Government Agencies Have An Almost Pathological Need To Not Admit Error, No Matter How Trivial

When we operate public campgrounds, we are generally self-sufficient and can do most everything we need to do without any interaction from the government agency.  However, our contract or operating permits require that we submit and get approved an annual operating plan and a couple of other financial agreements.  Most of this is relatively pro forma because we start with the documents from the previous year and things just don't change that fast.

Last year, we had a number of areas where this did not happen.  The agencies we worked with were convulsed with staff shortages and organizational changes that meant that in many cases, there simply was nobody in the key positions that would do these tasks.

So this year, at least two of these locations have gotten staffed up and we have had good early contact with the key agency people.  However, in both cases, instead of saying something like "sorry about the poor response last year, but we had our staff transferred and then were caught short by the Trump hiring freeze which prevented us from filling these open positions for a long time", I get conversations like this:

Agency:  You did not get your operating plan completed last year.  You have a contractual requirement to get this done.  You need to do a better job this year.

Me:  Uh, I submitted the draft operating plan to your office on multiple occasions and never had a response.  Here are copies of at least 12 emails and letters with me begging for a response on our draft plan submission.

Agency:  So hopefully you can do a better job this year.

Update:  Here is my update as to why I think this happens.  Hint:  it is not because government people are bad, it is because they are normal people with bad incentives.


  1. Bistro:

    Looks like registered certified mail is the required delivery method for deliverables.

  2. The_Big_W:

    Why do you think that would matter? The bureaucracy routinely asks you to believe them and not your lying eyes....

  3. ErikTheRed:

    Easy response: "Of course. We would be quite grateful for any suggestions on how to better conduct this process on our end."

  4. Jerryskids:

    Just be grateful they didn't demand you file an amended variance report in accordance with the procedures that they are currently in the process of developing and which should be available by next July. (We had that happen once when the state started requiring a new subcontractor form but on the date the rule went into effect it turned out nobody had actually gotten around to making the form. It took them about a week to get around to issuing a notice that you didn't need to have the form since the form didn't yet exist.)

  5. Rick C:

    "We are eager to hear your suggestions on how we can get your office to respond to our submission."

  6. Peabody:

    There is absolutely no benefit to the gov employee admitting fault. Based on my experience that was a pretty good response in that they didn't threaten negative repercussions for not having a completed operating plan.

  7. Bistro:

    Failure to submit required deliverables can end up voiding the contract so making somebody sign for the thing gets one of the hook when the paymaster comes looking to you with blood in their eye screaming about failure to honor the contract.

  8. Bistro:

    I have to admit i would have ponied up a fake form and submitted it.

  9. rowbigred26:

    I'm mad reading this...

  10. sean2829:

    In the 1980's when my father turned 65 he signed up for Medicare but deferred his Social Security for a few more years so he could work. Unfortunately the SSA decided to start sending him checks which he returned un-cashed with a certified letter telling them he wished to defer. After 10 checks were received and returned, the SSA discovered their error and sent a nasty letter demanding all the money from the checks he'd received or he would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Some things in the government just never change.

  11. tmitsss:

    Would the bureaucracy be more respectful if Warren had a cache of C4 and detonators squirreled away? Eh probably not.

  12. glenn.griffin3:

    You could ask how many other businesses managed to get the plan turned in the previous year. But questions like that might be better saved for discovery.

  13. Michael Stack:

    I don't think the problem is particular to government. It's just that government lets people get away with it. Try that stuff in industry and find yourself with a very short career.

  14. Bruce Zeuli:

    My mom experience the exact same situation except she received checks for over a year. All her communications with Social Security went unanswered . To make matters worse she was told she was in violation for not cashing the checks for such a long period of time. Things finally got worked out and they stop sending her checks.

    Later though when she wanted to start receiving checks she was told there was a black mark on her account that would have to be resolved in front of an official. The lead up was nerve-wracking but my mother said the meeting went well with the official never stating but clearly aware of the actual circumstances.

    I suspect slaveholders I've always treated their chattel disrespectfully.

  15. joe:

    good point - I called tech support for a product our company uses and got nowhere (bad tech support person). The company sent the standard customer survey via email a few minutes later. My response was in the survey included the phrase "piss poor service"

    I got a call within ten minutes with one of the high end tech support & got the problem resolved.

  16. me:

    And to post again - the US has absolutely horrific administrative procedures.

    Nonresponsive agencies, agencies that establish unfollowable rules and then prosecute for failure to follow. And again, nobody seems to be interested in fixing this (as opposed to complain and point to it as an example that government just doesn't work and we should not even try).

    Practically speaking, every first world country with the exception of the US appears to make this work.

  17. Bruce Zeuli:

    I know that in some departments, getting paperwork completed in a timely manner requires a processing fee, paid in cash to the public servant assisting you. When the public servant mentions that other businesses have no trouble getting their paperwork completed on time, they are expecting you to get this message

    Dealing with this kind of thing was perhaps the most stressful part of owning a small business for me. You would see other businesses like your own somehow navigating an impossible maze of regulations and wonder what am I doing wrong? Eventually you would find out that there was the process detailed on official documents and then then there was the unofficial more efficient process.

