The Last of the Square Deals

The Thinker by Rodin

I am in retirement class this week. No, at age 49 (effective tomorrow) I am not quite ready for retirement. However, I am ready to start actively planning for successful retirement. Thus far my strategy has been to throw as much money into my 401-K as I can afford. I need to do better for myself, so I am in two days of learning the ins and outs of federal retirement. It is quite a revelation to me.

I am a federal employee with nearly 24 years of federal employment. I understood when I joined the government in 1981 that the retirement benefits in the government were good, but today they are excellent. My retirement benefits are excellent not because they have improved over the years. They seem better today because many companies have reduced or outright eliminated their retirement benefits. Pensions seem to be going the way of the dinosaur. Even IBM is going to require new hires to consider a 401-K their retirement system. United Airline employees are fighting to retain their pension plans, but it is unclear whether in the airline will even still be in business in a couple years. You can bet Southwest Airlines does not have no stinking pension plans beyond a 401-K. Similarly, GM and Ford are groaning under the weight of their own pension plans and would get rid of them if the UAW would let them.

When I joined the government at age 24, reaching retirement was as otherworldly to me as my setting foot on Mars. I started my career with the Defense Mapping Agency (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency). After some months doing boring clerk typist duties I found a job as a production controller. It involved monitoring the production of the agency’s many maps through its printing plant. I was a young buck in an office chock full of Korean War veterans. The veterans in the plant had one big career goal: retirement. There was a ten-year calendar in one of the offices I frequented. Each employee had marked on the calendar his or her name and the month in the year when he was eligible for retirement. I remember looking at it and not being able to grasp even the notion of holding on to the same job for ten years.

Now, turning age 49, those grizzled Korean War veterans from the early 1980s are looking very wise. Yes Virginia, there is more to life than working 9-5 for the rest of your life. Having some time in life to enjoy financial security without the press of work is indeed a noble goal for a human being. We are truly privileged to live in an age where this is now possible for many of us. Rather than the end of something, retirement is looking more and more to me like the beginning of something that quite wonderful.

Staring in 1987 new federal employees had to enroll in a newer and less generous retirement system called FERS, the Federal Employees Retirement System. While most of the retirement benefit depend on building wealth in a 401-K like system called the Thrift Savings Plan, there is still a true pension component to FERS. A federal employee wise enough to save systematically can enjoy quite a comfortable retirement. He also will enjoy partially indexed cost of living raises in his pension and social security benefits. In 2006, this is a good deal.

Because I started federal employment in 1981, I belong to the original Civil Service Retirement System. This system is even more generous than FERS, with fully indexed cost of living raises on its pension. Both plans allow you to maintain your membership in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) in retirement, providing you retire having been insured for a number of years by one of its plans. Even in retirement, the government will keep paying about three quarters of your health insurance costs. As a retiree, you are still free to switch between one of the many myriad health plans during the annual Open Season.

These are just the highlights of a suite of benefits and services that federal employees take for granted, but should not. Frankly, the benefits are so superior to what you can get in private industry these days that you would be a fool not to consider government employment as a career. Certainly as I can attest, being a government employee has its downsides. However, unemployment is usually not one of them. Moreover, the plethora of real and meaningful benefits, many of which continue until the day you die, now seem almost surreal.

Today I find myself grateful that I am a federal employee. At the time, it did not seem like a great career choice but I stumbled on something truly wonderful. Now I feel protected from many of the sad but harsh realities of modern living. I can understand why many in the private sector would feel resentful. However, I wonder if their anger is misplaced. Maybe instead of feeling resentment they should be ask why they are permitting so many of the benefits we used to take for granted to slip away. Maybe they should be demanding that their leaders invest as much energy in the health and welfare of the people as they do catering to the needs of business. It sure seems to me that business has an increasingly unenlightened attitude toward is employees.

I take health insurance for granted. I pay an excellent rate because my employer values me enough to pay most of these costs. The government also buys health insurance for millions of employees at a time, likely garnering significant discounts. The FEHBP is a model for how a health plan should work for all Americans. I do not understand why we cannot open it to all Americans. I think Americans would embrace it, even if they had to pay the full price of the premiums. I also think employers, sick of double-digit health insurance price increases every year, would welcome the relief.

When it comes to my retirement, I can retire on a full pension when I have thirty years of service, which should be in 2012. I am not sure I will actually retire then, since I will be only 55. Yet it is nice to know that I have that option. I have many options. I can buy term life insurance and long-term care insurance. If I want, I can set aside money into dependent care and health care savings accounts and have this money subtracted from my taxable income. Of course, there are survivor benefits should I die, become disabled, or get injured on the job.

