Monday, February 6, 2017

Doom at the Top

The Trump people are already feeling the effects. There is an easy assumption that all you have to do is get elected to the presidency, appoint key subordinates (including cabinet-level posts), get your agenda rolling, and extend your span of control far and wide throughout the bureaucracy and to the farthest corners of the earth, and a new day will dawn. But no – the people at the top generally prefer to stay at the top, where there is sunshine and fresh air, and innumerable “perks”, and either cannot or will not dig deep into the heart of the bureaucracy in order to detect and weed out hostile forces.

Compare it, let's say, to buying an old, rambling, broken-down house with countless rooms, wings, basements, attics, stairways, secret passages, closets, and hallways leading to nowhere – a veritable hive of inactivity, or of activity of the wrong kind. This would pretty much match what happens when a political appointee takes over a government department. And you can move into this house, title deed in hand, assuming that because you're there, your mere presence will suffice to turn things around and cure all the inherent ills. But this is not the case. It's the same house that it was the day before you (ill-advisedly, perhaps) bought it – and unless you hire an army of exterminators to get rid of all the rats, mice, cockroaches, parasites, hangers-on, and subversives, you might as well not even be there... and it will become a source of endless frustration and, ultimately, a tarnished reputation and political defeat.

I have first-hand experience with this. I've seen political appointees come and go. Some of them are just passing through – day trippers on the way to bigger and better things – and they seldom make waves or bother anyone down in the trenches. They are political animals, basically – ambitious, but superficial – lacking a theoretical base of any sort. Smiles and handshakes, and the occasional briefing, are their legal tender, and as long as they can be “large and in charge” they're happy. And this, by the way, holds true no matter which department or agency we're talking about; it's a universal syndrome. No part of the government, no matter how exalted, is immune from this problem or from these people.

And then there's the other kind. Two kinds, actually. The first is relatively benign – they show up with ideas, a program, an agenda, which may involve “draining the swamp” but is more likely to be limited to “good words” about efficiency, cost-effectiveness, eliminating waste, leadership, good management, serving the interests of “customers” and “stakeholders”, and contributing to the accomplishment of the stated mission of the department or agency (assuming that it has a stated mission, and that anyone can remember where they put it). These people can, on rare occasions, do a bit of good, but they are more likely to disrupt things by imposing management fads, leadership theories, and endless surveys and get-togethers for the rank and file (which, by the way, are typically viewed as good things because it's time off work). They may show up in person at some of these confabs, attempting to cajole, inspire, and set an example of good grooming and appropriate business attire. And they may feel that they're doing good, but eventually it dawns on them that nothing has changed – the bureaucracy is every bit as entrenched, rigid, ossified, and inefficient as it was the day they arrived. So they move on, with much waving of handkerchiefs -- “Well, he (she) wasn't bad, he (she) tried, but you know how it is.” -- with a faint smile and chuckle. Back to business as usual!

The second other kind is another matter entirely. It's the most dangerous, vicious animal in the jungle. I'm talking about the political appointee who somehow manages to wind up heading up a department or agency, but who, in fact, hates it and all that it stands for, and therefore hates all the people who work there. How these people get appointed has always been a mystery to me. Are they appointed on purpose, by a president or official who shares their outlook? I think more often it's a matter of their expressing an “interest” in whatever it is – the mission – and also having some sort of alleged “expertise” or at least experience in the area in question. (It would be like a wolf expressing an “interest” in the Department of Sheep.) But their true agenda comes into full bloom on Day One, and it's as if they're wreaking vengeance on everyone for some real or imagined slight or offense. (Think of the stereotypical 90-pound weakling suddenly being put in charge of an agency full of all of the bullies who have ever kicked sand in his face.) And of course you can count on them to bring along an army of, basically, goons and hit-men (hit-women) to aid in the pursuit. (These latter are the true mercenaries and sociopaths in the system. They are allowed to run amok for a time, and when they have wreaked a suitable level of destruction they move on to other pursuits, either elsewhere in the system or in the private sector, leaving scorched earth and a battlefield strewn with bodies in their wake.)

