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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, August 10, 2012

FEDERAL FAIL

"We dare not allow politicians to establish the principle that senior civil servants can be removed for incompetence. We could loose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds maybe. Even thousands."

The 1980s BBC shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were about government in the UK and focused on one man's political career. The show was about as cynical and sarcastic as you can imagine a political show might be, but was almost totally non partisan. They focused not on specific policy and party, but on bureaucracy, political trickery, the press, and the machine that makes up modern government.

Its everything shows like The West Wing ought to have been but were not. I doubt a show like that could even be made in America, not because there's no writers who could pull it off, but it would be shut down for being too brutal about politics and not partisan enough to satisfy the entertainment community. And the main target of the satire of this show is the civil servant, the bureaucrat.

There have been several pieces of news for the past ten years that indicate America's federal government has passed any point of competence and usefuless. Federal prosecutors repeatedly lose or have cases thrown out for poorly built prosecution or just flat out breaking the rules with evidence (for example, trying to use evidence they didn't bother sharing with the defense first). The FBI has gone from a shining example of the finest and best law enforcement in America at least to a shabby batch of incompetents with a few shining stars. The secret service keeps getting caught with hookers, the various agencies throw lavish parties and break rules and laws governing behavior and practices.

Now, its possible that this kind of thing has been going on a long time and only recently has been given attention because the Inspector General law has resulted in audits and close attention to agencies. Its possible that the 24 hour hammering news cycle has brought stories to light that might have in the past been forgotten or ignored. But I doubt it.

Consider the tax cheats in government. No, I'm not referring to President Obama's cabinet. Consider Jim Clifton's comments at Gallup.com:
The House of Representatives passed a bill last Tuesday that would fire federal employees who’ve been seriously delinquent in paying their taxes. They did this because almost 100,000 federal workers are behind on their taxes, including 700 congressional employees. These workers owed more than $1 billion in unpaid taxes 2010, up from just under $600 million in 2004, according to the Internal Revenue Service. We could charitably call these folks “rule breakers.”
People just ignoring taxes owed are getting worse about it far in excess of inflation. Now, Clifton suggests the reason for this collapse of competence and ethics in government is something Gallup studied earlier which he calls "workplace disengagement." He never defines this term, but it seems to mean something like a lack of emotional involvement with work. I describes workers who are demoralized, dislike their work, or just don't care and show up to do the minimum and never think about their job. EHow describes workplace disengagement this way:
Disengaged employees don't have an emotional commitment to their work or their place of employment, according to Entec Corporation, which has conducted employee surveys since 1966. Entec emphasizes that disengaged employees aren't necessarily bad employees, but they just do what's necessary to get their jobs done. They typically don't take part in offering suggestions for improving the workplace. Entec indicates that disengaged employees usually don't stay at work late if it's not required, and they don't give their jobs much thought after they finish a workday.
Chances are you've worked in a job like this, or been this way at a job. There's no morale, there's no interest in how good the job is. There's usually poor leadership and a lack of any sense of purpose. People call in sick a lot, don't think about their work at all when not specifically doing it, take long breaks and lunches, and do the absolute minimum job when actually working. Basically everyone feels like they're working at Initec from the movie Office Space.

Now, I believe there's probably a lot of that going on, and as Clifton notes, better leadership would help: bosses do have a huge impact on how you feel about your job. A bad boss makes every day at work simply miserable. Certainly the pay, benefits, and job security at federal government work are very highly rated and better than most private jobs. And no matter how bad unemployment gets, if you have a federal job, you're in good shape - in fact, the worse the economy gets, the more likely you are to find a federal job, its the one sure sector of the economy that grows in bad times.

So the workers can't be demoralized by their lousy conditions. They might be worried about keeping their jobs, if real conservatives ever got power in Washington DC enough to trim down the government, but that hasn't ever happened and seems unlikely to.

No, the Yes, Minister series provides a clue. Much of the show is about how the bureaucracy remains the same no matter who gets in power. Left, right, Democrat, Republican, it doesn't matter in Washington DC. The people who actually get the work done, the staffers, agency workers, the bureaucrats are always the same.

When each president or congress takes office, they can make all the promises and have all the good intentions they want. They can say they'll change the culture of Washington, they can claim they'll fix the problems, they can say they'll shake things up, but when it comes down to doing the job, the drones are the ones that get it done. Yes, it can make a difference who is in power, the last ten years or more have shown that. But ultimately, nothing about how things are done and how Washington DC works never changes.

