The Unfair FAIR Act

The Thinker by Rodin

Because I guess the federal government does not have enough to do, it is time to throw a little fear, uncertainty and doubt at my agency. The Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act, or the FAIR Act for short, requires the government to examine every position with a fine toothcomb to determine if a federal position is “inherently governmental”. If it is, good news for the federal employee: job security. If it is not, the news may not be so good. Then the agency has to go through a rather costly, stupid and pointless process to prove that the private sector cannot do the same work cheaper.

In theory, this sounds like a good deal for the taxpayer. In practice, it is pennywise and pound-foolish. The FAIR Act has finally raised its head in my agency. It looks like in the next year or so my little world will undergo a FAIR Act evaluation. About a year ago, I was asked to use their bizarre codes to lump my employees into job categories. You can see some of them here. Since my people are in the information technology business, they fell under the “W” series of function codes. The function codes are relatively straightforward. The logic gets dubious because someone must also make a judgment as to whether the work is potentially commercial in nature. There are six reason codes from which to choose. I do not want to say the deck is stacked, but it is tough to give all but the highest management positions a 100% inherently governmental rating.

Take my job. Someone decided that the supervisory part of my job is commercial in nature. The management part is not. I am not entirely clear what the difference is and the dictionary is of little help. Anyhow, the powers that be, when they tried to put the square peg that is my job into the round hole of the Excel spreadsheet agencies must use to categorize employees decided that 75% of my job was commercial. Yes, supervision can be contracted out. Any dumb contractor can apparently walk around to see if someone is at their desk and appears to be doing work. The making decisions on behalf of the government, supposedly 25% of my job, are inherently governmental. Therefore, my job is apparently not safe from the grim reaper of outsourcing either. I imagine the three of us unit chiefs could easily be replaced by one federal employee, who spends his day doing nothing but pure “management”.

Here is my idea of what supervision is: making sure the people working for me do what they are supposed to do. It also includes ensuring they perform an honest day’s work, approving leave, scheduling training, job counseling and performance appraisals. How much of my time do I actually spend supervising? At most, it amounts to 10%. Why? Because I am not managing an assembly line. Every one of my employees is largely self-directed. At most they need a little guidance from me. They are not morons. In most cases, I could not do their work without a lot of training, so I am hardly qualified to tell them how to do their work. In short, like most federal employees GS-12 and above, they are all professionals. They should not need much in the way of supervision because they have college degrees, have a work ethic and take pride in their job. They need and easily work from a set of goals that I give them.

What is management? Doubtless, my definition will not meet whatever criteria the White House dreamed up, but it involves making and implementing decisions, based on firm guidance from my management. Within my sphere of control though, my decisions are sacrosanct. That makes the work management. The only difference though between my job and those of my employees is that they cannot make decisions on how others will spend their time unless I specifically delegate that responsibility. Of course, I routinely do just that. They are after all, professionals, not morons. Consequently, my team leader has his position rated at 50% management. It is actually likely more than that.

All of my employees were recently emailed their FAIR scores. Most of them have positions that are potentially commercial. Job title: information technology specialist. Sounds like it can be outsourced. Database administrator? It is just another commodity available on the open market. At least this is what passes for logic in the FAIR Act regulations. Employees might as well be hamburgers.

Except, of course, they are not. Why? Of course, they are people with families and commitments. But also my employees are in the hydrology business. Understanding the world of hydrology is critical to their effectiveness. You would be hard pressed to find too many universities in the United States that even offer degrees in hydrology. One could beat the bushes hoping to find people who have some skills in hydrology, information technology and legacy computer languages like Fortran. Good luck, I doubt there are many of them out there. To be optimized though they also tend to need a decade or two steeped in the culture of my agency. You need all three things to be effective in most of the jobs in my part of the federal government.

None of my employees are expendable. Unless the government makes the strategic decision to abandon more than a hundred years of science and get out of the water data collection business, we will keep doing measuring and monitoring ground and surface water for the nation. Moreover, my employees will continue to be engaged in collecting the information and putting it out there for the public. The public has a right to the information. After all, they paid for it.

In fact, the sure way to throw a monkey wrench into our science is to do just what the FAIR Act seems to want to do: replace most of my federal staff with off the shelf contract programmers. If this agency is like the last agency I worked for, most will be from India and here on H1-B visas. That agency did not save any money at all, since contractors routinely bill 100% overhead so they can make a profit. (Hint: the government is not in the business of making a profit.) My old agency was required to cut the number of federal positions. “Inherently governmental” in my old agency meant supervision or project management. If you were neither, sorry Charlie. Fortunately, learning the grants management business is a bit simpler than learning the hydrology business. Grants management is just another information system at heart. Hydrology is not. It is a specialized science.

So although it is not fair, we will doubtless go through this FAIR Act nonsense, which is required every five years for every position in the federal government. My employees are already nervous and I get the sense that some are quaking in their boots. All of them are superb, finely optimized and give far more in time and brilliance than the forty hours for which they are paid. Nevertheless, apparently we must treat them as commodities. The bottom line is whether according to the wacky FAIR benchmarks some beltway bandit can do the job cheaper. If so, some of them may be out of a job.

I seriously doubt in a truly fair competition that any private company could compete with us. However, according to the unfair FAIR Act their positions are fungible. They are just modern assembly line workers, easily replaced. Perhaps a contractor could do the work cheaper. Arguably, they do not come with annoying things like benefits and pensions. However, it is unlikely that any contractor also comes with dedication and passion to my agency’s mission. They will work their eight hours and then check out. In addition, it will be up to what is left of management to monitor their work to ensure fair value to the government. (Wait, that is supervision. Monitoring can be contracted out too! Therefore, no accountability is required. I am beginning to understand the ultimate nefarious purpose of the FAIR Act at work.)

I am sure there are legitimate cases where our work should be outsourced. They were outsourced long ago. It does not make any sense to me to have federal employees serving food in the cafeteria or cleaning the restrooms. However, any position that requires intimate and sustained domain knowledge of the agency’s mission should not be outsourced. We want these people to stick around. We do not want them dashing from contract to contract. Replacing just one of my employees with a contractor would require at least 1-2 years before they would be as productive as a federal employee. Moreover, they would have no incentive to stick around.

Of course, our executives, like the leadership of federal agencies everywhere, are under enormous pressure. Therefore, even though they know a lot of this outsourcing makes no sense, they must press forward anyhow. It is the law. They must salute and give the illusion that saving a few bucks is not counterproductive.

I do hope we get new leadership in both the Congress and the White House that is more sensible. At a minimum, the FAIR Act needs a major overhaul. Supposedly, the law is tuned to ensure best value for the government. The reality is that under the current rules, federal employees are at a significant and unfair disadvantage.

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