Good Enough for Government Work

Okay, yet another rant. This is an old saw of mine which I’ve decided I want to write up so I could point at it later.

One of the many places I don’t EVER want to hear this phrase uttered in its current form. (photo courtesy of the Department of Energy)

When I hear someone doing a half-assed job that they’re just going to walk away from, usually incomplete, say with a shrug “Good enough for government work”, I get angry. I get particularly angry if this comes from a co-worker because for the last 15 years, in one form or another, I have either been a state/federal government employee or contractor. My co-worker is, effectively, letting me know that I’m going to need to redo their work, wasting my time, and they think it’s funny as they collect a paycheck doing it. When you add the extra layer of “Dammit you’re supposed to be a steward of taxpayer dollars and government resources, WAIT A MINUTE I’M A GODDAMN TAXPAYER!!!”, well, there’s a reason I asked to be transferred away from certain people. This is the behavior that erodes trust and leads people to think it’s okay to divert money away from government programs to private industry.

NOTE: I have never seen private industry actually do a job they’d been contracted to do work out to be cheaper. Oh, workers were certainly paid less and they had no pension to speak of but somehow the total contact cost never ended up cheaper than the original program. Ah, but this is a different rant.

But let’s talk about the phrase itself, “Good enough for government work.” The original phrase was “CLOSE enough for government work” and it came from the machinist trade. Prior to WWII, FDR’s administration reviewed the state of America’s manufacturing and were a bit disappointed that not much had changed since WWI. In WWI, American troops tended to use British and French artillery and machine guns because our own gear was so deeply unreliable, inferior, and just old by comparison. FDR’s War Department saw the writing on the wall in the 1930s and wanted to get things improved. For a while (so the story goes) there was the general industry machining schedule and the government machining schedule being used side by side*. The idea being that the government schedule would eventually  become the industry standard, since you couldn’t get government contracts unless you agreed to meet it and were tooled to meet their specs, at which point the government could go back to buying on the general market rather than demanding special requirements.

Also, as part of the Lend/Lease Act with us selling war materiel to the Allies before Pearl Harbor, the Allies had no interest in buying our crap unless we modernized our production. So, there was that too.

The original meaning of the phrase had an entirely different pejorative. Rather than meaning you’d done a half-assed job, it meant that you’d done such a precise job on this thing you’d made that it could potentially be sold to the government. That its precision could actually meet the exacting standards of the government schedule. It carried the implication of “We aren’t selling to the government, buddy. How much company time did you waste making your work of art when you probably could’ve made 12 more normal ones?”

And this didn’t original sense of the phrase didn’t go away with the end of WWII. My mother told me about working for an early semiconductor manufacturer in Florida that did work supporting NASA. While she wasn’t specifically working on production that was heading to Kennedy Space Center, other people certainly were, so two different quality standards were in use in the fab. She got yelled at by her boss for making wafers that passed through QA with too few flaws. It was assumed that she was wasting time being a perfectionist, despite the production reports and timecards that said otherwise. She was told “This isn’t government work, just get it done.”

I’m not quite sure when the Bizarro semantic shift in this phrase happened but the fact that it did says something. While I would like to blame it on Reagan and the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike shattering the strength of unions in America, the change seems to have already happened at some point in the 1970s. The current connotation is corrosive to trust and belief in the machinery of government. It’s an assertion that the people that make up the machine are incompetent at best, malign leeches at worst, rather than stewards of the public trust. Why would you ever want to go work for an organization like this? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; give it enough time and enough potential employees who decide not to work in public service and, yes, the incompetent and leeches are the only ones who will be left…

…which is why you then contract all your work out to “Trusted Private Sector Industry Partners”. This very much smells like a return to the spoils system instead of the merit based appointments that the civil service reforms of 1883 were made to fix. Oops, I just wandered into that chunk of horrible American history I love and history classes like to ignore because those four decades after the Civil War are incredibly complicated and ugly. “Good Enough for Government Work” is a toxic meme that has spread around the world, impairing efforts to reform straight up corrupt bureaucracies, like America’s was before President Chester A. Arthur signed his name to obliterate the system that made him. We really don’t want that back. For the record, I have heard this phrase uttered in every country I’ve ever been to, except Ukraine though that might have been a function of not staying there long enough.

I want “Good Enough For Government Work” to be a statement of pride, with no pejoratives. That you’ve done your job well, that you aren’t phoning it in, and more importantly that we, as citizens, expect it.


*: My main problem with this excellent story is that I have never been able to lay hands on or even find a picture of the original government schedule or equipment. There would have been reference tools and charts for the quality assurance people to make sure that work was within acceptable tolerances for the gov’t contract, and the separate set for the normal industry ones. As I cast my mind back 20 years to my History of Science and Technology class with Prof. Hugh Torrens, this is exactly what he was talking about with the practical bits of technology vanishing. Even the most packrat of machinists, and I know a few, must to toss these particular items out of their shops whenever they’re superseded lest they work to an old standard by accident an get torn a new one by auditors**. If you can lay your hands on a side by side comparison of these ~80 year old mundane bits of shop gear, I’d love to see them.

**: Wait, shit, I’m one of those people. Dammit.