But does the bureaucracy take whatever these people dish out lying down? Not a bit of it. They may shrink from open defiance, but they do have ways of coping – many of which resemble the behavior of the slaves of old, who would bow, scrape, and flash smiles at their master while at the same time plotting ways to thwart his every wish and, in extreme cases, exterminate him. And believe me, the meek and lowly are tuned in to the foibles and weaknesses of their oppressors, and do not hesitate to blow whistles or drop dimes when the time is ripe. The slightest sign of vulnerability is a signal for the peasant revolt to begin.

So what this adds up to is that a political appointee who is magically placed at the top of a very large pyramid may have good intentions, evil intentions, or see it as a mere stepping stone, but in all cases the lowly serfs down in the trenches will go about their business as if he (she) doesn't exist – which, on any given day and for all intents and purposes, they don't. And yet it's these people – the army of faceless serfs – that has a lot more to do with the operations of the organization, and its success or failure, than the member of the privileged elite at the top of the totem pole. They are masters in the art of passive-aggressiveness, for one thing – throwing the occasional monkey wrench into the works so that things go somewhat wrong, but no one can be singled out for blame. They are studied practitioners of the great slowdown, or of working to the letter – doing the minimum (or even less, but appearing to do the minimum) – not enough to earn a bad rating or reprimand, but enough to make the operation at least temporarily grind to a halt.

And the motives for all of this are many and varied. There may be genuine resentment toward “that political type who doesn't know anything about what we do here”, or it may be a more global, baseline resentment toward a stifling system – one that offers job security in exchange for, basically, giving up all self-respect and ambition. (“Hope and change” would be the least appropriate motto possible for the government bureaucracy. I question whether it's even that realistic for political appointees. There are way too many people hanging around Washington looking for a plum job, and way too few plum jobs to go around, even though the bureaucracy expands each and every day.)

And so far I'm just talking about systemic issues. If you add political considerations to the mix, things get even worse. For starters, the bureaucracy is staffed with, guess what, human beings. And those human beings, as dull and listless as many of them appear to be, nonetheless have political leanings, loyalties, and points of view. And this tends to be correlated with the department or agency in question. Nor surprisingly, people who work for the Department of Labor, EPA, and HUD tend to be on the liberal/progressive/activist side, and people who work for defense and the intel agencies tend to be more conservative, although this is by no means guaranteed. (I'm sure you can come up with many other examples.) Now, when the political appointee who takes over at the top is from, let's say, Party A, and he (she) takes over a department or agency whose employees are more or less in synch with Party A's platform, things go along fairly well (with all of the caveats described above, of course). But let a Party A appointee take over a department or agency staffed with Party B types, and you can expect passive-aggressive behavior nigh unto gridlock. And it may not even be the case that the appointee is one of the “slash and burn” types – they may merely be trying to redirect the mission and efforts of the department more in the direction that their political convictions dictate. (In the case of defense, the Republicans will tend to favor weapons system acquisition, combat training, and readiness, while Democrats will tend to favor social experimentation and providing jobs.) (I note that actually winning wars has become passe as a motive for pretty much everyone.)

With all of the above in mind, the miracle is not that the bureaucracy is as wasteful and ineffective as it is, but that things aren't worse. Like the few righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah, there is a modicum of competence and conscientiousness in the bureaucracy, particularly among those who are able to largely ignore politics, power struggles, infighting, and game-playing. (They must also be self-motivated and have self-esteem independent of their circumstances.) Any government agency has a few people in it who just want to get things done, and they are typically swimming against the current. Others may be more or less neutral -- “paper pushers” -- neither adding nor deleting value (other than encumbering a position and collecting a salary). And others may be “part of the problem” -- creatures of the system who have been conditioned (through a distorted array of rewards and punishments) to seek their own interests and undermine the interests of others -- to play a zero-sum game at best, and more often a negative-sum game.  I used to wonder if these “types” could have ever worked anywhere except in the government, where there is no profit motive, where it's nearly impossible to fire anyone, and where “process” typically takes precedence over “product”. One might as well ask if drug addicts are born that way; I think they are created, and that the system creates bureaucrats. They could have been some other way, but that fork in the road has receded into the mists of time, so here they are... and anyone who comes in at the top had better take them into account, because on any given day they are the ones who are really in charge.

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