    I have worked on both coasts and while in the West these alternate processes are more underground on the East Coast it is in the open. Public servants actually tell you the office fee is $500 and the processing fee is $450. You then pay it and your paperwork gets done in a timely manner.

    The stressful part of course is that not all departments do things this way and that puts all the risk on the business owner and that is what was most stressful. But I suppose that's part of the plan as well. It's important to public perception that a business owner be periodically charged with attempted bribery or whatever it might be called.

    Remember government officials aren't a bunch of the Boy Scouts.

  18. steamboatlion:

    I always describe the US to my Australian family members as a first world country with a third world government. After 15 year living here, I am still constantly amazed how utterly horrible anything touched by government is in this country.

  19. me:

    Oh man, that is spot on. Thank you, I'll be quoting you frequently from now on :)

  20. me:

    One random example from my rich fundus (which is also a great case study for why legal immigration into the US sucks balls):

    I am a permanent resident (green card holder). That means I have been extensively vetted by federal agencies, abided by more laws than US citizens usually do an contributed quite a few dollars to taxes.

    Every ten years, that permanent right to work and live in the US is up for renewal - just like your drivers license needs to be renewed, and, in essence, it's the same outcome - you get a new card with the same things printed on it.

    Small difference: it's about 2k for the renewal fee, half for the application for renewal (any errors on which are punishable by deportation) and half for the biometrics fee.

    Last time I had to go through renewal, it took a long time, so I called to check back in and make sure there was no hitch in the process. No, no problem, just wait was what I was told on the phone.

    A week later, I get a message saying that my application to renew my green card had been denied due to failure to appear for a mandatory biometrics appointment. Ugh. I was pretty sure that I never received such a notice (locked mailbox, all other mail from USCIS arriving).

    Turns out, this happens frequently (the system requires you to apply and USCIS to send out an invitation). If the invitation gets sent to the wrong address or gets lost, that's on the applicant. Guidance is to just start the process from scratch (ie. pay another 2k).

    I was pretty livid - turns out there is a way to file a formal complaint, but (a) it's pretty much guaranteed to be ignored and - this is where it gets interesting - (b) the filing fee for any complaints is close to another 1k.

  21. Tempe Jeff:

    Mistakes were made....

  22. Tempe Jeff:

    Similarly, a Judge overturning a Prisoners conviction because of an unfair trial years before; causes the current Prosecutor to rabidly fight for a new trial. "We can not admit fault from years before I came to work in this Office!".

  23. AudreyA:

    Holy cow! Is this really true? I hate to sound so naive but, but...I always thought this was the Latin American problem not the USA! GD those freakin' Leftists, my first thought is you should call the FBI, but now we know the Left has corrupted them too!

  24. Johnnyreb:

    I had a similar run in with the VA over my use of the GI Bill. Went to trade school in 1978 and received checks for tuition which I gave to the school. Stopped attending and went back into the military that year. 5 years later the VA said the school never submitted my attendance records and I owed them all of that money back. I was stationed overseas and had my dad go to the school to get the records so I could fix the problem but the school was closed and gone. Got my Congress critter involved and thought it was over because I never heard back from them.

    25 years later I get a letter saying I owe them that money and they were going to take it out of my Navy Retirement check. Called them up and asked them why. They said they couldn't find me in the intervening 20 years to bill me even though I was on Active Duty in the Navy. The lady said I was lucky they did not charge interest on the money. I dared her to try that.

    All for a little over $800.

  25. Bruce Zeuli:

    Yes its true and so much more. I never felt in any physical danger though and I think that is different than some South American countries.

    I think the problem is mostly because there is generally no alternative to the government agency and no profit motive at the agency itself. In fact they are more likely to receive a bigger budget as a result of failure than of success. So the problems are baked into the system.

    Imagine you are a decent guy who runs a government pizza parlor in a world where private pizza parlors are illegal. And in this world, every person in your service area must buy 2 pizza's a month. Remember, I said you are decent and not a crook, but hey you have an agency to run and no competition. Oh and most likely you can't fire even a truly lousy employee. Come to think of it, its very hard for you to be fired as well.

    How many toppings would you offer? Why not stick with just pepperoni? Why offer a two for $12 or two for $20 special if you can charge $25 or $30 for each pizza? How hard would you negotiate with your suppliers for great pricing?

    Would you work nights and week ends if you didn't have to? Why wouldn't you pay your employees a great salary and benefits if you can just pass on the costs? And why would they quit, they can't match this deal anywhere else and if they do quit, they might lose a good part of their retirement. No nights or week ends with great pay and benefits! You sound like a great guy to me.

    Ready in 30 minutes or it's free! You aren't setup for that. You are still using mainframe software written 50 years ago. How about members of the public have to call and schedule their pizza a week in advance instead. You want it same day? Well that's going to break everything and so $100 or $150 seems reasonable. Don't like it, so what. Don't eat pizza? Doesn't matter you still have to buy 2 a month.

    In my experience, 25% of the people in any agency do 90% of the work. The other 75% just pretend. So the person asking for the processing fee may actually be a part of the 25% who needs the money to motivate somebody in the 75%.