It may be that the federal government is the last place where a worker can get a square deal in this country. Perhaps you deserve better too. If you are a private sector employee who feels like you are getting the shaft from your employer, perhaps you should consider Uncle Sam, or your state and local governments as an employer of first resort.

You can view and apply for thousands of federal jobs at the Office of Personnel Management’s USA Jobs web site.

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.

Like moving an aircraft carrier with paddles

The Thinker by Rodin

As you might expect on my forum we have been discussing Hurricane Katrina. Who is to blame? Who is not to blame? Some fault New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin for not having fleets of school buses ready to ferry citizens to safety. Others criticize the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not having an effective response to Hurricane Katrina. (It is harder to be effective when a third of the state’s National Guard is stuck in Iraq.)

Those of us living outside Louisiana are more focused on the response by federal officials. FEMA director Michael Brown dutifully fell on his sword. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff so far seems to be dodging responsibility, but he may be called to account in time. President Bush now says that he takes responsibility for the poor response by the federal government. These are surprising words from him, since he has spent the first five years of his presidency avoiding accountability. Naturally, his admission does not mean that he is planning to resign. Atonement seems to consist of spending in only a few months more money on hurricane relief and reconstruction than we spent so far for the entire Iraq war. Doubtless, his political adviser Karl Rove is pushing him to do so because he is fearful that some otherwise red states may flip to blue. It takes a heap of money to satisfy over a million very angry and displaced citizens, if it can be done at all.

It is human nature to cast blame. In this case, there appears to be plenty to go around. I would like to suggest that perhaps Congress was also to blame by creating the Department of Homeland Security in the first place.

Just in case you are wondering if I hate America and want terrorists to run free, that is not how I feel. I just wonder if creating a centralized cabinet level department, amounting to the largest reorganization of the federal government in fifty years, was the smartest way to protect our homeland. As a long-term strategy, perhaps it made some sense. In the short-term those of us who have been around the bureaucracy a while knew what to expect: a lot of dysfunction and chaos.

The last agency I worked for, the Administration for Children and Families is a typical example of what happens when agencies merge. When I arrived in 1998, the agency was still quite obviously still the two agencies it had been prior to 1991. The reality was that it still acted like the two agencies it had been: the Family Support Administration and the Office of Human Development Services. Each was still doing its own thing, right down to using dissimilar email systems. Sure, they were trying to become one integrated agency but it was still a daunting process. Each agency had a long legacy of doing things their own way. Each had programs that had to keep going in spite of the merger. So merging the two agencies into one agency in reality was something that was very hard to do. It was a little like running and juggling at the same time. It is possible, but most of us do not acquire this skill easily.

By government standards, the merger that produced ACF was not too complex. After all, these were just two agencies that needed to come together, not a dozen. In addition, they belonged to the same department before the merger. By the time I left, thirteen years after the merger, integration finally felt achieved. For one thing, the agency was finally using one email system.

Now look at this new Department of Homeland Security. Pieces of DHS came from the Treasury, Health and Human Services, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Defense and Energy departments. It also absorbed portions of independent agencies like the FBI and GSA, and the entire Federal Protective Service. Before the merger, these agencies rarely talked to each other.

Of course, each of these agencies had previous missions that were left largely intact after their consolidation into DHS. While the DHS secretary had authority over these agencies, the reality was that getting them orchestrated was and continues to be a big and frustrating endeavor. To take one example, a new DHS performance based personnel system needs to be created. Meanwhile these agencies are having a tough time continuing their old mission. Why? Because a lot of chaos is being thrown at them. Just because INS became ICE did not mean that immigrants were going to stop coming into the country. Second, they have new or expanded missions directed by the DHS secretary. Third, boundary lines and responsibilities became unclear. They may be there on paper, but working through the low-level intricacies to implement these changes is very difficult. Fourth, they are being pressured to make all these big changes very quickly. The result is that instead of having a dozen or so agencies that in the past were reasonably effective in their individual missions, now there are a dozen or so agencies with reduced ability to carry out their missions. They seem like they are stuck in the tar pit.

There are possible ways around this sort of bureaucratic mess. One way is to have centralized budgetary authority but to continue to let each agency to perform its mission relatively freely. In other words, the DHS secretary could set goals for what needed to be done but leave the strategy and implementation to the individual agencies. The downside is that each agency may misinterpret what they should do, and there may be turf battles. The upside is the things that each agency can probably carry out its individual missions fairly well, since sand is probably not gunking up their engines.

