Civil servants and true patriotism in the age of Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

Many people who wouldn’t ordinarily petition the government are petitioning the Trump Administration and Congress these days. They include my wife and me who have petitioned, assembled and protested many times since Trump’s inauguration.

Perhaps the most effective of these were members of the disability rights community that visited House and Senate office buildings recently for sit-in protests. The images of Capitol Police removing these protesters by force fighting for their Medicaid benefits, some in wheelchairs and with oxygen masks, was devastatingly effective. It likely contributed to the defeat of the so-called health care reform bill the Senate rejected last week. Mainly though protesters make a mark through persistence and by showing up. In some ways the reactions due to these protests are more telling than the protests themselves. Republican legislators by in large are canceling town halls, not meeting with their constituents and when they meet only meet carefully screen partisans of a similar bent.

Some ways of protesting are more opaque. I am speaking of our federal civil service, comprised of approximately 2.8 million people. Until three years ago, I too was in the civil service. And I remember the civil service oath to which I swore allegiance:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Notice that the oath requires civil servants to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. It does not require civil servants to follow blindly order by the president or their chain of command. By inference civil servants must uphold laws both just and unjust, even if they personally object to the laws. (An obvious example was Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for her refusal to issue same sex marriage licenses.)

Since most civil servants are in the executive branch, the President is their ultimate boss. The President’s job is to also uphold the constitution and its derived laws. It’s abundantly clear to civil servants that Trump is not being faithful to his oath. This leaves civil servants between a rock and a hard place. When their directed duties conflict with their oath to administer the law as written, what should they do?

Some are resigning and being noisy about it, including the U.S. government’s chief ethics officer. Those resigning though are but a tiny portion of the total civil service. Few civil servants have the option to resign and find another comparable job elsewhere. Others are opting for retirement rather than violate their oath. Some unknown numbers realize that Trump has crossed a line and are fighting for the Constitution where they can. They are resisting in ways that they feel are appropriate by slowing down the gears of government in what looks like passive aggressive if not unlawful behavior.

In my 32 years in the civil service I served six presidents, from Carter (briefly) through Obama. The two most disturbing presidents I served under were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. I was deeply disturbed by Bush, but one area where I worried Bush’s actions might be in conflict with my duty to the constitution was when he created offices of faith-based initiative in all departments. These offices amounted to special gateways within federal departments for religious communities to get federal money. At the time I worked at the Humphrey Building on the Mall, headquarters for the Department of Health and Human Services. The faith-based initiative office was right there in the lobby on the first floor. I felt the conflict every day when I walked into my building. I was fortunate that I did not have to support the office with my I.T. skills. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been required to do so. It’s quite possible I too would have resigned because the office was in my mind a very clear violation of the constitution, which requires separation of state from church.

As bad a president as Bush was, Trump is magnitudes worse. Virtually every department is affected by changes he is trying to bring, and many of these changes introduce serious ethical conflicts. The EPA is being directed by Scott Pruitt not to enforce laws that it is required to enforce and is being forced to remove climate change data from its website even though it is part of its mission, the information was collected with taxpayer dollars and is by law available to anyone. The FDA is being asked to speed up the approval of drugs at the potential cost of safety. The State Department is being hollowed out. Our new Secretary of the Interior is trying to reduce the size of national monuments already approved, like the Bears Ears monument in Utah. He is also trying to open up other monuments and parks to commercial use, such as mineral extraction and drilling violating both the spirit and likely the law itself. Most recently, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions is directing his department to engage in blatantly discriminatory work. What should an ethical civil servant do?

32 years in the civil service taught me that presidents come and go, but laws are relatively static. Laws have staying power, so directives by the administration to abborgate or ignore certain laws tend to be short lived. The Trump era will pass, and likely long before his term ends. Civil servants though have a duty first to the constitution. Moreover they, not their bosses, are the ultimate enforcers of the law. So civil servants can (and are doing plenty) to slow down and obfuscate directives that change the intent of Congress or violate the spirit of the constitution. Mostly these are career middle managers. Obviously there is controversy when they take these actions, most of which are hard to see.

Are their actions lawful? Ultimately it becomes a matter of individual judgment and conscience, although if a criminal case is made of their behavior a judge might get to weigh in. Some are not happy that civil servants have any higher duty. One bill by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) would allow a civil servant to be fired for any reason or even no reason. The civil service was formed in the 19th century specifically to prevent cronyism and help ensure that civil servants can faithfully enforce the rule of law. Right now civil servants have an independent grievance process (ultimately overseen by the U.S. Merit System Protection Board) for adverse actions.

Secretaries and agency heads also swear to uphold the constitution and the law. The president can fire most of these who don’t do so. But what if the president does not believe in his own oath to uphold the constitution and our laws? That is Trump’s obvious problem. The remedy is impeachment and removal from office, although Trump may qualify for removal via the 25th amendment.

Meanwhile, those civil servants who choose to stay and work to enforce existing law (and they are usually in the best position to understand what the law is) remain in a sort of Twilight Zone, with no clear guidance and only their conscience as their guide. In spirit though those called to conscience to put the law before their orders are patriotic and faithful to their oath, even if their actions are hard to detect and seem sneaky and covert. As long as they adhere to the intent of the law they enforce (unlike Kim Davis) their actions are patriotic.

True Americans should applaud their courage and their patriotism. I certainly do!

Kim Davis’s rights are apparently more equal than yours

The Thinker by Rodin

Kim Davis, the elected county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky is sitting in a jail in Ashland, Kentucky tonight. She is in jail after being held in contempt of court by a U.S. district court judge for refusing to issue marriage licenses. The thrice-married Davis has been refusing all applicants (gay and straight) since the Supreme Court ruled in June that no state could prohibit two people of the same sex from marrying.

Davis says she cannot issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians because gay marriage contradicts her sincerely held religious beliefs, i.e. her freedom of religion. She is an apostolic Christian and she believes that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Five of her six deputies who were also called to the hearing have seen the light and plan to issue marriage licenses starting tomorrow. The other deputy, curiously Davis’s son, is not in jail.

Unsurprisingly this is national news. Both sides have been hanging outside the courthouse yipping it up at each other. To most Republicans it’s pretty cut and dry stuff. They have been promoting freedom of religion for a while as a way to selectively circumvent the law. Unfortunately for Davis, her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that she must follow the law. Davis meanwhile seems to be suffering from a case of cognitive dissonance, unable to reconcile her oath to uniformly execute the law with her religious beliefs. It looks like God is winning, at least for the moment. It remains unclear if she will see the secular light, linger indefinitely in jail as a cause celebre or do the honorable thing for someone in these cases: resign.

Republicans definitely seem energized by this “freedom of religion equals freedom to discriminate” argument. This is hardly surprising but it certainly is curious. An oath is a solemn secular promise, and Davis swore it when she entered her elective office that pays a comfortable $80,000 a year (great money in rural Kentucky). An oath is a requirement of being in the civil service. I ought to know because for thirty-two years I was a federal civil servant. When our careers began we all raised our hand and swore the same oath: that we would faithfully serve the constitution of the United States. (Curiously I had to end it with “So help me God,” although I was an agnostic.) Davis is not a federal civil servant, but it’s likely that her oath contained similar words.

