US vs Denmark: Government Services

Government Services: Denmark vs US

Before I left the US as part of the insanely complicated process for getting the pets here, I needed to go visit the USDA. Living in Chicago I assumed they would have an office downtown. I was wrong.

The office was in the middle of a very strange complex in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago that basically exists to support a large convention center and a concert hall. I rode the blue line for an hour to Rosemont then hopped on a bus to this deserted parking lot. With planes taking off and landing what felt like inches above my head I slowly approached a run down guard booth with a very tired looking private security office.

I told him why I was here and he gestured at this collection of very odd buildings. They reminded me of the presidents house the US had made for their puppet president in South Vietnam. Large white structures which giant front doors and an artificial lake in the middle. There seemed to be people living there strangely enough, with toys in the lawn and clothes on clothesline’s. I walked in by the mailbox that was taped over with a sign saying “No Pickup Today”.

Inside was faded carpet and two security guards, also private security employees and not federal employees for some unknowable reason. Not sure why you would outsource the security but hey that’s America. I get my visitor badge that clearly says Escort Required and I wait. As I’m waiting more people are coming in but they’re not going through the metal detectors for some reason. They aren’t employees, they are also here to get their pet forms stamped. When questioned this man with a very large growth on his forehead says smugly that “I’m a vet”. This is in response to the request to go through the correct door.

We all wait in this lobby full of depressed looking government employees. Finally we are called back by a young man wearing headphones leading us back to this unlit office. On the way the water fountains warn us not to drink from them. This just sort of boggles my mind for a moment because of the age of the signs. This isn’t some new thing, the paper warning me not to drink from these fountains is old and curling at the edges. It does explain why the employees all seemed to have water bottles when they walked in though.

Inside the USDA office most of the lights are off and the cubicles are empty. There seem to be three employees total. Two interaction with us all and then one vet in the back actually signing the docs. I hand pre-filled form from their website only to be told that they don’t use that one anymore. They stamp my stuff and I take off. When I ask if I need an escort they shake their heads and return to the waiting group. I head back to the security desk alone and hand over my badge, horrified at the sad state of the government I keep getting told is the best in the world.

To be clear I am not criticizing the employees I interacted with. I think in general they did the absolute best that they could and without their help I never would have gotten my pets to Denmark. They have my gratitude. However the whole experience did really raise some eyebrows for me. The question is why is everything in the US so run down when it comes to government?

It’s a theme that I just keep seeing over and over. Friends who work for county, city or the federal government complaining of shortages, pay freezes, lack of resources. A friend who works for cook county commented how the stalls in the women’s restroom were broken for over a year and how they wished they could just get some paper towels to dry their hands before going back to work. These are just such simple demands that it seems impossible not to meet them but yet here we are.

It was a major theme of my thought process before moving to Denmark. I seemed to pay a lot in taxes but everywhere I turned things were just collapsing. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t mind paying taxes. I think it’s an important part of being a citizen and should in theory allow you to provide the resources to those who can’t support themselves along with the massive structure to handle the million and one problems that come with modern life. My issue is what do you get with them in Chicago?

The roads aren’t in good shape, every government office seems understaffed and run down. Crime isn’t everywhere but it also isn’t really going down. Whole sections of the city look like a deserted war zone there are so many abandoned or just run down buildings and empty lots. I understand if one of these problems was just too big to solve. Maybe crime with as many guns and demand for drugs is just too big of an ask. Let’s take a much smaller example.

My balcony was cited a year ago during Pride Parade. An inspector came by while people were out on the balcony and told us our balcony and the buildings balcony weren’t up to code and we were going to get a citation. Fine I guess. I mean they were approved when they were constructed so it’s almost certainly going to be allowed since you aren’t required to tear down a structure every time the code changes. But we’ll wait and see what they say and go from there.

After 12 months we still hadn’t gotten a summons to go in front of a magistrate and explain the situation. We had called the city, spoken to multiple people there. The entire time the building exists in a state of limbo. This just isn’t acceptable. You have to do better when you are charging these kinds of taxes. I have the right to have these cases processed more quickly and I don’t really care what you need to do on the backend to make that happen. Again I’m fine with paying taxes but you need to deliver something for those taxes.

The final straw for me was the new Chicago mayor warning us all that in order to put her plans into place she was going to need to generate more revenue. Forget the casino we had agreed to put into the city even though it preys on poor people, old people and those with gambling addictions. Forget even that we legalized the sale of Marijuana just to try and generate more revenue. Or even our property taxes and sales taxes which are pretty high. We needed to generate even more revenue.

It just stopped making sense to me. I wanted to support a system that seemed supportable instead of pretending this pile of duct taped together governmental systems was acceptable. I wanted a real functional government with employees who don’t look like the life is completely beaten out of them. I wanted nice to visit libraries and a functional health system. All of this, so far, I’ve found in Denmark.

It’s not paradise by any means but as an American dealing with the government here vs the US government or local government is night and day. If you email people they email you back. When you call the person is helpful and friendly (during the restricted hours they work). Libraries like the one I’m in right now are clean, functional and seemingly well funded. The roads are in good shape and progress seems to be happening on infrastructure. The public healthcare system makes sense and frankly it’s a lot easier to use than the US system. You are assigned a doctor and then you take your yellow card to the doctor and that’s it. It isn’t some nightmarish system of in plan vs out of plan and whether you are in the right network for that kind of thing. Do you have a referral, is that an HMO or a PPO, etc.

The real shame to me is we’ve let our local and federal government just sort of collapse in on itself and we rely on the individual employee to fix it. In the US we don’t treat government workers like we would private workers. If I’m a programmer and I show up and the office is cold and dark and the water isn’t safe to drink I’m not really going to produce much. It’s not like my peers would be shocked by this either. They’d say pretty much what you’d expect which is that isn’t a reasonable thing to ask, to do your best work without the ability to wash your hands after using the goddamn bathroom.

But in the US we dump all of that on the employee. As government employees we basically say “you are a leech and work for me”. So delays in the process or lack of funds to do basic things are treated almost like a failure of the person we are directly interacting with. It makes sense because the actual problem, which is a deliberate series of steps by the Republican Party to cripple the government so that private industry is allowed to profit from services traditionally offered by the state, is simply too big and complicated to fight for most people. I understand that by forcing the postal service to fund the retirement of their employees early I am crippling them. That this is not a mistake, but a strategy by UPS and FedEx so that they can compete on an unfair level.

However it doesn’t stop Americans from raging at the post office. Why is everything broken and a line out the door? We mock it in popular culture and demean it among each other but we don’t really ever do anything to address the problem because i think the problem just feels too big. It seems impossible for most of us, who have never really seen a functional US government in our lifetime, to fathom of what such a system looks like.

Which is why I’m so shocked by the Danish one. Here is a government that seems to actually think about things like efficiency and treating their employees like humans. When I go into their offices they aren’t dark pits by the airport without functional water fountains but nice well lit offices with decent computers. Nobody seems ready to throw themselves off the roof out of a sense of hopelessness.

I’d love for the US to move more in this direction. Cut back military spending, cut back tax cuts and just take those funds and get us back up to a basic functioning level instead of this horrific patched together sad state we’re in now. I just don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.