It appears though that DHS, trying to bend to the will of the president and Congress, promised the moon. They would do it all, and they would do it all very quickly. It was a stupid thing to promise of course. However, good civil servants simply salute and do their best to make it so. Unfortunately, their best cannot possibly meet Congress’s unrealistic and stratospheric expectations. Congress always asks for the moon, and they want it yesterday. They expect elephants to dance immediately.

The result is a lot of bureaucratic dysfunction, some of which I believe was sadly but predictably manifest in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the idea of homeland security meeting the sad but predictable reality of how fast a new large organization can meet its new mission. Instead of acting like a well-trained police force, we had the Keystone Kops. Should we act surprised if they were never sent to the academy?

Our government is of course very large because it is being asked to manage large, difficult and multifaceted problems. Believe it or not it can do many things very well. I ought to know. I have been a civil servant for over twenty years. My current agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, is amazingly well run and effective. However, it has also largely been left to itself. It retains the same name it had when it was created in the 19th century. As a science organization, it is largely left alone to do its science. I have little doubt that if it were pulled apart and its pieces stuck in different departments that it would devolve into a collection of inefficient pieces.

A new department like DHS can be envisioned like new large aircraft carrier just out of the dry dock. The crew is new, coming on board, finding their quarters and checking out the ship. The crew consists of people who worked on completely different kinds of ships and boats. So right now, the crew is trying to figure out how to get the engines to run and to steer the ship. It will come in time. Nevertheless, for now expecting DHS to move efficiently is like trying to move this aircraft carrier with many long paddles from the flight deck. Perhaps with everyone rowing at the same time even this behemoth ship will move. However good the idea of DHS was in the abstract, do not expect it to be smooth sailing for many years to come. Let us hope those out to destroy our country have many other distractions or are more inept.

Slip Sliding into the Past

The Thinker by Rodin

For nine years, I worked in the bowels of the Pentagon. Okay, maybe “bowels” is not the right word. I rarely went into the basement, that deep, dark and mysterious place. In the Pentagon basement, rats were not too difficult to find and all sense of direction was lost. It was a dark and horrid place. I worked on the third floor near the A (innermost) ring, which was a challenging enough place to work. Among other things, it was very noisy and constantly about eighty-five degrees. The Pentagon was designed before air conditioning and personal computers. With hundred of PCs on all the time it felt like an oven.

I still find it hard to believe that I spent nine years there. If there is one building in the world where I wanted to work least it was the Pentagon. I had been there before. It was a confusing maze of dilapidated halls chock full of military guys wearing lots of stripes, stars and medals. They had short tempers, short hair and seemed to specialize in rushing frantically from meeting to meeting. While defending the nation was important work, at its core their mission was finding very lethal ways to kill other people. It was not an easy place for this liberal to work.

I ended up in the Pentagon because I wanted the security of the civil service again. I started my career with six years working for the Defense Mapping Agency. Eventually I got restless and decided to try the private sector. I worked for the Democrats but in 1988 during one of their periodic budget woes, I ended rather abruptly laid off. To make ends meet I scrambled and took a contract job. For three months, I worked as a subcontractor at the Department of Labor. However, with a new house I could not afford unemployment or even underemployment for very long. The civil service at least had the virtue of having a steady paycheck. I found the Air Force at a job fair in Tysons Corner. The Air Force in the Pentagon was hiring. It took them less than three months to reinstate me as a civil servant.

Perhaps I should have suspected something. No doubt, my still active security clearance weighed on their decision to hire me. Still, it felt too fast and too easy. By government standards, they filled my position at something approaching breakneck speed. Thus, January 1989 found me everyday boarding the 5N bus from Reston to the Pentagon.

For nine years, I worked in the Pentagon. I shall not name the organization. We directly supported the Air Force staff in the Pentagon with software systems. Our work was mostly classified. My particular niche was to support a decision support system written in a programming language called PL/I. It helped the Air Force figure out where they were going to place all their aircraft over the next five years.

For all the difficulty and hassle of working there, it was quite a learning experience. I sharpened my programming teeth in the Pentagon, working up from journeyman programmer to lead programmer to technical leader. For a civil service job, it could be very stressful at times. Taxpayers have this image of civil servants sitting at their desks tossing paper airplanes around. In this job, at times I was running a system that kept me on call in the middle of the night. I reported to Colonels who did not take any excuses and had very short fuses. I learned a lot about my ability to deal with stress (not very well). I came to both admire the officers running around the place and loathe them. I admired their confidence and ability to get things done. I did not like the way they moved from job to job every couple of years. They rarely understood the culture of our organization. To get good performance appraisals they had to look like they were changing things big time. Therefore, it seemed we were always in constant reorganization mode. Some years it amazed me that we got anything done at all.