While I was a civil servant, upholding the oath was not just the law and a good idea, not following the oath was grounds for my dismissal and/or possible other criminal penalties. In 32 years I served five presidents from Jimmy Carter (very briefly) to Barack Obama. The presidents I served frequently wrote stupid executive orders, and some of them were deeply offensive to me. Congress wasn’t much better with the laws it was passing. For much of that time I was a Unitarian Universalist. Although its adherents have no creed to profess, lots of stuff I had to do contradicted my religious beliefs. The first part of my career was with the Department of Defense. I aided in the printing of maps and charts used to direct our armed forces, sometimes to kill people. As part of holding a security clearance I could not disclose things that I knew. To this day I still can’t, and some of the stuff I learned shook me to the core and was both personally offensive and violated my religious beliefs. To get a security clearance in the first place I had to swear I wasn’t a homosexual. (This fortunately has changed.)

While working at a more benign department, Health and Human Services, I had to sometimes provide support to the office that promoted President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. This was pretty obvious to me a violation of the boundaries between church and state, but I shut up about it while expressing my opinions freely outside the office. I didn’t like it, but Bush had been constitutionally elected and if it was unconstitutional, it was an issue for the courts. So like Kim Davis, there were many aspects to my job that rubbed me the wrong way. I knew if it became too much to bear that there was an alternative: resign and find a job without these conflicts. Davis has that option right now. All she has to do is use it and she gets a get out of jail free card, quite literally.

Oaths are there for a very good reason: government can’t run if civil servants can selectively decide which parts of the law they will follow or ignore: laws can become toothless if they are not uniform. These same Republicans who are gung ho supporting Davis’s religious rights would not for a moment allow it from a soldier who refused to fight. “It’s against the commandments to kill, sergeant. Sorry, I’ll opt out of this battle. Maybe the next one if it’s not lethal.” It won’t work for the food inspector with a sincere religious belief against GMOs. It won’t work for the judge who refuses to give a mandatory sentence. Our constitution says that the Supreme Court gets to decide what is constitutional, the court decided it about gay marriage and it conflicted with her religious beliefs. The constitutional approach if she doesn’t like their decision is to push for a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage.

Instead, Davis’s response was to deny all who came to her the right to marry. In doing so she violated couples’ civil right to marriage and all the benefits that come with marriage. Her “right” to freedom of religion effectively trumped the rights of lots of others and put others through unnecessary hassle, expense and emotional trauma.

It should be obvious that any right that restricts someone else’s rights is not a real right. But that’s essentially the argument she and Republicans are making, and in her case she is doing while executing the law. If all civil servants had the right to rewrite or sidestep laws they don’t agree with while retaining their position, government would be mostly dysfunctional.

Republicans basically want anarchy anyhow, so maybe that’s why they are cheering her on. They are cheering anyone who will push policies that they agree with, legally or illegally. It’s affecting the ends they want that matter, and most are not principled enough to see this is both illegal and wrong. This variant on the freedom of religion ruse is just one more.

Fortunately, at least U.S. District Judge David Bunning gets it. A fine would not be enough here. Right-wingers would simply set up a fund that would allow her to flaunt the law indefinitely. So I feel no pity for her whatsoever. If her convictions are as sincere as she claims, the honorable thing to do is to resign. Otherwise, she should follow the rule of law for her public position that she swore to uphold and for which she is paid to uphold. Or she can choose to rot in jail on principle, which is fine with me.

Update 9/4/15 – Clarified post to note that Davis’s son has not been jailed.

Laughing all the way: Parks and Recreation

The Thinker by Rodin

No question about it: NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a funny sitcom! The NBC TV series will begin its seventh and final season next month. I on the other hand have just recently discovered it, and am streaming past episodes on Netflix.

I have found that I tend to binge on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes I will watch four episodes in a sitting, which is not a hard thing to do since each show is about twenty minutes when you take out the commercials. Then I will take a break for a week or two. As I get more and more into the series, I can’t seem to wait that long. Sometimes I watch it during the day. I just can’t seem to stop!

The series stars Amy Poehler as the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a “mocumentary” from the creators of The Office (American version). I have tried to get into The Office but it never took. Parks and Recreation on the other hand was easy for me to like, in part because it’s about the civil service, and I inhabited that world for thirty plus years. Granted that I was a federal employee, and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her crew are city employees, but it feels familiar. With the exception of Leslie, most of the people working at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department though fall into the stereotype of civil servants that spend more time goofing off than working. This is particularly true of their director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Despite the fact that he does almost nothing, he is hoping to become city administrator and then to get rid of his department. Ron you see is a libertarian, but not just a run of the mill libertarian, but a severe libertarian. He wants the parks contracted out to the private sector and would like these companies to charge kids to see ducks.

Leslie is just the opposite and basically runs the whole department with cheerfulness, aplomb and dedication. It’s just that her employees emulate her boss for the most part. They include her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a skinny and short guy of Indian ancestry but born in South Carolina with a green card marriage to a doctor from Canada but with a passion to run a nightclub. It also includes April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) whose job is to keep the public from seeing Ron Swanson, Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) as a large fifty-something career civil servant on the cusp of retirement and Donna Meagle (Retta) as a snappy, fast-talking black woman with an attitude. Hanging outside the office and occasionally inside it are ancillary characters Andy Dwyer (“shoe shine boy”), Leslie’s friend Anne and toward the later half of the second season Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), sent by the state of Indiana to help run city government, which had gotten badly mismanaged.

The mocumentary style is now well refined. The camera becomes an unseen presence that the characters interact around and with, although rarely explicitly. This gives us insight into the intimacies of each character and actually kicks up the level of entertainment. The comedy of the show of course comes from the interaction of these characters and the slow soap operas of their lives that continue incrementally from show to show. Individually no character is particularly memorable, but as an ensemble they prove most entertaining. They become more entertaining as you get to know each of them and their backstories.

Not every show is a hit but all are funny to some extent and some had me actually on the floor laughing hysterically. I watch these alone as my wife is not into mocumentaries, and it’s just as well because falling off your chair from laughter is kind of embarrassing, particularly when snot starts running out of your nose. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV series so there were doubtless many other funny TV series that I missed over the years. I can say honestly though that I have never laughed so hard at a TV sitcom in more than thirty years, since WKRP in Cincinnati entertained us for four seasons starting in 1978.

