For almost three years, I worked for a magazine called Government Executive. It was a trade publication that covered the business of the federal government, and my beat was the federal workforce and human resources policy.
It sounds dry, and sometimes it was–I spent a lot of time writing short stories about federal pay raises and rates of return for the Thrift Savings Plan. But much of the time, the job was an exercise in playing around in the nooks and crannies of what the federal government actually does. Covering the telework program at the Patent and Trademark Office was an education in just how many attorneys work there and what their workload is actually like. Doing investigative reporting on the staffing levels at air traffic control facilities taught me how many kinds of those facilities they are and just how stressful air traffic control work is. And visiting the National Security Agency to cover the adaptive technology center that serves the NSA’s employees with disabilities gave me my first sense of the actual physical size of America’s security state. That didn’t mean that I came to love, or even approve of, everything the federal government did, but I did grow to appreciate how many things federal employees do out of the sight of the American public.
Government shutdowns, I suppose, have the effect of making people who don’t work for federal agencies or don’t have friends and family who do, think harder about everything they get from federal workers. For some people, like those who might lose WIC benefits, or who are dipping into savings accounts to help support their familiy members who are either furloughed or working without pay, those reminders are dire. Visitors who are turned away from Smithsonian Institution Museums, space exploration enthusiasts who are frustrated by the shutdown of data collection from the Mars Curiosity rover, or panda fans who feel bereft of the National Zoo’s panda cam are only experiencing infringements on their recreational enjoyment. But even if the aftershocks are small, they still illustrate the reach of the earthquake.
A shutdown of the government denies people services that they desperately need, things that give them pleasure and joy, and access to ideas that help us expand our understanding of the universe. It takes people away from work they badly care about doing, that helps people get jobs, keep their children fed, and our troops supported. It devalues the work of people who are expected to keep showing up to the office even when they won’t be collecting paychecks. And it imposes artificial distinctions between classes of federal employees and kinds of federal work.
In this context, I’ll be watching a lot of Parks and Recreation until the shutdown is over. It’s not just that the NBC sitcom, about the employees of the Parks Department in a small city in Indiana has an episode about a government shutdown, the second season’s “Freddie Spaghetti.” It’s that Parks and Recreation is the only show anywhere on television to make the case for the importance and dignity of federal work that doesn’t fall into the categories of law enforcement or military service.
Television tends to act as if there are a limited number of existing professions for characters anyway, be they cops, doctors, public relations executives, or more recently, cupcake bakers. But the only category of government workers who are portrayed with any consistency on television are police officers. Sometimes, they’re corrupt (The Wire), sometimes they’re troubled saints (the Law & Order franchise), sometimes their corruption is a sign of badassery (Ironside, Dark Blue), and sometimes they’re comic figures (Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Prosecutors and judges show up, too, but mostly as adjuncts to cops–it’s a rare show like The Good Wife that makes district attorneys and judges rich, ongoing characters. But for the most part, it seems like the sole purpose of government on television is to administer the law when it’s broken.
Parks and Recreation, now in its sixth season, is a vigorous defense of the work government does that isn’t simply about crime and transgression. Leslie Knope does a lot of things that Congressional Republicans might think that are none of the government’s business: she provides programming at zoos, designs parks, builds playgrounds, runs a harvest festival, fills time capsules, memorializes tiny horses, directs scout troops, tries to save local businesses, teaches sex education classes, puts on children’s concerts, cleans up rivers, and even tries to rid the sidewalk of slugs. But the show over and over again makes the case that if Leslie doesn’t do the work, no one else would do it, and that Pawneeans, for all they complain about things like Leslie’s attempts to regulate, appreciate her efforts. Without Leslie’s work, Pawnee Commons would be a PaunchBurger, bored kids wouldn’t have a Freddie Spaghetti concert, and the city wouldn’t have had an emotional outlet for its feelings about Little Sebastian.
The residents of Pawnee may be careless with their own health. They may have awful taste in fast food, and be all too willing to embrace the Twilight books to impress their children, or to take government bailouts to turn their independent film rental stores into porn emporiums. And, as the recall campaign against Leslie heats up, it’s clear that even when they do notice Leslie’s work, they may not always appreciate the role that she plays in their lives. But Pawnee needs Leslie Knope, whether they know it or not. And it shouldn’t have taken a shutdown and the potential loss of a Freddie Spaghetti children’s concert to make them recognize it, or to help them remember it after the fact. Similarly, we shouldn’t need a real-world, much more wide-ranging government shutdown, prompted by a dispute much more frustrating and rooted in invented problems than the one that created problems in Pawnee, to appreciate the federal government whether we want things from it, or whether we badly need them.