Government, Arrogant Ignorance, and the Power of Incentives

As most of you know, my company operates parks on public lands, so I work with government agencies a lot.  Years ago, from this experience, I coined a term called "arrogant ignorance."  It comes from numerous times when government employees will be completely ignorant of some process, perhaps even their agency's own rules and procedures, but will fight to the death any suggestion that I might be able to enlighten them or that they are doing something wrong.

For a while, people had me believing that I had just rediscovered the Dunning–Kruger effect.  But I am now convinced that this is not the same as my "arrogant ignorance".  And the difference between the two highlights a key point about failure of government I have made for years, which is that government does a bad job not because the people are bad, but because it hires good (or at least average) people who have terrible incentives and information.

First, here is Dunning-Kruger per Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.

Like most people, I see Dunning-Kruger all the time.  But I see it equally frequently in private and public settings.  I don't think it is necessarily unique to the public sphere, and may be over-represented there only to the extent that it is much harder to eliminate under-performers from public rather than private jobs, so they may tend to concentrated more in public positions.

But my concept of arrogant ignorance is not really a cognitive effect, I think, but rather a symptom of incentives.   The problem with most government jobs is that they have no service or output metrics so that they are instead judged mainly on conformance to procedure.  And even that is not quite correct, because most agencies I work with do not even have formal standards or quality review processes for their employees, at least below the executive level.

I want to take an aside here on incentives.  It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics.  Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives.  But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives.  Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

Within government agencies, I think these informal incentives are what matter.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Don't ever get caught having not completed some important form or process step or having done some beauracratic function incorrectly
  2. Don't ever get caught not knowing something you are supposed to know in your job
  3. Don't ever say yes to something (a project, a permit, a program, whatever) that later generates controversy, especially if this controversy gets the attention of your boss's boss.
  4. Don't ever admit a mistake or weakness of any sort to someone outside the organization
  5. Don't ever do or support anything that would cause the agency's or department's budget to be cut or headcount to be reduced.

You ever wonder why government agencies say no to everything and make it impossible to do new things?  Its not necessarily ideology, it's their incentives.  They get little or no credit for approving something that works out well, but the walls come crashing down on them if they approve something that generates controversy.

So consider the situation of the young twenty-something woman across the desk from me at, say, the US Forest Service. She is probably reasonably bright, but has had absolutely no relevant training from the agency, because a bureaucracy will always prefer to allocate funds so that it has 50 untrained people rather than 40 well-trained people (maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission).  So here is a young person with no training, who is probably completely out of her element because she studied forestry or environment science and desperately wanted to count wolves but now finds herself dumped into a job dealing with contracts for recreation and having to work with -- for God sakes -- for-profit companies like mine.

One program she has to manage is a moderately technical process for my paying my concession fees in-kind with maintenance services.  She has no idea how to do this.  So she takes her best guess from materials she has, but that guess is wrong.  But she then sticks to that answer and proceeds to defend it like its the Alamo.  I know the process backwards and forwards, have run national training sessions on it, have literally hundreds of contract-years of experience on it, but she refuses to acknowledge any suggestion I make that she may be wrong.  I coined the term years ago "arrogant ignorance" for this behavior, and I see it all the time.

But on deeper reflection, while it appears to be arrogance, what else could she do given her incentives?  She can't admit she doesn't know or wasn't trained (see #2 and #4 above).  She can't acknowledge that I might be able to help her (#4).  Having given an answer, she can't change it (#1).

You may think I am exaggerating -- how could people react so strongly to seemingly petty incentives.  But they do.  In my example above, this is probably her first job.   The government is the only employer she has known.  The confidence you might have to ignore these incentives to do the right thing likely come from jobs and experience that this woman has not had.

I will give you a real example.  One government contract manager asked us to spend $10,000 to do something, promising that the agency would reimburse me.  I told her that I had never heard of this type of spending being reimbursable, but she said we would be reimbursed.  So we did it.  Later, her boss's boss heard about the reimbursement and said it was not correct under the rules.  Eventually, our contract manager was challenged on it.  You know what she said?  She said our company spent the money without permission and that we were never promised reimbursement.  She sacrificed her honor out of the fear of #1 and #3 - the incentives were that powerful for her.  She knowingly lied and -- by the way - cost me personally $10,000 and a reprimand in our contract file.  When I called her afterwards and asked her, "what the hell?" -- she apologized to me in tears and said she just would be in too much trouble once her boss's boss was involved to admit she had authorized the expense.

So, I try to learn from this.   One thing, for example, I always do is ask myself when someone who works for me screws up, "Is this really my fault, for not training them well."  A surprising number of times, the answer is a reluctant, "yes".


  1. Jason Calley:

    You make some great points! An employee in private business has to please two people: his boss, and the customer. He has to please his boss, or the boss will fire him. He has to please the customer, because the boss wants happy customers, and displeasing the boss means the employee gets fired. Unless the boss is Mother Theresa's lost brother, the main reason why the boss wants happy customers is that if the customer gets angry and takes his business elsewhere, the boss will go hungry.

    With government agencies, the situation is very different. The government employee has to please his boss, or the boss will fire him, but pleasing the customer? Not so much. The boss does not really care about whether the customer is happy, because the customer cannot (by LAW!) go elsewhere with his business. If the customer tries to go outside the agency, the agency will send men with guns to drag him away to a cage. The boss never gets hungry when customers are unhappy. Governmental employees (the ones who keep their jobs) soon learn that unhappy customers have little effect on them. The boss does not care. Customers can as angry as they want, but as long as the boss is undisturbed, the employee has a good job.

