Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Bureaus Drop Their Drawers


It seems that one government agency after another is falling into disgrace after being exposed for incompetence . In some cases, even some “senior management” has been let go, so you know things are getting serious. And we're not talking about agencies no one has ever heard of, or loser agencies like HUD, or agencies populated by homicidal maniacs like BATF. These are serious outfits with a serious, and publicly acknowledged, mission... and while the mission may be unconstitutional in some or all cases, at least it is designed to answer a tangible need, and its failure has tangible consequences. In the last few months, the following have been shown to have feet of clay: The IRS; the VA; the Secret Service; and, most recently, the CDC. And this does not include agencies like the FDA and EPA, which chronically operate under a well-deserved cloud of suspicion.

Now, one thing you will find in nearly all of these cases is politicization – or, let's say, over-politicization, since no government agency can possibly be entirely free of politics, because, after all, it was created by politicians for political reasons, and answers to politicians. I'm referring to the process by which political considerations begin to erode, eat into, and eventually override the original mission, to the point where the agency and its functions turn into a political arm of the party in power. And there is nothing new about this, I hasten to add; the phenomenon was already in full bloom during the New Deal. But in these times, places that should be “above all that” are showing that, far from being above it all, they are mired in it.


And the thing is... well, I guess we're still na├»ve and childlike when it comes to these things, because there is always great shock and dismay with each new revelation. Perhaps we should be more cynical and world-weary, the way the Europeans are; they expect corruption and self-serving in government, and when it happens it's, ho-hum, pass the vino. But we persist in expecting better – in expecting our leaders to act like... well, like exceptional people rather than the way ordinary slobs would act if you gave them a huge amount of money and power, with little or no accountability and rewards that have nothing to do with performance.  We have not, in other words, fully come to terms with human nature and its inevitable corrupting effects on any sort of collective activity, government being the first and foremost. It's not that politicians are inevitably worse than anyone else (though some seem to be), it's that they are weak, venal, and easily seduced. For them, power is an opportunity for self-advancement and vainglory, and if the public accidentally gets served once in a while, well, that's OK too, but we can't have too much of it, because then they'll only expect more.


The other thing to bear in mind as these stories trickle down from the seats of power is this: What is the nature of bureaucracy, and of bureaucrats? Well, for starters, Job #1 of any government agency is self-preservation, and some of them spend the bulk of their resources on that one thing – just staying in business, keeping their jobs, perks, and pay. There is a “mission” somewhere, of course – you know, the ostensible reason the agency and its program were created – but it is easily obscured by day-to-day survival needs. And why is this? Well, it starts with budgets, and at any given time every government agency is working on a handful of budgets: Executing this year's, finalizing next year's, proposing budgets for 2, 3, 5, 10 years out, and so on. And when it comes to execution, there is such a thing as “budget defense”; if you're not spending this year's money fast enough, someone is going to come along and take it away from you – and take it from me, there are people in the government whose primary function is to keep an eye on the budgets of nearby (in organizational or mission terms) agencies to see who might be ripe for the plucking.  And when they spot an easy mark, they go whining to someone up the line and say "Hey, those guys aren't spending their money, and here we are with all sorts of wonderful programs that are underfunded.  Waaah!"  And it gets results.


Then, on top of budgets, we have personnel issues – authorized positions or “slots” -- and the main goal there is to maintain grade level (which implies salary). And again, as with budget, this is a 24/7/365 job; it never ends. But just maintaining positions isn't enough either – you also have to maintain actual live bodies. But – you might say – aren't these the same thing? No, not in government. You can have authorized slots but no authorization to actually fill them... or, less frequently, you can be authorized to hire people but have no authorized slots to put them in.  And this is usually because the different types of authorization are done by completely different agencies.


Incredible, you say? Grossly inefficient? No argument – but I guarantee that this is how the government works (or doesn't work) on a day-to-day basis. 

