There is a strong undercurrent, the Jerk Factor, in many of the interactions between clients and bureaucracies. This undercurrent is caused by the small percentage of bureaucrats and the small percentage of clients who act like jerks. These jerks have a disproportionately large effect on the interactions between honest clients and hard-working, service-oriented bureaucrats.

Imagine a pile of recently caught fish that could feed hungry people. Imagine the flies that swarm around that pile as the word gets around in the insect community. All assistance programs attract some dishonest people just as flies are attracted to a pile of fish. These scam artists make it difficult for front-line bureaucrats to maintain a positive attitude. Bureaucrats have to remind themselves repeatedly that most of their clients have a legitimate need for assistance.

Although most bureaucrats stay positive, a few turn sour and vindictive. They treat all aid applicants as potential scammers, guilty until proven innocent. This behaviour in turn puts clients on edge during their interactions with other, more positive-minded workers.

The tensions sometimes worsen if senior staff succumb to pressure from politicians, the public and the news media to weed out and punish cheaters. Senior staff may create pointless paperwork and other obstructive procedures to show that they are getting tough on cheaters. They think that bureaucratic hurdles will discourage scamming. Even if that works, the hurdles make some legitimate applicants give up on trying to get help. Catching cheaters is desirable, but not at the expense of the honest majority.

The Jerk Factor creates an undercurrent that affects everyone. It’s a shame but we have to live with it and deal with it. People who need help need to remind each other that most bureaucrats genuinely want to help. Bureaucrats need to remind each other that most clients are decent people who deserve assistance.