I am just starting the third season so there is plenty more laughter ahead. Most of the laughter evolves around Leslie, Ron, April and Tom. Some of the funniest episodes though involve characters that appear irregularly. Leslie’s boss Ron is a twice divorcee, one with the chief librarian of the city named Tammy (Megan Mullally). Ron and Tammy have a deeply dysfunctional hot/cold relationship. Apparently about once a season the writers invent a reason for them to come together again, and the fireworks that happen when they do are not to be missed. So far these shows have been the comic highlights of the series for me, but there are also many shows that individually are great gems. “Greg Pikitis” from Season 2, which was immediately followed by the first “Ron and Tammy” episode, were two back-to-back shows that had me laughing and careening off my chair and onto the floor. Both of these shows were particularly inspired and should have won awards for the longest periods of sustained and hysterical laughter. There are also a number of periodically recurring characters to enjoy, such as the smarmy skinny TV hostess of “Pawnee Today”, Joan Callamezzo.

As a portrayal of the civil service, the show largely goes for stereotypes. I haven’t worked in city government, but it was my experience that with a few exceptions most federal civil servants I worked with were focused, dedicated and talented. In Parks and Recreation the writers found more humor in portraying civil servants as dispassionate, web and text surfing bodies inhabiting desks. Leslie is the big exception, as was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), a city planner, who unfortunately left the show after the second season. Stereotypes aside, this is a comedy so laughs are the important metric. It’s nice though that at least some of the civil servants in the series come across as dedicated and professional.

In any event, the show seems to be hitting almost all of my laugh buttons. If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try. Season 1 is a little rough as the characters were just settling into place. Season 2 though should leave you fully hooked. Seven seasons apparently is all we’re going to get of life in the fictional town of Pawnee. I hope it’s not ending because the writers ran out of ways to make us laugh.

Furlough Diary, Day 3

The Thinker by Rodin

Our bathtub is looking real nice after its caulking yesterday. With time to spare and prohibited from even touching a government-owned device, this currently “non-excepted” i.e. furloughed federal employee has time to play Tooltime Tim. Unfortunately, I’m not terribly skilled at home improvement, given how I messed up my last three attempts to caulk our bathtub. It always comes out looking amateurish. Thanks to being furloughed, I had time to approach this problem in a more systematic way, which meant the innovation of going to YouTube and finding a video to see how professionals do it. Of course! I should have used masking tape! My new caulking now looks professionally done.

We’re not supposed to be doing any government business because the government doesn’t want to compensate us for it when no money is appropriated. Most federal employees I know simply don’t have an off switch. We are vested our work. Yeah, I know that goes against the stereotype of a federal employee as a lazy, unmotivated, obese grade C student. The truth is just the opposite. While I cannot do any work, I can, as a taxpayer, check the web sites I managed (well used to manage) to make sure they are still up. They are, probably thanks to Greg, the one “excepted” employee still at work, just forty-two elect in an agency with over 8000 employees. There are no employees in the field to calibrate any of the gauges reporting our real-time information, so it’s mostly running on autopilot, as is most of the “non-essential” federal government, despite that this data is needed for flood forecasting and all sorts of public safety needs. Maybe if it were our job to kill people instead of help save them then we would be excepted.

It’s a strange business being furloughed. It’s sort of like living in limbo. In past furloughs we were retroactively paid, but that is less likely this time with our ornery congress critters, who already forced many of us to take unpaid furloughs during the spring and summer, and are probably not in a mood to compensate us for their inability to simply do their jobs. While prohibited from doing actual work under penalty of law (but it’s hard to see how it can be enforced, with the enforcers likely furloughed as well), being furloughed also means you can be recalled at any time and if called in you must report. Which means looking for other work to fill the gap is not really an option, unless it is work that you can quit it at a moment’s notice.

Do you know any employers with these kinds of options? I don’t. I think panhandling qualifies, as long as you carry your cell phone with you so your boss can reach you. Moreover, if you feel so fed up with the whole furlough situation that you just decide to quit, well, good luck with that. The HR department is non-essential too, which means they are also furloughed.

Lincoln freed the slaves, but apparently an exception was left for furloughed federal employees who really cannot find employment elsewhere and thus cannot earn a living. Ironically, I have found a way to earn some money while furloughed. I have a small business as an IT consultant that I do on evenings and weekends. I can now do this work during the day and feel guiltless about it, providing I have some work to do. I do have some. One client wants to hire me to do some changes to their user interface, but is busy with a product release, thus I don’t have a good set of requirements to start work. My wife’s boss may give me some programming work, which is fine although I don’t know Python (I’m sure I can pick it up) but I can only do it if I can drop the work at a moment’s notice when and if I am called back to work. It looks like it’s going to be a long wait.

It’s a shame because I have plenty of time during the day which means while furloughed I could get this consulting work done immediately. Instead I am caulking the bathtub. And installing a new toilet seat. And buying cat food, hitting the BJs and the Wegmans. And blogging. In general, I am tackling all the chores I would do before we hope to put the house on the market in 2015. So there will be more caulking, painting, cleaning the deck and pulling weeds in the days, weeks and maybe even months ahead.

What is missing for me is the sense of dread I felt in 1995 and 1996, the last time federal employees were furloughed. Granted if this extends long enough, my feelings may morph to concern and then panic. I don’t feel the need to tighten my financial belts at the moment. We will keep spending as we always have and really I have no idea how to turn it off. How do I tell my wife not to go see the specialist she needs to see? How do I tell the credit union I don’t think it’s advisable for me to make my mortgage payment for a while that I am contractually required to make? Fortunately, my wife brings in some income and we have enough in savings to tie us over.

So my concern is not so much for me but for those much further down the federal civil service ladder, not to mention the huge array of contractors and businesses dependent on federal spending. Many of these GS-5 through GS-12 employees are living at the margins. It may not be popular to hear it but they generally earn considerably less than those in the private sector doing equivalent jobs. They work for the government in part because they like their work, are excited about their missions and in part because of the benefits, which are pretty good, particularly if they make it to retirement. But they are getting squeezed and they have been kicked around a lot already. Many were furloughed for days and weeks earlier in this year due to sequestration.  There have been no cost of living raises for over three years, but their rents have gone up. And then there is the morale problem, kicked around by a Congress that treats them with contempt. These employees are simply scared, living paycheck-to-paycheck, convenient piñatas for mostly men in Congress with no sense of empathy to smash at.

Many of them are professionals in the best sense of the world. This includes people like my brother, a NOAA meteorologist, who is chomping at the bit to go back to work. He knows his research has a real world impact. He cannot work, at least not legally. I suspect a fair number of my employees, particularly those doing software development, are still busy at home coding away on their personal computers, wholly uncompensated, waiting for the day when they will get paid again and can do their small part to make our troubled world a better place.

If only Congress would let us.

Governments should not be run like a business

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s hard to listen to a politician today without hearing them tell you that the problem with government is that it’s not being run like a business. For example, Mitt Romney says his private sector experience running a venture capital firm (Bain Capital) was great preparation for being governor of Massachusetts and, he hopes, president of the United States.

In reality, a primary reason our government is as messed up as it is is because incoming politicians have tried to treat government as a business. The resulting mess tends to be ugly and ruinously expensive. As one example, for a couple of decades now our esteemed national leaders have declared that since the private sector can do everything better than the government, we must outsource as much of the government as possible to gain the wonderful efficiencies of the private sector.