Nevertheless, the Air Force in the 1990s was well funded. I got lots of training. Whether I wanted to or not I learned all about software engineering. Moreover, because I was talented, I was eventually assigned to do some cool stuff. In the mid 90s, client/server architectures were all the rage. I was running a hip project written in a tool that now seems as antiquated as COBOL called Powerbuilder.

The military came and went every couple of years but the civilians hung around, like lamprey to the hull of a ship. The civilian workforce there ran the gamut from every taxpayer’s worst nightmare of a civil servant to mediocre to talented to incredibly brilliant. In general, there were those who did and those who did not. Moreover, there were those with talent and those who could only write spaghetti code. Mostly we maintained legacy classified systems that ran on Multics (and eventually) IBM mainframes.

I left seven and a half years ago. Since that time, I have not given the old organization much thought. I’m been busy moving on, working next for the Department of Health and Human Services and for the last seventeen months or so with the U.S. Geological Survey. However, I did find from time to time that I missed certain people with whom I had worked intimately. In particular, I missed my boss John, Steve, Ray and Diane. In the early 90s, we formed a very effective team. We also worked very well together. Moreover, we knew how to kick back together. For example, on Fridays we would escape to a Shakey’s Pizza place in Annandale for lunch. There you could get all the pizza you could eat for less than $5. What a deal.

The golden years were few. We move on and largely lost touch with each other. Ray retired. Diane took another job. Steve and John took jobs elsewhere in the Pentagon. Except for one retirement luncheon six years ago, I had not seen any of them until today.

I was one of the last people to get training in the obscure art of programming Multics computers. Through Multics.org, I found a guy who I used to work with. He kept in touch with others from the Pentagon (he had moved on to the private sector). He passed my email address on. When a former boss of mine announced his retirement, I got an invitation to attend the luncheon.

For about a week, I pondered whether I wanted to open up that part of my life again. I worked with a great team for a few years. I also spent the last few years of my time there working in a different branch. There I was the squeaky wheel. In that new branch, I was not well liked. Eventually the project manager I worked for threw a temper tantrum. I was thrown off her team and sent back to do mainframe programming, which I loathed.

To say the least I was upset and hurt. Not surprisingly, soon thereafter I shopped my résumé around. By 1998, I was out of the Pentagon and working for the Department of Health and Human Services. I knew if I went to this luncheon that I might encounter some of this bad karma again. Did I want to blow them off and lock out that part of my past? Or did I want to venture back after seven and a half years and maybe say hello again to some people I had grown to like?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I attended my old boss’s retirement luncheon today. I was a bit nervous. Seven and a half years is a long time. I would remember faces. However, could I remember their names? My worry was specious. I was hardly the only person returning after many years. One man attended who had retired in 1988. For the most part, I also remembered the names of the people who were there too.

My old boss John was there, two grades higher than when I last knew him. That alone justified coming. He now manages hundreds of people in a very demanding job. (Since he ran on adrenaline, I figured he was right where he belonged.) I was amazed for in sixteen years he had not aged a day. Ray was also there. He had retired more than five years earlier. It was as if not a day had passed. We greeted each other warmly. Alas, neither Steve nor Diane was there. Diane had hoped to come but apparently did not make it. I do not know if anyone had even bothered to track down Steve. Yet conversation resumed naturally, as if I had not spent more than seven years of my life elsewhere. It seemed a bit odd.

And my nemesis L. was there too, as I expected. If my stomach was tightening, it was because of her. My most enduring memory of her was her screaming at me when she threw me off her team. Today we greeted each other cordially. In seven years, she had moved from project manager to the director of the whole office. This is an amazing accomplishment. (When I left she had only a high school education.) Her screaming fit at me aside, L. filled the mother hen role in the organization. Her specialty was people. While she obviously failed in establishing a healthy working relationship with me, she had worked her social charms (and hopefully competence) into the director’s job. I complemented her on her promotions and she politely inquired about my current employment.

As for the retiring guest of honor, I was glad to see my old boss Bill again too. Bill is a plainspoken man, and he took the time to take me aside. “Mark,” he said. “You were screwed by this organization.” He told me the story of how the nascent system I had led floundered after I left. To this day, it remains an expensive mess that does not meet the customer’s requirements. He said because I was not available a contractor had to be hired to write a functional description of the system. “You could have written it in a week.” Yes indeed. It was good to hear these words from Bill. I felt validated at last.

I did not hear similar words from my former nemesis L. However, I found her behavior a lot different. Maybe it came from having much more responsibility. She seemed more deferential toward me than I remembered. She talked about the vacancies in the office and encouraged me to stop by the office sometime and chat. With no malice in my voice, I told her I did not think that was likely to happen. Yet I could see her wheels turning. Perhaps she was thinking, “If I could get Mark to come back, he could fill a key role.”

