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Despite some employers’ best efforts to compel a complete return to office over the last 18 months, many workers would prefer not to. One boss not taking no for an answer is New York City’s own mayor Eric Adams, in this one case continuing his predecessor’s policy of obstinacy to demand all municipal workers report to their physical posts five days a week. Far from the only reason, inflexibility on remote work is one factor in a growing vacancy crisis in city agencies, amid the well-reported departure of workers from a “sinking ship.” And while the ball pits and kombucha taps of the 2010s collect cobwebs and consultants reimagine the office of the future, municipal workers report to spaces with a longer tradition of austerity and their own, very particular esthetics.
Since 2018, the Instagram account @publicsectoroffice has documented everyday scenes of bureaucratic environments from the poignant to the bizarre. With origins at the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation’s 100 Gold Street home, it has expanded to share contributions from across North America. Below, the account’s creator and administrator, Casey Peterson, Lucas Teixeira Vaqueiro (who created a similar account in Brazil) and Judy Park Lee plumb the archives for a close analysis of the material world of government work. Personal experience and extensive research give these three self-described “bureaucracy nerds” (they are planners, designers, and ex-public servants), an incisive affection for the complexity and contradictions of the municipal workplace. They prompt us to consider the contemporary stakes of the office not in terms of salvaging real estate values in the Central Business District, but for the work of maintaining a functioning democracy.
Ask anyone who works in a government agency if they’ve ever seen a “chair pile” in their office building, and they will probably say yes. No one knows where the pile came from, or what it’s for, but it’s been there for as long as anyone can remember.
It was such a chair pile, haphazardly thrown together in a windowless conference room at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, that inspired Casey Peterson, then a City employee, to start the Instagram account @publicsectoroffice. Spying the pile on the way out of an interagency meeting, she snapped a photo and sent it to her friend, Justin, who was working in Baltimore’s city government at the time. The two began trading photos of their dreary office spaces back and forth, until they eventually launched @publicsectoroffice in 2018 with the intention of documenting “artifacts from the wild and weary world of serving the public interest,” and inviting fellow public servants to submit images of their own work spaces.
Alongside many chair piles, @publicsectoroffice features all manner of bureaucratic themes and variations, from passive-aggressive signs to dead office plants and cheesy holiday decorations. As time went on, and submissions from across North America began rolling in, the page developed into a collective inventory of daily life inside of government, and a distinct aesthetic emerged. The current collection of over 500 images paints a picture of a landscape that is utterly mundane at the same time that it is comical, absurd, nostalgic, and subversive. It’s a picture that is often hidden from public view, accessible exclusively to those with the ID badge required to pass the security check, or after going through the metal detector, having a photo taken by the security guard, and following their convoluted directions to the appropriate elevator. Only then can one peer behind the institutional veil of the public sector office.
While the account operates, on its surface, as a kind of inside joke among public servants, it also offers rich insights into their lives and the various tensions and challenges that they navigate in the course of their work. The chair pile, for example, embodies a recurring tension in the public sector between scarcity and surplus. Scarcity exists at all levels of government, from the lack of funding or political will to advance policies and programs, to the constant shortage of essential items like staplers and dish soap. Yet there are moments of remarkable surplus: There is never a shortage of paperwork to be done or regulations by which to abide. As resourcing is subject to the whims of political administrations, public servants may struggle to fund their programs one year, then find themselves suddenly in charge of a hundred-million-dollar budget the next. This kind of uncertainty encourages people to accumulate and hoard excess supply, leading to phenomena like chair piles, which waste space by prioritizing furniture over people. Spending enough time around these areas of accumulation begs the question: In what other ways do government and society writ large hoard resources at the expense of current needs?
As the images we’ve curated below from @publicsectoroffice illustrate, many other tensions arise in the course of public governance and shape the interactions between public servants, residents, and the state. These tensions are also embedded into the material landscape of the public sector office, which mediates how public servants and residents experience and conceptualize the state. As these individuals compose or interpret an official notice, communicate across a service counter, sign a stack of paperwork, improvise a solution, or lose their way in a maze of directions, they develop an intimate sense of what it means to govern and be governed. Moreover, these tensions indicate that governments, which tend to cling to neat categories and strive to project certainty at all times, are in fact full of contradictions, ambiguities, and loose ends. While most of the images and examples below are sourced from agencies in New York City, based on our experiences as former public servants, we suspect that similar tensions are at play across many different public sector offices in the United States and internationally.