Outsourcing the government has been great for businesses, but not so much for government and for the taxpayers. Ask Blackwater. There was a need, they had the product and they had a business model designed to shaft the government. A grunt private, even with pension and various other benefits costs a tiny fraction of the cost of a guard provided by Blackwater. How much more? It’s hard to say exactly, but add in benefits, profit and nice corporate offices in Arlington, Virginia and even the most unskilled guard from Blackwater likely bills at least $100 an hour. A private does not have a problem following orders. It’s not just a good idea, it’s required, even when inconvenient. Failure to do so may result in a courts marshal. Ask a Blackwater contractor to do something not explicitly in the contract and they will either refuse or it will require the payment of some sort of high usury fee.

Businesses are entities designed to make profits. Governments expressly don’t want to make profit because taxpayers resent paying a dime more in taxes than they have to pay. If government were truly run as a business, the IRS would charge processing fees to process your tax return and charge $1 a minute for tax advice over the phone. In fact many of us pay a fee to file a tax return, but the government doesn’t get a dime. It’s private sector entities that add value and profit by facilitating the transaction so you can get a refund faster.

If government charged a fee for every service, it would grow corrupt. How many civil servants do you see driving around in luxury cars? I’m a pretty well paid civil servant, and I’ve never come close to having the income to buy a Lexus. Those few that do are likely political appointees or elected officials, and with luck their crimes will be discovered by salaried detectives and prosecuted by salaried DAs.

Here’s the thing: the civil service works best when people are paid a respectable but not lavish living wage, they are held to a strict and impartial code of conduct and they are permitted to exercise as much independent judgment as their position allows. I know this from working inside it for thirty years. When you get a fair deal, you have incentive to work in the interest of the government. Job security in the government is not something evil; it is a feature of a job that enhances loyalty and makes it easier to put the peoples’ business first. Pay a civil servant too little and there is incentive to take bribes. This is the problem in most third world countries where bribery is rife: no one can afford to live on the pittance that is their actual salary. Corruption simply breeds more corruption. Paying civil servants a living wage solves the problem.

There are so many silly myths about the private sector that you would think experience would have debunked them. One is that businesses are oh so efficient. Businesses tend to be as efficient as they need to be and never more. The ones who are really bad at efficiency tend to go out of business. Small businesses in particular have a hard time at it. People think they are cut out for being an entrepreneur, but in reality it is very hard and the odds are against you. Take a look at the docket at your local county bankruptcy court sometime. Look at the stack of business bankruptcy filings. Businesses fail all the time, some for reasons that suggest incompetency, some because they have the wrong product or service for the market, but usually for both reasons. Every business out there wants to have a lock on a particular market so they can raise prices and reduce quality. That’s why companies like Google and IBM spend significant amounts of money to buy out competitors. They don’t invite competition. They want to cut competition off at the knees. This is done by means legal, legal but unethical, and outright criminal actions which pragmatic businesses do hoping they won’t get caught. An obvious example: companies like Citibank accused of robo-signing hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures.

Maybe that’s fine in the world of business, but do we really want to inculcate this attitude in our government? I would hope not! Government exists to address common societal issues that are not suited to business. Some of the reasons are because they must be done impartially, because the work in inherently unprofitable, and because there are long-term interests that need to be addressed.

This may be hard to believe, but there are some things the government does much better than the private sector. In general, education is one of them. It may be hard to believe when you think about failing inner city public schools, but most schools are not failing and get high marks from parents. There are enormous efficiencies when you can buy textbooks for a school district in bulk, or need to ensure that 10,000 teachers adhere to the same standards, or that your students at least get one healthy and nutritious meal a day in the school’s lunchroom.

The public sector is exceptionally cost effective delivering higher education, as evidenced by state universities near you with well moneyed alumni. A public college tends to be half the cost, or less, than a private college, and often achieve better results. They serve a critical need: making higher education relatively affordable, something the private sector could not do, which is why government created them. Community colleges are an even bigger bargain. I am wrapping up teaching a semester course at a community college. I was hired to teach the course for less than $3000. My students got plenty of individual attention. They paid a few hundred dollars each for the course. It just so happens that a similar course is available down the street from Oracle Education, at a cost of several thousands of dollars. Arguably, my students got a much richer educational experience at a tenth of the cost. Yes, community colleges are bargains, which is why they are expanding like crazy and are one of the growth sectors in this crazy economy. What’s not? Try private colleges, particularly career-oriented private colleges like Kaplan University, owned by the Washington Post. Their success rate is miserable and their costs are high. They do excel at convenience, but they have little incentive to make sure their students graduate. They are after a profit, not the success of the student.

In general, government is a much different domain than the private sector. You want those leading your government to be people who understand this, and understand what makes government work efficiently and effectively. You want leaders who align the government with the current and future needs of the citizenry. You don’t want someone who thinks that a private sector business model will work in this domain. Instead, you want someone who has demonstrated competence leading and managing governments and other non-profit institutions. This leaves out most of those currently running for president. You would be wise not to vote for any of them, because they are likely to leave your government worse off when they leave.

In Wisconsin: a bridge too far

The Thinker by Rodin

There is so much exciting news happening in the world these days that it is hard to keep up on it all. Much of my attention is drawn toward the Middle East, where its oppressed people are removing autocrats and trying to stand up institutions that may actually resemble a functioning democracy. Here at home, my attention is also focused on Madison, Wisconsin and the great surprise that occurred there as both organized labor and ordinary people fight back against an obsessed governor and legislature. Both seem determined to end most collective bargaining rights by public workers, causing alarmed Wisconsin Senate Democrats to flee across the border to Illinois so the Senate could not reach a quorum. In addition, here in Washington, D.C. it is fascinating and scary to watch a deeply divided Congress at work as it does this weird Kabuki fiscal dance. In fits and starts, it is trying not to shut down the government, a task that you would think would come naturally. We federal employees appear to have a two-week reprieve from a possible indefinite layoff while the mighty titans on Capitol Hill and in the White House simultaneously try to have everything their way while compromising without really roiling their base.

The common theme is that for a change people everywhere are politically engaged. This is actually heartwarming in a way. At least here in America, while the fringes tend to be politically engaged, the masses tend toward inertia and ignorance, feeling they are destined to have to make do with whatever spoils the power brokers toss their way.

Unquestionably, the situation in Wisconsin has captured the attention of the nation, and not just at its political fringes but also the typically inert masses. If health care reform fired up the Republican Party last year, Wisconsin’s bold attempt to crush public employee unions has become a compelling story that virtually anyone can relate to. It is hard to be apathetic on the issue. You either want to see those evil public employee labor unions finally crushed or you feel like these workers are the last gasp of our great middle class and we need to stand by them. It’s hard to hate a firefighter, police office or a teacher, when at best they are living in a modest brownstone, particularly when you encounter Miss Jones at Back to School night.