On the drive home, I contemplated the idea of returning to that organization. I must confess after so many years that it felt comfortable jumping back into that culture. The nine years I spent there remains the longest time I spent at any one job in my career. It felt a little like going home to Mom and Dad’s and sleeping in your old bedroom again. Knowing L., I suspect I will hear from her in the coming weeks. If she does I suspect she will be sounding my out on whether I might want to return to working for the Air Force.

I cannot see myself trading in my current job for the hassle of a security clearance and commuting into Arlington every day. Although I am a fairly new employee at USGS, I already realize that I am at last where I should be. Every job has its stresses including my latest one. Nevertheless, USGS feels like the place where I should have begun my federal career. It is at USGS that I want to pour out my talent until I retire. I do hope that I hear from L. anyhow. I think she has regrets for past behavior and wants to tell me directly. Perhaps then, this old wound will fully heal.

Professional

The Thinker by Rodin

What does it mean to be professional? I have been pondering this recently. We can probably all agree that doctors, dentists and lawyers are professionals. Perhaps the definitive idea is captured by ICANN when they set up the .pro Internet domain. It is limited to the above, plus accountants and engineers. (Currently it is only available for people in the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.) If you want a .pro domain you have to provide credentials to the registrar. But at least your clients have high assurance they are not dealing with a flake.

Professionals have come to be generally understood to be people who have substantial legal liability for the consequences of their work. You don’t want the million-dollar house you had built for you fall apart because of a poor design. In short if you are a professional then the understanding is that you hold a position of trust. Professionals are required to maintain a certain amount of continuing education in their field. If they do not, they can lose their credentials.

So much for what passes for the legal understanding of the word. But in my twenty-five years or so in the business world the world has taken on other contexts. Executives were tacitly understood to be professionals. Senior level managers usually thought of themselves as professionals. At least in the government one sign of a professional was the cut of their cloth. If they wore suits and took care of their appearance they were assumed to be professionals. Another sign was their working hours. Real professionals do not work eight-hour days. Real professionals are in early and stay late. Real professionals are routinely in the office on the weekend or stuffing their briefcases with papers to read in the evenings and on weekends. Real professionals are always on call. Their most important tools are their cell phones and Blackberries. Here’s what I picked up through the ether: professionals were people whose clients always came first. Kids, wives and hobbies were something that professionals dabbled in when schedule allowed. For a real professional every vacation was scheduled provisionally and subject to last minute changes or cancellation.

Actually I sort of felt sorry for them. “Get a life” is what I wanted to tell them. There is more to life than work. For a professional his career is everything. If he were to be graded, his work must get an A. Work is not allowed to be turned in late. You do whatever it takes to meet your client’s demands. To me it sounded dreadful: life in hell.

At least this is what I thought being professional meant before I took my current job. Since then I have had an awakening. Professional doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, at least not in my agency. Ordinary people could be professionals. Professionals could wear jeans and a T-shirt to work. Professionals were allowed to take off time to deal with family problems. What gives? How could I possibly call them professionals?

It turns out that being professional is not about having the image of a professional, it’s actually being a professional. If you are a professional then it doesn’t matter how you dress or how long you work as long as you get the work done on time and meet very high quality standards. Auto mechanics can be and often are professionals. If you are a mechanic and you promise a rebuilt engine by 5 PM and it is ready at that time and it has been thoroughly fixed, inspected, tested and certified then you are a professional too. It turns out professionals are all around us, not just in the executive offices. What matters is the passion for excellence and the commitment to high quality. The suits, the ties, the heels, the shiny shoes and the $200 haircuts don’t matter.

The team I manage has shown me once again what true professionalism is all about. This time it happened over the Memorial Day weekend. The power gods in our building declared a power outage to test some circuits, as required by the General Services Administration. Now I could have said, “Hey team, there is going to be a power outage this weekend. We got to figure out how to keep our system up during this time. I’ll need people to work on the weekend.” But I didn’t. They were way ahead of me.

Keeping a large system serving real time information to the public is a big challenge. In our case we have geographically separated servers with redundant information just to ensure we have backup capability. But there was a wrinkle this year. We were getting unprecedented demand. May is usually our busiest month but we were unable to keep the power gods from taking down one of the nodes of our system anyhow. One third of our capacity would be offline for more than twelve hours. My team got busy.