And we still haven't gotten around to the actual mission! First we have to talk about hiring – and a government manager can't just go out and hire anyone he or she wants for a given position. Oh no. There are lists... there are people referred to as “stoppers”, i.e. forced out of another agency because of a reduction in force, and they become first in line for your opening, even if they are clearly less qualified than any number of other candidates. Then there is the “point system” where you get points for being a veteran, or for having any of a myriad of handicaps or demographic (i.e. “minority”) characteristics. I used to joke that the ideal job applicant in government would be a lesbian albino Inuit paraplegic – and this is not as exaggerated as you think. A person with those credentials could get a job anywhere in government, with any job description, at any rank, no questions asked – and why? Because the “human resources” office of the agency would get to check off multiple “affirmative action” boxes and look fantastic when the next audit rolled around.


So – if that's the impenetrable jungle called “hiring” in the government, what about “firing”? That's an easy one – there's no such thing. Oh, technically there are policies and procedures when it comes to “termination”, but the requirements are so onerous than managers are typically unwilling to even start. And this, by the way, holds true whether the employee is a union member or not. (I do recall one manager who spent most of his time for an entire year in order to get rid of one incompetent subordinate. Did the mission suffer as a result? Perhaps – but he (the manager) said that, hey, if that's what the system demands, that's what it's gonna get.) What is more typical is that the “dead wood”, “retired in place” types are put in a corner (figuratively, and sometimes literally as well) where they won't get in the way, and allowed to wait out their time undisturbed. The risk in this case is that a given office in an agency may become a kind of rest home or day-care center for these types, with the result that the entire office is sidelined and its mission (assuming it even had one) is transferred over to a group whose members still have a pulse.

And these are, by and large, threats from without; I won't burden you with a discussion of the everyday internal plotting, scheming, undercutting, and backbiting, because I don't think that government is at all unique in this regard.  


OK, so... where were we? Oh yes, the mission. Now, assuming there is any time left after all the above considerations are dealt with, the competent or at least semi-competent remnant has an actual job to do. So what can possibly go wrong at this point? Well... this is where politics rears its ugly head.  Because, as I said, every program in every agency has some sort of political implications, some more obvious than others.  And if you doubt this, just try terminating a program or putting an agency out to pasture -- then you'll find out where the vested interests are, and they are invariably vocal in their protests, and know exactly who to protest to.

But the real trouble starts when someone in Congress, say, develops an "interest" in your program, and decides that they need a briefing, or to make a visit -- and these events often result in some sort of, let's say, "suggestions" as to how to "improve" the program, or how to "restate" the statistics in order to support a political agenda.  And this is usually a gradual, erosive -- or corrosive -- process, and with each cycle through the political checkpoint the agency and its programs become more and more politicized, until what they are accomplishing (if anything) is little more than validating someone's political stance.  And when some snooper starts asking questions, we see the well-practiced process of "damage control" AKA "covering your butt".  Damage control becomes necessary when an agency is, basically, caught with its pants down (usually not literally).  It's sort of like the old saying, "You can't cheat an honest man" -- an agency that is doing its job properly should not have to cover its butt, but one that is politicized will spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that. 

So this is that stage that the agencies mentioned above are at.  They cooperated in their own demise as honest brokers -- in many cases starting years or decades ago -- and now that they're caught and exposed, it's as if all of the misdeeds happened at once, overnight.  But this is not the case; it's the result of a long, drawn-out process.  The deeper one digs, the more clear it becomes that the corruption is chronic and profound -- and the main question at that point is, can this agency be saved?  Or would we be better off just closing it down and starting over?  (This has been seriously proposed with regard to the IRS, for example.)  The problem with that, based on historical evidence, is that you can close an agency down but the people in it will just scuttle off and hide somewhere else, and continue to cause damage.  Plus, that original mission may still be needed, and it will be transplanted over to a new agency or turned over to some other agency, which starts the cycle over again. 

People who say that the main problem is the size of government are ignoring the things that inevitably happen in government, regardless of size -- and these are based on human fallibility and concupiscence.  These things can never be entirely eliminated, but a combination of reducing size and clarifying missions would certainly help -- along with simply closing agencies that no longer have a mission that makes sense, or that have made such a shambles of their mission that it must be declared "mission impossible".  You can't stop the politicization process, but making it possible to not only fire people but actually force them out of the government once and for all would be a major step. 

Then there's the question of term limits.  (Did I mention that I had a dream?) 

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