This is not a Reagan vs. PATCO situation. Public employees in Wisconsin are not out on strike. They have already conceded that the tough economy will require sacrifices to their standard of living and have agreed to further wage and benefit concessions. That is not good enough though for Governor Scott Walker and the Republican dominated legislature. They want to end collective bargaining rights for public employees except when negotiating pay, except they cannot really negotiate pay beyond what the legislature decides their pay will be. Presumably, they could negotiate if they want less pay. This means, effectively, that their public employee unions would be toothless entities. To Wisconsin public workers, this is like being knifed and twisting in the knife. It’s not only unnecessary, it’s downright cruel and demonstrates contempt and sadism by those running government for those who do public work.

This standoff is in many ways a watershed moment. It is coincidental that is happening at the exact time that democracy is spreading in the Middle East. Yet it still seems weird. The people of the Middle East want democracy and freedoms. Here in the United States, using the rube of lean times those allegedly pro-freedom loving Republicans in power are trying to take away freedoms, including the right to collectively bargain. The lesson that the unwashed masses are taking from all of this, and why they are on the side of public employees for a change, is that those in power not only want to cut our wages and benefits but they want to disenfranchise them as well, permanently taking away some of our hard earned rights. Many of these people were sympathetic to the need for smaller government. Until now, they did not understand that when Republicans are in charge they also work to permanently disenfranchise ordinary working people.

Even if Scott Walker and Wisconsin Republicans prevail in this fight, as looks likely, it is likely that these reforms will not stick for long. This is a bridge too far. It crossed some sort of hitherto uncrossed line on what is and is not acceptable. Just because you can do something does not mean does not mean that you should, and in doing so you can cross a moral line in the sand that Republicans hitherto did not see. You might say it’s one of their blind spots, because Republicans (like many of us Democrats) will not walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.

Why this should come as a surprise to working class America is perhaps a surprise in itself. It’s not like Republicans have not been consistently anti-union and anti-labor. It’s not like they have not tried tactics like this before. Americans tend to like change incrementally, rather than radically. It was why the Affordable Care Act stirred a ruckus and frightened the working class. It was a big change. The status quo may be unaffordable in the long term, but at least it is reasonably comfortable. Wise Republicans like Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana know they can press an issue only so far. Mitch Daniels is also busy trying to cut wages and benefits for public employees, but he so far won’t cross the Rubicon and try to dismantle public employee unions as well. Wise Republicans know that they way to dismantle unions is not explicitly, but implicitly. The tactic has worked for years. It was encouraged by obsessive right to work laws, pension reforms that let corporations ditch pension obligations, and other laws that blessed corporations and marginalized workers. Right now only seven percent of the American workforce is unionized, down from its peak of 22 percent in 1972. At some point if a group is marginalized enough, they become irrelevant.

Press too hard and the oppressed, rather than grumble, will rebel. The line was crossed in Wisconsin and it is energizing those engaged in workers’ rights and well as Democrats and progressives in general. Moreover, America is paying close attention. Republicans in the House should pay attention as well, as there are eighty-seven new Republicans anxious to take a meat cleaver to government. They say it is necessary and perhaps they are right, but it will prove counterproductive to their hold on power if they actually succeed.

Changes that stick require consensus from all parties, and are not dictated from those who have the power. Democrats may learn that because of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, because it put eighty-seven new Republicans in the House. Republicans who refuse to find common ground with the minority will also find the predictable reaction as well, the prequel of which can now be seen in Wisconsin and read in opinion polls. If they do not find common ground, Republicans will find that their hold on the House and in Wisconsin short lived indeed.

America begins its death throes

The Thinker by Rodin

My federal salary has been frozen for two years by law because previous administrations and congresses failed in their duty as national stewards. I am not happy about it, but a frozen salary beats unemployment. Republicans are anxious to do a whole lot more than just freeze federal salaries. They want to cut government, not intelligently like a surgeon with a scalpel, but like a medieval soldier with a battle-axe. Apparently, just freezing salaries is for weenies. Cutting federal salaries shows manhood. Republicans have all sorts of ways they want to show their manhood. Most of them actually suggest insanity. Many are actually hoping to put the federal government into default. They will do this by not extending the federal debt ceiling in the spring. Why? Because they say they were elected not to increase the deficit, but mostly because they can and because inflicting pain on people is fun.

Tea Party Republicans want to cut $100 billion from non-defense discretionary this year, for a fiscal year that ends September 30. Apparently they think a trail of unprocessed social security checks and furloughed air traffic controllers are going to improve us. In fact, a Republican plan calls for a fifteen percent reduction in the civil service and a five-year freeze on federal salaries. One Republican congressman wants to furlough federal employees for two weeks a year. Naturally there is nothing like a plan for doing these things intelligently. They goal is to maim with the hope of killing altogether. It’s like setting fire to your crazy neighbor’s house. It’s quite a belly laugh and it feels so good. Only defense spending is sacrosanct.

Governments everywhere are having problems matching revenues with needs and obligations. The State of Illinois is raising taxes dramatically to do minor things like pave its roads and house its prisoners, after papering over its deficits with accounting tricks for many years. Virtually every state with the possible exception of North and South Dakota are not just tightening belts, but also often dramatically cutting services. States are thinking of doing things that were previously unthinkable, such as releasing minor offenders from state prisons to save money. Some Oregon school districts can’t even afford put their children in school five days a week. The children have to hope that four days of education will allow them to adequately compete in adult life. More likely, they will be competing for positions of stock clerks and cashiers at Wal-Mart. Cities are not exempt either. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which hosts the state’s capital, is bankrupt and the financially stressed state government will not bail them out. Meanwhile, to make the new health care reform law work, the federal government is requiring states to add more poor people to its Medicaid roles, which requires more revenue. The states are resisting.

States cannot go bankrupt because they have the power to tax. Those state employee pension plans may be expensive, but to make them solvent states could simply raise taxes. This doesn’t sit well with taxpayers, of course, which is why state bankruptcy holds appeal for some. Everyone sort of assumed that the economy would expand forever, with a few hiccups here and there. When the money got tighter, legislatures did what they often did: they rolled the die and hoped for the best.

Where some see crisis, others see opportunity. “Others” would include former disgraced House speaker Newt Gingrich, who wants the federal government to allow states to declare bankruptcy. He figures it will work the same magic on those evil state and local employee unions that it worked on the auto unions. By freeing states from their pension obligations, states can rapidly get back into solvency. Of course there is the minor matter of state employees, who joined the public sector for inadequate wages on the promise that compensation would come in the form of a decent pension. If Gingrich has his way, they will be eating dog food in their retirement, assuming they can even afford that.

Federal employees like me are not necessarily immune either. A law can make anything retroactive. If a law can freeze my pay for two years, it can reduce my pay by ten percent or find other ways to cut my retirement income. I am eligible to retire in May 2012. Looking at Greece as a worst-case model, I figure a twenty five percent cut in my pension in the name of fiscal solvency is possible, if not probable. It might be more. Some future Congress, citing a grave financial crisis that previous congresses inflicted, may just defund our pensions altogether. (Somehow, I’m betting tax cuts for millionaires would keep going.)

