How one man struck it rich in the US bureaucracy
On a plum sofa in a cedar-sided house sits Matthew Lesko, a wiry, alert man with the key to a treasure chest. Mr. Lesko is onto something. Something large. He stumbled across it in 1975 when a friend asked him to find out why the price of Maine potatoes was then double the norm. After a few phone calls to the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Lesko found his key - a bureaucrat who had ''spent his whole working life studying the very thing I was looking for.''Skip to next paragraph
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The problem, he found, was not in discovering such information. The problem was in getting too much. He called his friend back - and walked away with a fat consultant's fee.
Since then, Mr. Lesko has started a consulting firm called Washington Researchers. Its sole purpose is to find informed bureaucrats and connect their knowledge with business people who need it. He has also written a $20 paperback, ''Information USA'' (Viking Press), telling how he does it - a book that has made the New York Times best-seller list.
''The International Trade Commission does 300 market studies each year, because they're worried about the effect of imports on products in the US,'' he says. ''The fallout of those studies is that businesses can let the government do their market research - if they only knew it was there.''
Mr. Lesko has also figured out how to use the government to help finance a new business (''the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance has a shopping list for all monies''), how to run a day-care center (''look to the Early Childhood Clearinghouse''), and how to convert a business to a franchise (''I found a lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission who knew all about it - why pay some other lawyer $20 an hour for what you can get for free?''). He knows how to get free firewood, free Christmas trees for a nonprofit group, free manure for his garden, and free fish for his pond, all from the US government.
All this information - and much, much more - is like ''oil in the ground,'' he believes. ''The government spends very little money on advertising, so people just don't know what's available. I shouldn't be in business - the government should be telling people these things.''
He also thinks that if people had more access to the sorts of helpful information produced by the US government, they would ''feel better'' about Washington. The Leskos - Matthew, his wife, Wendy, and toddler Morgan - took ''a van full of government freebies around the country this summer and found that most people really appreciated the information they got,'' he says. Ninety-four percent of those he surveyed, however, felt that the government does not adequately tell them about programs that could help them.
''I figure most people feel like I always did,'' he says. As a young man in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he worked for his father's garment factory. ''I thought the government was something special, for either the very, very rich or the very, very poor. I couldn't believe when I got here that I could pick up the phone and find out about a bill on Capitol Hill by dialing the same number that some $400,000 lawyer uses.''
He's also been pleasantly surprised by the helpfulness of the average government bureaucrat. ''These people will talk to me - a nobody - for hours about their subject, and then take me around to someone else in the department who has the statistics,'' he reports.
Part of his success in uncovering this treasure, he feels, comes from ''friendliness. A bureaucrat gets the same salary whether he's helpful to you or not. So you have to be humble, be grateful, treat them like the experts they are.'' He advises thank-you notes and passing back any extra information you might receive that could help your helper.