The mechanics of how they solved this problem don’t matter. The point is they did it. Despite being geographically separated they collaborated via phone, email and instant message and decided who would do what and when. A zillion emails flew around with others we needed to collaborate with whom provided electricity, network support and distributed routing. Admittedly as the time approached for the dreaded power outage we were nervous. I was biting my nails, since I am the system manager and have ultimate accountability. Warnings went out. System messages came up on the web site. Routers switched customers to different servers.

When the power came back on two members of my team were hovering over their consoles and began pounding away at their keyboards. Having the electricity back up is just one part of a complex dance. Are the local and wide area networks working correctly? Did the servers boot up correctly? (It turned out that a test server lost a disk drive during the power up.) Were all the redundant servers serving the same information? When the server was down it lost its feed and there were more than twelve hours of information it needed to digest before it could be reenabled. They were on these details and myriad other ones on a Saturday during a holiday weekend dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. By mid Saturday afternoon the servers were back up and all was back to normal. Fortunately despite unprecedented demand the other servers were able to keep up with demand. From our customer’s perspective it was like nothing major had happened, except for some old historical data was unavailable for a while. All the critical data needed to safeguard lives and protect property kept streaming through and was served nationally.

This by itself was pretty remarkable. But this is just one part of the chaos these half dozen people dealt with last month. I throw boat anchors at them regularly, engaging them in tedious planning meetings when they were itching to do system maintenance or development. It’s our planning season so I also have members of my team working on planning documents while biting their nails over performance problems from our unexpectedly high demand. And there is a big acceptance test coming next week we are preparing for. Maybe unlike the image of a professional they did not exude perfect confidence all the time. Maybe they were a little terse and crabby from time to time from the pressure. But we were all in the foxhole together. Everyone was focused like a laser beam on our problems.

The irony is that as civil servants if they wanted to they could have disclaimed any responsibility and taken their three day weekends regardless. I had no money to pay them overtime, just the carrot of comp time. It’s not like people on my team don’t have families that need them. Some of them have challenging family problems. But they could and did manage their family problems around their work responsibilities.

This is a small story doubtless replicated millions of times a day across this country of ours. But it is this sort of spirit and fierce determination that truly makes this country such a remarkable place. It is one of the reasons, current administration excepted, I am very proud to be an American and a civil servant. My team may not be in literal foxholes in Iraq battling insurgents, but they are in foxholes of a sort a lot of the time nonetheless, routinely giving 150% of themselves for their country. It’s important for my fellow taxpayers to know that the characterization of your government civil servants as lazy, bureaucratic and spoiled is more myth than reality. Despite shrinking budgets, despite an executive branch more enamored with swords than plowshares, despite sometimes overt hostility by the people who run this country directed at them, they soldier on too and routinely deliver excellence.

Perhaps next to the ubiquitous “Support our troops” yellow ribbons stuck to our car bumpers there will someday be a “Support our civil servants” ribbon too. Yeah, not in my lifetime.

Dissing Excellence in Government

The Thinker by Rodin

Why do we have governments? I’m serious. It shouldn’t be necessary to even ask this question. It should be obvious. But apparently some members of Congress haven’t grasped the basics. People form governments because there are certain things that can’t or shouldn’t be done by the private sector. It’s right there in the preamble to the United States Constitution. Our federal government exists to:

“… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

So outsourcing our judiciary is out. We have decided that corporations should not determine if we go to war or how it will be managed. Also our government is empowered through law to promote the general welfare. It’s okay and constitutional for the government to engage in activities that make the country more prosperous and free, as long as it does it generally, i.e. for the public.

So you would think that the National Weather Service (NWS), which meticulously monitors our nation’s weather and provides sound scientific forecasts to the public, would be engaged in an inherently governmental mission. Well, at least in the eyes of some people, you would be wrong. In particular Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (Republican, naturally) thinks the NWS needs to stop being so darn public with its information. Yes, although through your tax dollars we fund the NWS to the tune of about $617M a year, some like Sen. Santorum want you to pay again. He in particular has introduced S. 786, a bill “To clarify the duties and responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and for other purposes.”

Basically Santorum wants the NWS and its parent the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to stop releasing those pesky routine forecasts and oh so convenient meteorological information. Instead he wants you to be forced to get the information from private sources like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel. The NWS should restrict itself to issuing “severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public” and “hydrometeorological guidance and core forecast information.” Government civil servants would be prohibited from releasing any information “that might influence or affect the market value of any product, service, commodity, tradable, or business.” Whoa! That’s quite a way to stifle a civil servant!