Changing this depends on whether we can keep growing as a nation. If we can then tax revenues eventually start gushing in. Curiously, despite all the rhetoric coming out of Washington, politicians don’t seem to care that much about creating growth, at least the kind that puts money into the pockets of ordinary working people. The House of Representatives, sent to create jobs, is focused on the impossible task of repealing “Obamacare” instead. They are also giving priority to tightening abortion laws, by trying to outlaw abortion coverage in private sector health insurance plans. (So much for getting the government out of our business.) Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, rumored to be angling to run for president in 2012 has prioritized protecting blastocysts in a petri dish above the life of an actual two-year-old girl.

Collectively, our nation is dealing with the repercussions of thirty years of prioritizing ideology and short-term thinking over the nation’s long-term needs. Our new Congress could, for example, be working on ways to make Medicare solvent. That might indicate that they are actually earning their salaries. Instead, at least in the House of Representatives, they are more concerned about investigating all aspects of the “corruption” in the Obama Administration. These actions point to putting axes to grind ahead of the needs of the nation. No end is in sight.

What we need is not a Congress of short-term ideologues, but a Congress willing to address the long term needs of the nation. You know, people charged with being stewards of our nation, looking beyond reelection in two years to making sure the nation is secure, solvent and prosperous twenty and fifty years from now. In short, we need politicians who care as much about our nation fifty years from now when they are dead than two years from now.

I can’t see how to possibly sell this to a political set of ideologues and voters only concerned about the short-term. Other nations, like China, do not have these problems. They instead have long-term strategies and systematically execute them. That we can no longer do this points to the real reason for our national decline. Unless we can collectively envision and work toward the same common future, our national decline is guaranteed. American exceptionalism? Hardly. Instead, America has evolved into a nation that promotes systemic national dysfunction.

And unless you care a whole awful lot about our future and demand these kinds of politicians, your future, your children’s future and our nation’s future will only get bleaker. As for my pension: I had best not count on it, or Medicare, and maybe not even Social Security.  The sad truth appears to be that our nation’s glory days are over and we are in for a long and painful decline. In fact, it is already well underway.

Am I overpaid?

The Thinker by Rodin

The Washington Post, the newspaper of record in this federal city and whose suburbs I inhabit decided to poll the country. The subject: me, or more specifically, the 1.9 million employees of Uncle Sam, and whether Joe and Jane Citizen thought we were overpaid and under qualified for our jobs. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the country does not have much good to say about us. Fifty two percent of Americans surveyed said people like me were overpaid, while only 33 percent thought we were paid the right amount. More than a third of those surveyed thought we were less qualified than those with similar positions in the private sectors.

Opinions, of course, may or may not have a basis in fact, but particularly in a hurting economy, it’s understandable that so many would feel miffed at us feds. After all, our jobs are very secure and come with a pension component (although it is significantly less for those hired since 1984). We can select from a broad cafeteria plan of health insurers and Uncle Sam will pick up somewhere between half and two thirds of our premium. We even have 401-Ks or their equivalent, something called the Thrift Saving Plan.

With nearly thirty years as a civil servant, I’ve seen this show before. It often peaks before elections when Republicans are trying to get back in power. Federal employees make easy targets. It’s not like we are likely to dissent, at least not very much, and we certainly cannot go on strike, as it is illegal. So we make for convenient piñatas right before important elections. Republicans are making snarling noises about cutting our inflated salaries once they control Congress again.

In fact, few in the private sector even consider federal employment, in spite of the obvious benefits. Why? Well, federal employment has an undeserved reputation for not being meaningful work. Citizens seem to understand that when you join the civil service no matter how much talent you have, your salary will be limited by law. So why try harder when recognition will come mostly in the form of pats on the back, rather than cash in the pocket?

There is no question that President Obama lives quite comfortably on his $400,000 a year salary. Only four elected officials make more than $200,000 a year, including the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This is obviously not small change, but with a 1.9 million federal workforce, that says a lot. The Senior Executive Service consists of about a few thousand high level managers, often with political appointments, who earn about $146,000 to $200,000 a year. As a percent of the total workforce though, the SES is tiny.

The “rank and file” civil service workforce consists of people like me, usually attached to the General Schedule. Under the General Schedule, the complexity and responsibility of your work is assessed at a grade somewhere between GS-1 and GS-15. The median grade is probably close to a GS-11. A person at the GS-11 level typically has a college degree along with at least several years of specialized experience. Within each grade, there are ten steps, and steps bring a higher salary (but not a promotion) based on satisfactory performance. You never get above a Step 10. A GS-11 Step 5 makes about $57,000 a year, but the actual amount depends on the area where your job is located. Obviously the cost of living in Washington D.C. is a lot higher than in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A GS-11 Step 5 in the Washington D.C. region is making about $71,000 a year.

Since the public thinks we are so overpaid, you would think the competition would be keen for most jobs. In some cases, there are hundreds of applicants, but often the list of qualified candidates is small. Sometimes there are no qualified applicants at all! This is because many jobs are quite specialized. For example, where do you go to find new hires for inspectors for the Transportation Safety Board? Not a whole lot of us can piece together the causes of transportation accidents. There are many jobs like this in the federal government. There are also many jobs like mine in the computer and information technology area. So it’s easier for me as a supervisor to find qualified applicants.

After 28 years, I have progressed from a GS-4 clerk typist to a GS-14, one step below the highest rank in the civil service. In the interim, I acquired a ton of experience, lots of sterling performance reviews and a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from George Mason University. My salary is in the six-figure range. Am I overpaid? You be the judge.

I am responsible for a large, real-time web site. We serve critical near real-time data, as well as a wealth of historical data used in studies and analyses, from redundant hosting centers so our system never goes down. Flood forecasts are developed from our data and many decisions are made as well that can save lives and minimize property damage. Data constantly streams in and is put on the web and all of it has to be both timely and as accurate as possible. In a typical month the site I manage gets thirty to 50 million successful requests. My employees and me must make sure our frequently queried real-time data is available 24/7/365, including during major storms. I have four employees who report directly to me, and five others whose time I buy, either part time or full time. I make more than $120,000 a year, but less that $130,000 a year. We run the whole operation for about $1.3 million dollars a year. Am I overpaid?

Or take my boss, a program manager. She is a GS-15, the highest you can go in the civil service. She manages twenty to thirty people nationwide, has overall responsibility for her entire program, deals with innumerable reporting requirements, large customer communities with diverse needs, has a fistful of certifications that demonstrate her competency in areas like project management and manages her whole program, worth about $6 million a year. I don’t know her salary, but it is probably between $140,000 and $150,000 a year. Is she overpaid? Could it be that a comparable job in the private sector with this level of visibility and responsibility would pay better? It would not surprise me. I suspect she is underpaid.

