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Public Administration and Jokes: We Need to Vent

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
February 4, 2022

People use jokes, not only to laugh and enjoy their time, but oftentimes to vent their frustrations, in an exaggerated manner, about life in general. The field of public administration is no exception. In all countries around the world, citizens have continuously made fun of their governments and how governmental programs are managed. A closer look into some of these jokes may provide us with great insight.

Jokes have been studied and examined seriously by social scientists, especially sociologists and anthropologists, as part of their analysis of popular culture and trying to figure out prevalent societal beliefs and values. A quick review of the relevant published literature in those fields revealed titles like: A Handbook of Humor Research and The Sociological Approaches to the Study of Humor. There are even undergraduate Sociology courses with titles such as SOCI-3100 Sociology of Humor. Perhaps my own university years would have been more fun had I known this earlier!

In the field of public administration, serious articles that use jokes and humor are not that common. Perhaps this is to be expected; unless we are looking for an oxymoron: a serious analysis of jokes! Nevertheless, a PAR article by Yarwood in 1995, makes the point that most jokes related to the field revolve around the contrast between the expected natural flow of procedures and the rigidity of bureaucratic institutions.

In open democratic societies, people are free to joke about their governments and presidents as much as they want. In the United States, we see that stand-up comedians and talk shows make it their business to target American presidents with their jokes. People respond with laughter and enjoyment and the business of talk/comedy shows thrive. In other countries, the public space available for joking about presidents and top-level officials may be somewhat restricted. However, this does not stop citizens from making jokes privately.

In the United Kingdom, the famous television sitcom “Yes Minister,” that ran for many years, made fun of the British bureaucracy and people enjoyed it all over the world. It capitalized on the idea that bureaucrats tend to “lose the forest for the trees.” The sitcom resonated with citizens everywhere, who were dealing with the rigid bureaucracy of their governments.

Egyptians are known to have a sarcastic sense of humor. Joking and making fun is inherent to most Egyptians’ way of life, serving as one of their main means of daily communication. This often leads to awkward miscommunications when used with people from other, more reticent cultures, who may not understand the exaggerations and sarcasm and instead, take things literally. However, even during the darkest, most cheerless of times, and sometimes even as a result of them, jokes abound.

To exemplify the rigidity of the bureaucracy, Egyptians came up with a fictitious character, Madame Afaf, and made her the symbol for the complicated procedures of the Egyptian government. She is described as sullen, intimidating citizens, as she continuously asks for more papers, signatures and stamps.

Some of the jokes circulating on social media about the Egyptian public service are very telling and discuss real problems faced, but in a very creative manner. Some examples include:

  • Low Salaries: An announcement was made that the price of an egg will be 2 EGP, that is the chicken will earn a salary higher than that of an Egyptian public servant. Conclusion: If you resign from government and hatch eggs, it will be better for you.
  • Downsizing: One joke relates to the downsizing efforts of government, showing how government employees will be terminated under all circumstances. If they are pious and they pray too often, they will be accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood group and will be fired. If they are not pious and they smoke, they will also be fired. As an Egyptian public employee, you cannot get it right!
  • Hypocrisy: During a business dinner, the manager tells a joke. All the employees laugh except one. The manager tells him: “It seems you did not understand the joke.” The employee responds: “I understood it, but I have resigned as of yesterday.”
  • Unemployment: We are a generation who considers sleep a hobby, studying an option and work only for the very limited few.
  • Difficulty in Getting Holidays: To extend your vacation, send “dream” as an SMS to the mobile number of the Ministry of Education.
  • High Value of Water Bill: A citizen received his water bill with a value of 7000 EGP. He called the Ministry and told them: “What am I paying for? The rain this year?!”
  • Poor Level of Readiness for COVID-19: A person smoking hash preparing for the pandemic: “I have changed the door lock. Readiness is a must”.

We can learn a lot about governments and public administration systems just by keeping up to date with circulating jokes, so keep them coming. It is good to have a laugh every now and then!

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is currently the director of the MPA Program and is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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