In short, if someone else can make a dime off of it, NOAA and the NWS shouldn’t be doing it. But if some major tropical storm or tornado is headed our way it’s okay. And it’s still okay to put data out there for general use, but God forbid that it should be spun into actual useful information although it sounds like “guidance” is still okay. (“It will be hot in August in Texas.”) And don’t allow those government civil servants to actually use their professional education to turn information into knowledge, like make drought predictions. Save that for Santorum’s buddies at AccuWeather.

Why? Because Santorum claims this will stimulate the private sector innovation. He doesn’t want the government to provide this information in a timelier, cheaper or non-partisan manner. He wants you to cough up additional money to get this knowledge by subscribing to AccuWeather or watching all those annoying ads on Weather.com.

We so often hear that government is wasteful and bloated. But for less than $700M a year we have a National Weather Service that provides accurate and timely forecasts to all comers. (That’s less than $3 per year per person.) So what are the NWS and NOAA real crimes? What it amounts to is they are doing their job too well. All that valuable weather information is available in real time on their web sites. Oh Lord, the NWS has been too innovative. You can even get localized weather information available as an RSS news feed. And the NWS has done this despite flat or shrinking budgets.

So first civil servants get unfairly tarnished for being wasteful, bureaucratic, bloated and not thinking like the private sector. But when civil servants demonstrate extreme competence and entrepreneurial behavior, like apparently the many marvelous employees at the NWS, and do things faster, better and cheaper than the private sector, they are being bad. As a civil servant myself this really irks me. Man, we can’t win for losing! Apparently we aren’t living up to our stereotypes and that really irks some politicians.

Thankfully so far Santorum’s bill has no cosponsors. This means it is likely to die a quick death. But there are no guarantees in the weird Republican controlled times that we live in. You have to wonder what’s next: will the Secret Service be outsourced to Halliburton?

I am envious of my colleagues in NOAA and the NWS because they are doing exactly what I want to do at the U.S. Geological Survey. I manage NWISWeb, the system that puts out in real time water information collected by USGS’s National Water Information System (NWIS). Since I arrived about a year ago I’ve been building the case with management that we too need to make our peer reviewed water science data more broadly and easily available. NWISWeb is a great system but right now it is limited in that it serves our water data to be read by humans in a browser only. That hasn’t stopped lots of clever people in the private sector like the American Whitewater from figuring out ways to get our data and place it inside their products. And that’s fine with us. We make our data available equally to all comers. If the whitewater rafting people can figure out a way to show their members the local stream conditions on their web site more power to them.

I’d like to take the hassle out of getting the data though. I’d like us to offer our data using web services. This new technology would let computers grab and process our data on the fly without necessarily writing a lot of customized code, downloading files or scraping screens for content. I’d love for Weather.com to display our stream flow and groundwater information in their maps. (Of course I’d like them to show the USGS logo too, so the public understands who is really gathering the data.) Particularly during periods of heavy flooding and hurricanes this information served in many places can save lives and reduce property damage.

We already have hydrologists working with NOAA and other organizations like ocean.us. They are working on models that can turn the number of feet a stream is over flood stage into a map that will show the surface area that would be underwater. But wait! It sounds like if a lot of senators think like Senator Santorum then the USGS would be in the data collection business exclusively. No point having your hard earned tax money used to infer any meaning from the data. So what if you live in a trailer next to a rapidly rising creek and are too busy watching Survivor to check stream conditions. If you don’t have your contract with AccuWeather to warn you about approaching floods that’s your problem. As a risk mitigation strategy, consider buying a life vest for every member of your family.

Time will tell whether Santorum’s bill lives or dies. And time will tell whether my idea will fly at the USGS. Like the NWS we work paycheck to paycheck. Since the Bush Administration wants to keep our budget flat money likely won’t be forthcoming for such an endeavor unless it is pulled from somewhere else. But if my executives are to take a clue from Senator Santorum, they might fear to be too innovative. Could be risky.

Instead of whining that the government is doing its job too well, AccuWeather should find ways to add value. Perhaps it could put more of its own sensors out in the field, collect different kinds of data and integrate it with the NWS data they are already getting cost free. AccuWeather is not being innovative. It is being anticompetitive.

I say let’s applaud NOAA and the NWS for their excellence and foresight. There actually is quite a lot of this innovation in the federal government if you look for it. Perhaps instead of giving agencies like these flat budgets they should be rewarded for their innovation with more money so they can do an even better job. They are after all clearly promoting the general welfare. Our founding fathers would be pleased.

Continue reading “Dissing Excellence in Government”

The Good (Work) Life

The Thinker by Rodin

I thought I’d take a moment out from my usual ramblings on things major and minute and just talk about me for a change. Right now I find myself in a strange and largely happy space. In a way I feel like my whole life had been one long troubling train trip and I’ve arrived at my final destination. I was meant to arrive here. In some sense I have come home.

