• Analysis
  • January 15, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 1

The 26 weirdest government stories of 2018

These stories prove there's humour in public service after all

Did you hear about the cybersecurity minister who has never touched a computer? What about the statehouse that erected a shrine to Satan? Or the government website that will teach you how to roll a joint?

At Apolitical, we aim to highlight the good work government does — but we also like to find the humour in public service. In our Weekly Briefing, we always include a “joke” story: the zaniest, most surprising bit of government news that week. These are always among the most popular pieces in the newsletter.

Here, we’ve compiled the most outlandish public service stories we read over the last year, broken down by region.

North America

The smallest town in the US has a population of one. As the mayor of Monowi, Nebraska, 84-year-old Elsie Eiler voted for herself, pays taxes to herself and granted her own bar’s liquor license. It’s the only incorporated place in the US with just one resident.

Want to learn how to roll a joint? The government of New Brunswick is here to help. The province’s newly appointed cannabis agency provides step-by-step instructions for consumption on its website. Canada became the first major world economy to legalise marijuana in October 2018.

The Illinois Statehouse has erected a shrine to Satan. A four-foot Satanic statue sits between a Christmas tree and menorah in a series of holiday displays. The state said the Temple of Satan has the same right as other groups to display religious symbols.

Quebec, Canada will make crypto-miners bid for electricity. The province’s utility has been overwhelmed by exploding energy demand from the cryptocurrency industry. By raising their prices, it will push down electricity rates for other consumers.

A dead brothel owner won a Nevada assembly seat. Republican Dennis Hof, a reality TV star who died last month, defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 7,000 votes. State law stipulates that county officials must appoint another Republican to take his seat.

In Hawaii, being nice is the law. The 1986 Aloha Spirit Law mandates that all citizens live and work together peacefully. Today, it’s largely symbolic — but when politicians or businesspeople get out of line, they can face public shaming or loss of business in keeping with its tradition.

The US’s new 7,800-ton attack sub USS Colorado is partly steered by Xbox controllers. The gaming controllers are used to operate photonics masts, the modern equivalent of periscopes. A spokesman said one advantage is that young sailors already know how to use them.


A Spanish civil servant was banned from public sector jobs after skipping work every day for 10 years. He claimed to have completed all his duties outside the office, but there’s no evidence of any work done. He earned $58,000 per year as an archives director for Valencia’s provincial government.

UK civil servants use Slack to talk whiskey, board games and sex. A Freedom of Information request revealed how government IT workers use the messaging platform: alongside channels on cloud computing, AI and GDPR are ‘pub o’clock’ and ‘polyamory’.

‘This Is Not a Street’ is one of Brussels’ newest roads. The city asked citizens for help naming 28 new streets and squares, and received 1,400 submissions. New roads include “Place of Great People”, “Passage of the Fries” and “Path to a Better World”.

Florence banned al fresco dining to stop tourists from littering its streets. Anyone caught eating outdoors on four of city’s busiest streets will be fined up to $580. It’s a sign of mounting tourist pressure in the Tuscan capital: last summer, the mayor threatened to attack visitors eating on cathedral steps with a hose.

A Siberian mayor is selling off flashy cars to pay for social services. Sardana Avksentyeva, the first female mayor of Yakutsk, was elected on promises to curb corruption and misuses of public funds. First on her agenda: selling off the city’s 13 pricey foreign vehicles.

Norway and Sweden are feuding over border-crossing reindeer. The Norwegian agriculture minister threatened to kill those that cross over unless new grazing laws are put in place. Norway says current rules give indigenous Swedes too much leeway to herd across borders.

The French parliament debated the name of a pastry. Right-wing MPs are fighting to rebrand the popular pain au chocolat as the “chocolatine”. The linguistic dispute will compete for debating time with proposals to ban pesticides and curb animal mistreatment in abattoirs.

A leading thinktank wants the UK to pay millennials $13,500 each. The Resolution Foundation recommends that a cash handout is given to 25-year-olds to help them pay for tuition, put down a deposit on a house or start a new business. It would be funded by higher taxes for seniors.

South America

Argentina’s parliament has sacked nearly 200 phantom workers. Two months ago, the Congress started checking which workers weren’t turning up for long periods at a time. Local press reports that suddenly “the corridors of the legislature are flooded with employees”.


Swaziland has changed its name to sound less like Switzerland. King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, announced that the tiny country would now be called eSwatini, meaning “land of the Swazis”. The landlocked country’s total population is around 1.3million people.


Don’t move to Omaui, New Zealand if you want a pet cat. The small coastal village plans to ban all domestic cats to protect native wildlife from extinction. Residents who already own felines will have to have them neutered, microchipped and registered with local authorities.


Japan’s new cybersecurity minister has never used a computer. Yoshitaka Sakurada, who is in charge of cyber-defence in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, made the admission during a hearing. “I give instructions to employees and secretaries — I never touch my computer myself,” he said.

Indian officials are using Calvin Klein Obsession to sniff out a killer tigress. Forest rangers have tried everything from thermal imagery drones to wild elephants to capture a tiger suspected of killing 13 people. Their last resort: a men’s cologne with the civetone compound, which is scientifically proven to make big cats complacent.

A Japanese train barks like a dog to clear deer off the tracks, and prevent crashes. Last year there were more than 600 recorded collisions with deer and other wild animals. The train both barks and yelps like an alarmed deer, and has proved effective at keeping the animals away.

Singapore is launching five robot swans to monitor water quality in its reservoirs. The swans are fitted with an array of sensors and send data back to their handlers via cloud computing. They’re designed to look like swans to “blend in with the natural surroundings”.

Uzbekistan held an electronic music festival to draw attention to the vanishing Aral Sea. Its many efforts to reverse the drying of the sea, which used to be the size of Ireland, have failed. Now, government hopes a techno festival will draw international attention to the crisis.

A Japanese agency called a news conference to apologise for an employee who left for lunch three minutes early. In addition to the public reprimand, his pay was docked. One in five Japanese employees is at risk of death from overwork.

A sticky sweet pudding is crucial to the Indian economy. The 100-odd officials who prepare the annual budget are confined to the basement of the finance ministry for weeks while they get it done. To start them off, they’re ceremonially presented with bowls of halwa by the finance minister.


The world’s first space nation has a president, a 150-member parliament and 200,000 citizens — but no land. Asgardia, named for the mythical Norse city in the sky, is the brainchild of a Russian billionaire, who plans to build a country ‘to serve all of humanity’. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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