Few examples in modern memory prove this more than the Bush administration. Unlike the Clintons before, President Bush the younger didn't fire very many people or change over very much in the agencies of the executive branch. He left the whole bureaucracy in place and tried to work with them, which was a huge mistake.

They hated him, hated his policies, hated what he stood for, and for the most part believed every idiot lie told about the man. They worked against him, stonewalled him, leaked information to hurt him, did a lousy job when they did what they were told, and in the end tore down the man by just making life hell for him at every turn.

Meanwhile, President Obama took office claiming he'd never work with lobbyists, that he'd change Washington's tone, be more transparent and so on. If I'm charitable, I'll say he really tried, but again, he went up against the bureaucracy. It is not in their interest to change things, it is not helpful to them to be transparent. Cutting anything means less power for the ones in charge and fewer jobs for the workers.

Lets say, just for an example, you want to cut back on spending in a department. You'll need to fire a lot of people, scale back what the department does, and restructure the agency. That means fewer jobs, a smaller budget, less power, and losing influence with other agencies for the people in charge. See, if you have power over something, you can hold that over other agencies, punishing people you don't like and trading what you can do for what you want from them.

So if you cut back, say, the Department of Education by 10%, that means the public employee unions will oppose you, the people in charge will fight against it (with help from the press), the Democratic Party will portray you as a monster for wanting to hurt education, the workers will complain on TV and newspapers about the evil man who wants to fire them, and black activists will cry racism because a large percentage of workers in the federal government are black.

Even if you manage to get the process in motion, the various agencies will rebel against you, slowing response, delaying paperwork, interfering with regular work, losing requests, and so on. Basically the entire bureaucracy can and will go into rebellion if you try to cut back or hurt any piece of it because they're all in it together. If one part is cut back, they all could be.

So you have an entrenched, unchanging brigade of virtually untouchable workers with no motivation to do better and a feeling of entitled immunity. These are workers who have nothing to fear and nothing to encourage them to be hungry or work harder. And with the union in place, firing someone for incompetence or troublemaking is even more difficult. If someone is too much trouble, they just get moved around to other areas.

And since the work being done is largely politically motivated and charged, then you get political people involved, and more and more of them over time. In short you get a saturation of poor workers, political agents, and an overall lack of any motivation to even try to work hard. Why follow the rules, you feel invulnerable. Why even pay taxes, you can get away with it for years. Got problems with the IRS? Go to your supervisor and they can contact folks they know at the other agency and a few swaps are done or favors cashed in.

So how do you fix this culture of incompetence and apathy?

Cut back the size of government. Any organization reaches a point of incompetence when it gets too big and too powerful. Corruption, abuse of power, duplication, fraud, and misuse of funds all become easier to hide and get away with the bigger you become. A leaner, meaner organization is less likely to have many problems.
Kill the public employee unions. These unions exist not to do better work, serve the people, or promote quality. They exist to protect and promote employees, even if work suffers, and that means poor service for the public.
Clean house. Incompetence, overly politicized people, folks who have been using their position improperly or corruptly all need to be fired and cleared out of government. That means from the top down to the mailroom. Get them all out.
Put better people in to run the place, aggressively seeking high quality leadership from the private sector.
Return a focus on service and patriotism to the job, rather than being just a place to work or where you push a certain political agenda.
Regularly restructure leadership and members over time. Leaving bureaucrats in place for 5 administrations in a row is a recipe for disaster.

Interestingly, the Inspectors General seem to be a very important step that has already been done. These guys are being massacred by the Obama administration for doing their job, but auditing and overseeing these agencies to make sure they do their job properly is one step I'd have suggested but is already in place. I have one caveat though: I'd clear out any the Obama administration has seen put into place, because I suspect they're less in place to keep people on the straight and narrow than to better serve union and Democrat interests.

Do all this stuff and you'll have a smaller, cheaper, leaner government that will tend to serve the people more than special interests, unions, and political parties. There will always be problems, but there's no reason to leave an atmosphere in place that encourages the problems to take place.

*UPDATE: a few more thoughts. When those in leadership get away with not just failure but criminality and protect their allies from just punishment for wrongdoing, that results in the people under them seeing no reason to avoid wrongdoing as well. If you can get away with just ignoring taxes for years at a time, that's going to give the impression that you're in the same category and safe from consequence. If you combine that with no reason to do good either, the result is lousy work.

Ultimately the only solution is a bottom up change in ethics, a virtuous public which produces an ethical government. Only when people have good within them will they project good outside. The answers I gave above are policy and structural changes that would help facilitate a shift, but the real answer is that we need an ethical population to work in government, producing better workers who do better work.

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