When government efficiency descends into insanity

My previous job, before I graduated university, was programming at a government research laboratory. I spent over a year in total working there, spread out across three summers and winters between university terms. In that time I managed to get a pretty good idea of how governmental agencies operate, warts and all. My favorite quirk of that lab was how the climate control system was set up.

During normal work hours, the climate control system would function normally. In the winter it would heat the building; in the summer, it would air condition the building. So far so good. But, outside of normal work hours, the climate control system switched into “energy efficiency mode”, which is government speak for “it turned off”. This being a laboratory, there were scientists and technicians coming in at all hours of the day and night to check up on experiments, or just do additional research. But it would get so cold inside during the winter when the heating system was being “energy efficient”.

The solution was to install climate control override switches in each hallway that activated the system in that section of the building outside of normal work hours. These switches consisted of unlabeled, nondescript, little circular black buttons on beige electrical boxes mounted at the ends of hallways above eye level. I suppose information on their purpose got around by word of mouth, because most people wouldn’t even notice the switches on their own, and the few that did would have no idea of their function (and in general, in a laboratory, you don’t go messing around with buttons whose function you do not know).

The really evil thing about these buttons, and the reason you can tell the “solution” was one that only a government agency could think was reasonable, is that the override only took effect for one hour. After one hour, the climate control system would go off again (another “energy efficient” feature), and someone would have to walk back down to the end of the many-hundred-feet-long hallway and hit the button again. Every hour. I saw people setting egg timers so they wouldn’t forget when they had to go hit that infernal button once again. And God help you if you’re suited up in the middle of an uninterruptable experiment in the dead of winter with no one else in that section of the building. You’re just going to have to learn to enjoy the freezing cold. Some scientists kept interns and post-docs around after hours that they could send to go Press The Button for just this reason.

Modifying those damn buttons was the number one request on the electronic bulletin board for that agency. But rather than requesting a simple on/off switch for the climate control system, scientists seemed to just want the button’s effects to last longer. The average request was to have the override last for four hours. They didn’t object to the concept of having to press the button like a trained lab rat; they just wanted the freedom to be slightly lazier trained lab rats.

That’s the government for you.

3 Responses to “When government efficiency descends into insanity”

  1. arensb Says:

    When a friend of mine was in grad school, the university installed motion sensors in the grad students’ offices, which were supposed to turn off the lights if there was no one in the office.

    Unfortunately, my friend was hidden from the motion sensor by a bookcase, so every 15 minutes or so, he’d have to lean way back and wave his hand around the bookcase. Another solution was to tie a ribbon to a fan, and put the fan within line of sight of the sensor. My favorite, though, was the suggestion to get one of those novelty dancing Coke cans: people in the office usually have music playing, which would trigger the dancing. So in effect, it converted a motion detector into a sound detector.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    I don’t see that motion sensor idea working anyway. When I’m sitting at a computer coding there really isn’t a lot of movement, and if the sensor is behind me, it isn’t even going to pick up finger movements. Not that it would be sensitive enough to pick them up anyway.

    Yarrrgh, whatever happened to light switches?

  3. Will (green) Says:

    We have those sorts of motion sensors linked to the lights in the computer lab in the library here at Central Washington University. As a testament to their ineffectiveness, I once had the lights turn off with five users in the lab. All nice and spread out, too.
    Also, I get up and check all the computers and another lab every twenty minutes or so.