Government buildings tend to rank among the most impressive architectural structures in the urban landscape. As the physical embodiment of state power, civic buildings historically conveyed their weight and authority through monumental design. Built between 1909 and 1914 by the esteemed architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, the David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building is one such example. The canopy of tiled arches over its southern loggia next to the Brooklyn Bridge is a small joy for the bureaucrats and visitors who emerge from the subway below. Over the last century, however, a radical shift took place in terms of how civic buildings are designed and resourced. As stewards of public tax dollars under constant scrutiny, governments exhibited more modesty and resourcefulness in their architecture. Today, public servants work amid this tension between grandeur and modesty. The Manhattan Municipal Building’s grand façade and patinated details are undermined by modern, makeshift wayfinding methods borrowed from the police arsenal. The contrast is stark, and reminiscent of religious contexts in which cathedrals built for eternal glory must be maintained today with meager budgets by clergy called to a life of parsimony and self-sacrifice, not so unlike the calling of a public servant. Once intended to foster a sense of civic pride, government offices must now occupy the cheapest buildings taxpayer money can buy, and public servants suffer the consequences.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, public servants scrambled to continue delivering services while adapting to changing and often conflicting protocols from varying levels of government, all while trying to minimize health risks for themselves and the public. This period of rapid transition brought to the fore a particular tension in government service delivery: the conflict between following official protocols and improvising during a time of crisis. When political scientist Michael Lipsky coined the term “street-level bureaucrat,” he argued that employees at the frontlines of public service delivery were essential participants in policy-making, translating written policy and protocol into reality by using what is available to them in the moment to engage with visitors on a human level. Such a moment of improvisation occurred when, in their haste to adhere to social distancing protocols, public servants in Jackson, Wyoming, used the Halloween decorations they had on hand to construct a temporary barrier between government workers and the general public. When official policies collide with facts on the ground, the outcome of this collision is mediated in large part by the actions of the street-level bureaucrat.
By definition, public institutions are designed to last. In a liberal democracy, where administrations are always in transition, the state apparatus stands firm as the permanent infrastructure for government. The tension between the ephemeral and the permanent generates a diverse array of artifacts designed to make the transitory perennial, including grandiose buildings, constitutions, and ceremonial rituals. However, the preferred medium by which governments make the ephemeral permanent is undoubtedly paper. Through memos, notes, protocols, contracts, reports, decrees, proclamations, acts, and minutes, governments record decisions, provide evidence, and hold stakeholders accountable. Because it carries a legitimacy that spoken words do not, paper bears the responsibility of remembering. For this to occur, an immense amount of labor is required. Paperwork must be generated, stored, filled, categorized, archived, and referenced. Paperwork also takes up a surprising amount of space, filling desks, hallways, rooms, and entire floors. Even as the transition to digital archives purports to resolve the issue of space by relocating it to server farms, the dilemma of documentation still lingers. Paradoxically, while paper is a medium of permanence, it is also highly perishable. As the fire hazard sign in this image suggests, everything stored in these archives could vanish instantly in a blaze.
Transparency is a key value embedded in liberal democracies. If the government is for the people, the people have a right to know what’s going on inside its walls. Transparency is encouraged and expressed in various ways, from designing buildings with glass windows to introducing legislation that expands access to information controlled by government bodies. Despite these measures, the inner workings of government are still shielded from the public. What happens inside of a public building is obscured by security scanners, service counters, and convoluted language, making the daily activities of government and its purposes generally inaccessible to those it purports to serve. Policies and services appear as if by magic, conjured by a wizard behind the curtain. Bureaucracy itself becomes a riddle that is impossible to solve. This struggle of navigation is felt at both sides of the service counter: public servants often feel just as lost in a system of Kafkaesque design as members of the public do. As with the wayfinding sign in the image above, even efforts to make the system more legible can backfire, ultimately resulting in an output that is even more opaque: a series of indecipherable directions leading to dead ends.
