have had a bad experience, but that does not mean everyone has had a bad experience. Some of it comes down to the personality of the person on the other end of the line, and part of it is the company culture and whether they create an environment where employees tend to be more or less helpful.

We cannot assume, just because the government passed a law stating banks need to work with customers who are behind in their mortgages, that every employee in every bank is going to suddenly be helpful and all the loans will be worked out quickly and easily. We also cannot assume just because the government is in the insurance business it will be any different than dealing with an insurance company. It is far more complex than that, and one of the key variables is the employees and their willingness to work with customers to get their issues resolved in an appropriate manner. Your experience is not necessarily going to be based on whether the organization is a government or a business, but will be influenced by the personality and training of the person on the other end of the phone. If we really want to fix things, we need both government and business to refocus their attention to customer service and remember we have real people with real issues that need to be dealt with. Hiding behind policies and procedures is not going to solve the problem.

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

Bob Aegerter

Sep 15, 2009

About half of my career was with state and local agencies, the remainder with private firms.  The larger the organization, the more problems.  Otherwise, I did not see differences in efficiency, etc.  Most effective were the mid sized firms and agencies.  Smaller ones did not spend enough money on personel training.  They did not have the money to do it.

Decision making was much different, but not necessiarly more effective.


Craig Mayberry

Sep 15, 2009


You make some great points.  The bureacracies of large organizations (whether business or government) will always fail, always have, always will. That is why I have to laugh at the health care debate, we are arguing between two large institutions (government vs private insurance) that can never effectively deliver cost efficient and high quality health care. 

Large organizations beome too mired in internal politics, react to change too slowly, become too inefficient to accomplish much, and easily lose site of who the customer is.  Very small organizations also struggle with a lack of resources (you mention training as one example), although can do some amazing work with a shoe string budget but will always be limited in the amount of work they can do simple because they do not have the resources to extend themselves.


Riley Sweeney

Sep 21, 2009

There is an important difference that I feel must be considered when comparing these two. When you have an unpleasent encounter with the government, there are several avenues you can pursue to change the result. There are several ways to appeal decisions, or get the people who made the decisions out of office. With a large business, usually your only option is to no longer do business with them. A minor but I feel important difference.