Archive for April 1st, 2010

Bridges That Don’t Bridge

Old London Bridge, as in London bridge is falling down, fascinates me. The one that is now in Arizona is the NEW London Bridge. The Old Bridge opened in 1209 and was torn down about 1830, when the new one, the one now in Arizona, was completed.

For six centuries, Old London Bridge was the ONLY bridge for almost all of London’s traffic. There was no other for many miles.

Having only one bridge was a problem, but what was REALLY a problem was that its main source of revenue was the shops and apartments ON the bridge.

Maybe the reason it fascinates me so is because the whole situation sounds so FAMILIAR. I worked for the government, remember. So here we had this structure that had a MONOPOLY over movement across the Thames into the world’s biggest city, and that one monopoly bridge was crammed with shops and apartments that were in the way.

If you were trying to go across the bridge in a wagon, you had to take into account that almost all the shops and apartments were JOINED at the top to get a few square feet of extra space. Also, with an overhead apartment that made one building leaning against another, to make it more stable. So most of the Bridge, even in bright daylight, was dark because of the overheads.

So the Bridge was a tunnel.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see why someone who dealt with government agencies would find Old London Bridge so familiar. There is only one way to get something done and you have to go through a tunnel between groups that LIVE there. They take every square inch they can, for their own reasons.

And as with London Bridge, the obstacles are not directed at you. Nor do the obstinacies have anything to do with your interest in getting across. In order to understand an agency, you have to forget its so-called “mission” and look at its internal politics, its internal experience.

The point of those who rented space on the Bridge was not to block it, but it was to get every square inch they could out of it. They got every square inch out of it that they could defend. Agencies are the same way.

Someone has said that “Government appointees are people who keep talking about making things happen and who hope and pray that nothing does.” That goes for Presidential appointees. It goes triple for career employees. Like most people, their interest is in drawing their salaries and going home.

I have been at an awful lot of Oversight Committee meetings, and this does not come up. They’re always talking about The Mission of the agency. That is like talking about Old London Bridge purely as a bridge.