Among the many messages affixed to the walls of the public sector office, one can always spot a collection of unofficial “ad-hoc signage” scattered throughout. One sign might ask passersby to refrain from tapping on the window so as not to scare the urban planner inside. Another reminds people to kindly check if they’ve flushed before exiting the stall. This ad-hoc signage features a distinct graphic style characterized by the generous use of default MS Office fonts (Times New Roman, Calibri), capitalization, and clip art. The result is a typology of signage that is bespoke but also anonymous and mundane. Often found in communal spaces like kitchens and bathrooms, these signs offer a rare moment for public servants to express themselves in a public forum without restraint. A silent drama unfolds on the bathroom wall. The fridge door becomes the site of call-outs, confessions, and coups. These forums mediate between the needs of the individual worker and the collective group, negotiating a set of informal norms that govern office life. While this phenomenon is not unique to public sector offices, it is particularly poignant in this context, as the life of a public servant is marked by an emphasis on decorum and formality — the sense that, as an arm of the state, one’s actions are always subject to public scrutiny. By issuing a complaint on a rogue sign rather than through the formal chain of command, the public servant bypasses the hierarchical systems they are paid to uphold and exercises their creativity in the face of bureaucracy’s subjugation of the self. With this fencing of the private and public self, the making of a sign can be seen as an act of subversion, an appropriation of the “official notice” to express one’s individuality and agency within the apparatus.
Public institutions are slow by design. Things take time, and offices are always playing catch-up with the latest technology and innovations. Although this feature is irksome to many, it goes hand-in-hand with the notion that institutions are designed to persist, to resist the vagaries of political change and to protect citizens’ basic rights. This built-in inertia extends to the landscape of the public sector office. Introducing new technologies and supplies involves a lengthy procurement process, in which the simple matter of getting new filing cabinets for the office could take years. Once procured, however, these things tend to stick around and accumulate, creating layers of meaning and interaction across countless, anonymous participants. Over time, the public sector office becomes a palimpsest in which objects of different temporalities co-exist: Covid social distancing signs are found next to old word processors and empty phone booths. In this way, the public sector office embodies a spirit similar to that of grandmother’s house, if she is a mild hoarder. It harbors an incongruous collection of the objects she’s collected over the years, in various states of decay, all of which hint at the events that have transpired throughout her life. The office bears a similar sense of timelessness, of always having existed and continuing to exist into perpetuity.
By and large, people join the government workforce to fulfill a mission of serving the public, to make their communities and cities better places to live. But the reality of working in the public sector is less straightforward and rosy. Public servants, particularly those on the front lines, are caught in the difficult position of delivering policies and services to the public while weathering constant shifts in organizational priorities, in addition to a constant barrage of austerity measures and restructuring initiatives. They must walk the tightrope of making quick decisions in order to satisfy the demand for immediate results, while operating in an extremely regulated environment where one’s mistakes can reflect poorly on an entire administration and contribute to increasing public distrust in government. Navigating such challenges, it’s not surprising that many public servants develop a love/hate relationship with their work and workplace. Even their relationship to the public can be fraught — at the same time that they are motivated by a desire to serve the public’s interests, bureaucrats also bear the brunt of its discontent and fragmented demands.
While the banal landscape of the public sector office may be easy to overlook, this environment sets the stage for the everyday actions and decisions that uphold our institutions. In times when the role of government is under constant attack, the public sector office can reveal a lot about the state of our democracy. Rather than dismissing these systems as unnecessarily bureaucratic and outdated, or trying to redesign them from scratch, it is becoming increasingly critical to examine these systems closely, including the values they express, the actors they engage, the props they use, the stages they occupy. Looking at them with wonder and curiosity, as if discovering them for the first time, we perceive how these materialities manifest and reinforce public values.
The materiality of the public sector office — the fact that these spaces and artifacts are physical, able to be grasped and manipulated — is a critical part of this story. In the context of the debate around remote work, the public sector remains largely resistant to the shift to the digital realm and home office. Many government agencies, particularly in New York City, continue to require that their workforces commute to the office with the goal of spurring economic recovery in city centers. The public sector office endures, for the foreseeable future, as a brick and mortar operation. Given this reality, we believe that this physical infrastructure is not only worth our interest but also our thoughtful care and maintenance. In the act of caring about infrastructure, we might discover new ways to articulate and rearticulate the materiality of the state. From ramparts and palaces to paperwork and cubicles, states have shape-shifted over the centuries to embody new sets of values and ethics; these structures and materials have also in turn generated novel modes of interaction between the public and those who serve them. As this cycle continues, it is essential that we ask: What else can we learn from the public sector office about the values that currently underpin our institutions? And what form should it take in the future? That is, how might we shape the public sector office, on both sides of the service counter, to better express and enact our desired collective values, support the essential labor of public servants, and strengthen our democracies?
All photos originally appeared on @publicsectoroffice.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.