Or what about a new employee I recently hired? She hesitated to take the position when offered. Why? It did not pay enough. That’s right, she made quite a bit more in the private sector than she would if she joined the public sector because she would have started as a Step 1. However, I was impressed enough with her qualifications to go through a convoluted process so the government could just match salary in the private sector. Is she overpaid too? That does not seem likely. Now I could have thought like a Republican. I could have saved the government money by hiring someone less competent and maybe at a lower grade. Would this have been a smart thing to do given the complexity of the system I manage and its critical nature? Or would it have been pennywise and pound foolish to do so?

The truth is, at least here in the Washington metropolitan area, it is hard to convince any candidate who does not already live here to take a position. Why? Because of the cost of living, but also because of other negatives, like the Washington area’s legendary traffic jams. If you are lucky enough to work eight-hour days, you often have to tack on another two hours or more for commuting every day. Even GS-15s like my boss live modestly. $140,000 is certainly a lot of money in Sioux Falls, South Dakota but not in Reston, Virginia. If you lust after a good single family house in a respectable neighborhood a few miles from work then be prepared to pay at least $500,000 for the privilege, and this price is after the recent decline in home prices.

I do not think that civil servants are overpaid; I think we are fairly compensated. A GS-11 Step 5, my hypothetical “average” civil servant, doubtless depends on a spouse’s income, or is living a very modest lifestyle because $71,000 is not enough income to purchase even a townhouse around here, unless you want to drive two hours to get home. I am certainly grateful for the steady income, in good economic times or bad, as well as our benefits, which twenty years ago were seen as good, but due to the decline in many private industry benefits, now look excellent. Nevertheless, I also know no matter how innovative and creative I am, I cannot be a public servant and make $200,000 a year. The same is not true in the private sector. You can ascend to salary levels as high as your talent takes you. Any performance bonus I get is likely to be in the 1.5% to 3% of salary range, if I earn anything at all. It certainly helps pay some bills and an indulgence or two, but it won’t make me independently wealthy.

So some perspective please. If federal salaries seem higher than the median private industry salary, it’s not necessarily because we are overpaid. It is because the government does not need the equivalent of a lot of busboys, retail workers, truck drivers and hotel maids on its payroll. (Because that kind of work is very generalized, it is typically outsourced.) Most federal jobs require rather specialized skills and the vast majority of us have bachelors or graduate degrees because we need that level of education to perform competently in our jobs.

If you are unhappy with the way government is run, look to policymakers. They decide what government shall be. My job is to deliver it and I am glad to do so at a fair wage and to the maximum extent of my talents.

Feds bravely telecommute while the government “closes”

The Thinker by Rodin

The recent set of snowstorms here in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area made many headlines. It’s not often that federal government offices shuts down at all, let alone for four days straight. Newspapers were full of reports on the cost of the storm including this one: $100M a day in lost productivity because federal workers like me could not get to work. Hmmph. Call me skeptical.

As someone who survived the Snowpocalype (Dec 19-20, 2009) and then Snowmageddon (Feb 5-6, 2010) and another eight inches (Snowmageddon Part Two) that ended on Wednesday, I can report first hand that, yes, we did get a lot of snow. By my count, my neighborhood received 27 inches from Snowmageddon, Part One. Add in the eight inches and that is nearly a yard of snow. Now there was some time between the two latest storms to attempt a recovery, but we never quite got there before part two arrived. Snowplows had nearly (but not quite) finished clearing the roads from the first storm when the second hit.

Clearing the road in my neighborhood did not mean getting the road down to bare pavement. It means your road becomes a teeth-rattling washboard where two cars can barely pass each other. Driving down my road is a slow process requiring lots of caution, good shock absorbers and plenty of clearance between your car and the road. There are a dozen feet between the lane where it was plowed and my driveway. To get our cars out at all, in addition to shoveling my driveway, I had to shovel a dozen feet into the street.

Yesterday, the major arteries were at least back to bare pavement. Yet, like with the Snowpocalypse in December, lanes frequently narrowed or disappeared altogether. Even if federal buildings and parking lots had been cleared, it would have been gridlock for federal workers to try to drive to work because so many lanes had disappeared. Taking the metro was out for most as well because the outdoor tracks were still being cleared of snow.

If it really costs $100M a day in lost productivity when the government closes, you would think taxpayers might not mind chipping in $50M or so a year in order for DC, Maryland and Virginia to have more snowplows and drivers available. This way commerce could resume a lot more quickly than it did. Unfortunately, Congress is pennywise and pound-foolish, and with so many overlapping jurisdictions, making it work is pretty much impossible. So taxpayers pay for it in federal closures that are sometimes simply a result of neighboring states like mine being niggardly about paying for promptly plowed roads.

What the average American may not realize is that just because the government is closed does not mean it is really that closed. Congress was in session, at least for part of it. The White House was busy doing things as well. Social security checks went out as usual. Homeland security kept running. In short, news stories gave the incorrect impression that the whole government was shut down, at least in the D.C. area. In fact about the only thing that was working was the government, mostly state and local governments pushing snow out of the way and providing emergency services. In some ways, the federal government had to “close” so state and local governments could do their jobs. As for the federal government, except for emergency personnel, offices were closed. Maybe the State Department could not process visas for a few days, but it is likely that some of their other offices away from Washington took up their slack. In general, Washington may seem dysfunctional and politically it is often gridlock. But we have all sorts of backup and contingency plans that the most essential parts of government will keep chugging away no matter what the weather.

It is true we civil servants in the area stayed home because basically we were landlocked. So, incidentally, was virtually everyone else. Some of us did kick back and watch HBO on your tax dollars. Most of us had more pedestrian things to deal with, like simply shoveling our long walks and driveways or fretting over the volume of snow on our roofs and wondering if it would cause them to collapse. We also waited for snowplows that were loathe to arrive, tried to figure out ways to keep our kids from driving us crazy and hoped our power would not go out. For hundreds of thousands of us, the power did go out. For the rest of us, we had to hope we had stashed enough provisions to ride the storm out. In short, we weren’t necessarily being lazy, we were overcome by events beyond our control.

As for the $100M in lost productivity, I really question that figure. One thing the storm demonstrated to me is that I could telecommute nearly as effectively as if I were in the office. So I did! I did not work full time during those days; because of the snowstorm, I had other things I had to do. Nevertheless, I did work part-time even though the Office of Personnel Management excused us from working altogether. Maybe I got lucky but I had no problems telecommuting. The telecommuting infrastructure worked: the high speed internet, the VPN, the access to internal file servers that I needed, the email system, the whole shebang performed flawlessly.

Moreover, I was hardly the only federal telecommuter. All the other members of my team were also spending significant parts of their snow days working. If I had to guess, most were working half to full time. They did so because they felt the professional responsibility to keep things moving. Federal employees have deadlines that must be met as well just like the private sector. In my case, I had an executive steering committee coming at me like a freight train in two weeks. My schedule did not allow for a four-day snow holiday. So I kept plugging away at home. We also had a couple of servers with issues to deal with during the storm, but we were able to fix them working remotely. On Thursday, I also attended a two and a half hour conference call from home. Most of us working in this information age can work anywhere there is electricity and high speed internet. Yes, it is convenient to come together daily in a shared office setting, but it is not essential. When you are working from home, you are still working even if the office is “closed”.

Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management’s policies for snow days are still 20th century oriented. They should be updated. If the telework infrastructure is as robust as it was while the government was “closed”, the policy should be to simply require employees to work from home, like I did. Granted, the people who maintain the telework infrastructure may not be able to fix certain problems if they cannot get to the office. Moreover, if everyone is working from home at the same time, it might overtax the network. It appears though that most technical issues can be addressed remotely. It seems like everyone with a white collar job has an employer furnished laptop and high-speed internet at home these days. All we need is a phone and a desk and we are at work. There is also the advantage of having no commute whatsoever.

If you are inclined to think that federal civil servants are lazy and pampered SOBs, think again. It is true that we may get more holidays than you get, but most of us are not lazy, spend our days at the water coolers, or take two-hour lunch breaks. Most of us are very much vested in our work. It gives a lot of meaning to our lives. I was glad to work from home because I felt useful and I had no lack of work. I just hope next time we will have policies that are more realistic in place. In addition, I hope in the future that the public relations folk at the Office of Personnel Management paint a more realistic portrayal of what “shutting down” the government actually means. It does not mean what you think.

USGS: a great place to work

The Thinker by Rodin

For about two years now, I have been working for the U.S. Geological Survey. I work at their headquarters building in Reston, Virginia. I am a civil servant with twenty-three years of federal service. The USGS is actually the fourth federal agency where I have hung my hat. For me there is absolutely no question about it: working for the USGS is a wonderful and stimulating experience. For twenty years, I worked at agencies full of mediocrity. Sometime they bordered on being dysfunctional. Consequently, sometimes my hard work was not appreciated. Now, I look forward to coming to work. There is no reason for me to look anywhere else in Club Fed. USGS is where I will hang out until I retire. The only thing that upsets me is I had to spend twenty years wandering the federal wilderness before I found a home at USGS.

If you take the time to visit the USGS jobs site, you can read exactly why it is a great place to work. For the most part the information on the page would apply to any federal agency. Arguably, these days any one of these standard federal benefits would qualify it as a great place to work. Try getting a defined pension benefit plan as a new employee even at IBM these days.

One of the reasons I like working at USGS is that, of the four agencies for which I have worked, it feels the least like a bureaucracy. It is more than the casual dress. USGS is part of the Department of Interior, and our unofficial department motto seems to be, “We don’t need no stinking suits and ties!” Of course, since we manage federal lands many of us spend our days outdoors getting very personal with nature. However, many of us are still tied to our desks. Except for some in the Department of Interior headquarters in D.C. and various senior executives scattered across the country, few of us do the suit and tie thing. Even my Associate Director usually arrives in slacks and a button down shirt (no tie). He keeps a sports coat and some emergency ties discreetly in his office should the situation warrant. Casual Friday? I am trying to imagine how that would be different. Every day is casual day where I work. I wear jeans to work every day. I generally avoid wearing T-shirts, although many employees wear them routinely. I could wear sneakers too but I prefer wearing modest hiking shoes instead. The only time I have to play the dress up game is when I am going to an important meeting offsite. For example in December, I had to attend a meeting at the National Science Foundation. I still skipped the suit, but I felt compelled to do the dress pants, shiny shoes, long sleeve shirt and tie thing.

Of course dressing casual is more the business norm these days than dressing up. However, those of us who live and work around Washington, DC usually have to play the dress up game. The degree of dressiness is directly proportional to your distance from the White House. Particularly if you reach a certain federal grade level (generally GS-13 or above) the peer pressure to dress up can get quite strong. For more than twenty years, I did the dress up lite routine, which meant everything but the suit. In later years as I advanced to the upper grades I learned to keep a sport coat in my office for those occasions when I had to interact with people more than a grade above me. Needless to say it didn’t fit me. I always felt I was projecting the wrong image of myself when I dressed up for work. I am more of a jeans and polo shirt kind of guy.

So perhaps the casual dress culture is not that much of an asset. For me the most amazing thing about the USGS is that employees are fully empowered. There is of course a top down hierarchy; it is just that most of the time it does not matter. My associate director, for example, is a man named Bob. He expects a relative peon like me to also call him Bob. Everyone I meet feels fully vested in the agency and knows that their work matters. It matters because their work really does matter. USGS is, after all, an institution chock full of scientists. Scientists as a rule are far more concerned about science than they are about politics or hierarchies. Nothing is more precious to us than our reputation for accurate science.

In other federal agencies where I worked, many employees were clock-watchers. It’s not that they hated their jobs, it’s just that their evenings were far more enjoyable than their working hours. At USGS, most of us do not watch the clock. We are too busy happily engaged in our jobs. I trust that all of my employees will accurately account for their time and I am sure they do. Some I know will routinely work many more hours than they can charge for without authorization. They do it because they are involved with their work. They know that their contributions make a tangible difference to the quality of our science and the products that we put out. Consequently, their job becomes fun instead of a chore.

USGS is a very spread out agency. It has to be that way since ours is a big country. We need to be close to where the science is happening. Each state generally has a central office, and most have branch offices. To collaborate you have to work across geographical boundaries. Of course, this means a lot of conference calls and online Webex sessions. It also means a fair amount of travel. I am sure we have employees who never travel anywhere, but I think they are the exception. It is an unusual employee who does not have to travel somewhere on business at least once a year. Last year I was on an airplane five times for my job. I could have likely been on an airplane many more times had I elected it. Mostly I go to Denver, but last year I also visited Helena, Atlanta, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. It is good to get out of the office during the year for a change of perspective and scenery. My job has just the right amount of business travel. Often I have the opportunity to see some unique aspects of the areas that I visit. In my other jobs, I could go years between business trips, if I went on any at all.

No matter where I go though, the people who work for USGS are uniformly friendly, professional and interesting. Despite seeing many of them only once or twice a year, it is as if they are just down the hall from me. The many conference calls between business trips fill in the gaps. We are truly one big team. The only challenging part is dealing with the time zone problems. Invariably for those of us on the East Coasts this means our many conference calls are packed into the afternoons.

As far as I can tell, the only downside to working at USGS is we cannot own certain kinds of energy stocks. Since geology is the best-known part of our business (we also do water resources, biology and cartography), those engaged in geology may have insight into areas that are profitable for oil and natural gas exploration.

I suspect there are other federal agencies that are similar to USGS, but not many. I would bet NOAA and the National Science Foundation share many of our values too. I do know that I feel very valued and engaged at USGS. I appreciate the non-hierarchical culture; it is a perfect fit for me. If you want to impress people at USGS, do better science. For the most part though we are too engaged in our science to care too much about whether our own egos are puffed up or not. We are professionals in the best sense of the word.