  2. Curtis:

    I see this in the recent spate of trials and convictions of navy officers who 'assisted' the ship chandler who had been screened and selected by the appropriate staff to handle port visits in the 7th Fleet area. They were convicted of receiving favors (illegal, illicit) for sharing the information on ship's schedules and some for working to change the schedule to put ships into especially expensive ports.
    The thing is though, that a chandler or ship's agent HAS to know the ship's scheduled arrival time so he can line up the tugs, line handlers, pilot, sewage, trash disposal, berth, cranes, logistic onload etc. Nonetheless, the officers got nailed for violating espionage laws.

    None of them had received any formal training in the job of dealing with ship husbands and were working off what background knowledge they brought to the job. All of them should have known enough to say "NO" to bribes as gifts but they were petty and I'm not sure anybody ever bothered to tell them the rules on giving and receiving gifts. After all, all they had to go by was the Clintons and Obamas who make an art out of receiving incredibly expensive gifts in return for nothing.

  3. irandom419:

    Too bad you couldn't get it in writing or at least record the conversation for that $10k loss.

  4. Matthew Slyfield:

    "maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission"

    There is a very specific incentive behind this. Federal Civil Service management salaries and political appointee salaries are at least partly based directly on the head count under them and also partly based on their total budget (which is itself impacted by headcount).

    The managers and appointees have a direct personal incentive to maintain head count at all costs.

  5. marque2:

    That, and government agencies have ways of dealing with customers when things get out of hand. Eventually you get a customer revolt and it becomes political, like the VA. But government agencies know that you just need one mid level sacrifice, a person who "loses his job" by getting transferred to another agency, and then they lay low for six months, politicians lose interest, and they continue working as they always have.

  6. Maddog:

    First rule of working with a government agency, confirm every single thing you are told to do in writing with BCC to her boss. It doesn't always work but it seems to ensure that the boss's boss gets involved, and once the boss realizes this eventuality, miracles seem to happen.

    I acted as outside litigation counsel for a quasi-public insurer. This inane process kept me out of trouble.

  7. HenryBowman419:

    The main thing to learn from your horrible experience, which I'm sure you did learn, is always get it in writing. It's amazing how quickly certain offers vanish when requested in writing.

    I've dealt, unfortunately, with Forest Service personnel in the past. When one asks for permission to do something — almost anything — on Forest Service land, the typical response is either an outright no or a delaying tactic that can waste whatever resources you have to spend on the problem. The Fish & Wildlife "Service" is even worse.

  8. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    I work for the government, and I have observed for years: there is no reward for saying yes. The risk is in saying yes and no risk in saying no. In the literally hundred thousand pages that govern my work, I can always find a reason to say no; neither myself nor my boss will suffer from a no even if it was a mistake. However, if I say yes, first there is no reward and if that yes ends up being wrong, then there negative consequences.

  9. CC:

    Is this why my local DMV has 2 police officers? To stop revolts? Really they should need none.

  10. marque2:

    DMV or DOT is the place where the next revolution will start.

  11. Ward Chartier:

    A couple of decades ago the Texas Board of Registration for Professional Engineers got busy to computerize their office operations. That organization reduced their clerical headcount by over 30 people. Collateral expenses also dropped. History is silent whether any other State of Texas agencies did something similar. Per Item #5, one would expect that they did not.

  12. Jeff:

    Finally a term for it! Once, my pharmaceutical company was being inspected by the local state pharmacy board for a license to wholesale and distribute drugs, which is required in ~26 states even though the company did not make, receive, store, or in any way handle or distribute pharmaceuticals... this was in a city with zero other pharmaceutical companies, so our local inspector was purely a pharmacy inspector and had never done a drug company. Long story short, they found 5+ "issues", preventing us from getting a license. All based on the inspectors incorrect reading of regulations (which he had clearly done that week). During the inspection I calmly explained how each regulation applies to various situations (having done this several times in several states), even pointing to areas of clarification within the regulations themselves which clearly indicated the issues did not apply to us. The inspector went from skeptical of us (at the start), to surly, to hostile, to walking out and promptly issuing a scathing letter denying our license. 1.5 months later, along with a call to the state pharmacy board who completely agreed with us on every single point, and a call to our senator (which actually got things done), the issues were all reversed (which they called 'resolved') and we got our license. I sat through annual reviews with that same inspector for the next three years, and still got nothing but this arrogant ignorance.

  13. FelineCannonball:

    Why would you do 10k work without a contract?

  14. Matthew Slyfield:

    Because the maintenance has to be done anyway whether he gets to count it against his concession fees or not. If he doesn't do the maintenance, his business suffers and he still has to pay the concession fees.

  15. Zachriel:

    Which means he was not out of pocket.

  16. Zachriel:

    HenryBowman419: The main thing to learn from your horrible experience, which I'm sure you did learn, is always get it in writing.

    Of course get it in writing. And, of course, that means paperwork!

  17. surroundedbyidiots:

    You just described every unionized (redundant, I know) government employee where I live, from the department of education to clerks at city hall, with your list.

  18. BernieFlatters:

    Even without a contract, a simple email about the promise of reimbursement would have helped here.