This won’t be my final destination, of course. There is still too much of life ahead of me. But I do feel that for the first time in my life I am where I should be. I feel like I’ve slipped into a life situation that feels like a comfortable, well-worn glove. Things just fit. I have arrived. I feel respected. I feel empowered. I feel necessary. I feel optimized. I feel above all else useful.

I don’t wish to give the impression that all of life is coming up roses at the moment. I speak today primarily about my career. I have the usual festering family problems that have been part of the dynamic of my marriage and family. They won’t be going away anytime soon, if ever. In addition I have rapidly aging parents with medical issues and two geriatric cats, one of whom has taken upon herself the mission of driving me bananas. But perhaps because I feel so positive about my career these other burdens are markedly easier to bear. I am grateful.

I look around this world and see lots chaos and suffering. So I feel almost guilty that while all this is going on I am so much at peace with myself. The impetus turned out to be of all things: 9/11. I was one of hundreds of thousands of civil servants caught up in the madness of that day. I watched the Pentagon burn that day as I struggled toward the safety of home. Since then every day I worked in the Washington I felt like I was in someone’s bulls eye. I felt vulnerable. I wonder (and still do) how long before some terrorist acquires enough fissionable material to blow a good part of the capital into subatomic bits. I knew I did not want to be another victim of 9/11. So I looked with more earnestness at jobs closer to home. And as many of you long time blog readers know, I finally realized this dream.

But it couldn’t be just any job. With 20 years in the civil service I was not going to give up my career for a job in private industry where I was the new kid on the block. Civil service jobs out here in western Fairfax County are hard to find and the competition from us weary commuters is stiff. Yet somehow I got lucky. When I was offered my latest job at the U.S. Geological Survey not only did I turn an hour plus commute into a ten-minute commute but I also felt I wasn’t a likely future victim of terrorism.

What I did not expect was to find that I would enjoy my new job so much. The U.S. Geological Survey is nirvana for a civil servant. In all my other jobs there was a political context to the job that could not be ignored. At ACF we were a social welfare organization. Consequently we were subject to bizarre political mandates such as the healthy marriage initiative. But there were other weird things, like the bizarre President’s Management Agenda, the inability of our managers to proactively manage, niggardly budgets that got more niggardly every year, pointless and counterproductive outsourcing agreements and other issues too numerous to mention. While in the Department of Defense there was this odd military mindset that was pervasive and bizarre. There were cadres of officers and enlisted coming and going trying to make some fast mark for a performance report. There were bizarre and stupefying processes. For example, it took months to order supplies that could be purchased in an hour at the local Staples. You had to go through so many layers of management that there was no guarantee you would get anything you needed. And there was a demoralized civil service that felt ignored, unappreciated and hassled.

Surviving in this environment required adopting a skewed outlook to work. It was its own peculiar Darwinian struggle and I adapted. But it often felt soul sucking. It often seemed pointless and futile. For example I should have felt rage last year. I had spent a year doing a comprehensive analysis of enterprise reporting solutions for our agency. When it came down to choose a product, I was not in the meeting room. It came down to picking one over the others because we had an enterprise agreement a particular vendor (Oracle), not because it was a superior product. I should have been enraged but I just shrugged my shoulders. That’s the way things worked in the government I knew. A lot of what I did was ultimately wasted and pointless. I hoped that occasionally something I did would effect real and meaningful change. But mostly my work felt ultimately pointless.

But at the U.S. Geological Survey we don’t serve a political agenda. It’s a scientific institution. Unlike other places I worked that pretended to be professional, it actually is a professional place. We don’t just say we value someone’s work and opinions. We actually do value their work and opinions. We value it enough to listen to other people’s opinions and take them seriously.

I find my own management style is evolving. I don’t make unilateral decisions. Instead I bring them up to my team and we discuss the direction I would like to go and come to consensus. After all I am the new person on the team. They have the experience. If an idea of mine is not sound they will know and I need to hear it from them. In return by having their opinions truly count they feel like they can have confidence in me. We are all vested in the solution. I provide general direction. I don’t tell them what to do so much as ask their consent to move in certain directions. I think this is called leadership. It’s exciting, empowering and really a lot of fun to manage this way. The bonus is that it has a multiplicative effect. It also allows for greater productivity and it opens up new areas for exploration.

So I am no longer spending half my time at work spinning my wheels on exercises that eventually prove futile. The lines of authority are very clear but respect flows in both directions. My team is not half multitasked elsewhere. I just have to give direction and focus. A silly example happened this week when I started using electronic To-Do lists to task routine ad hoc assignments. I had tried this before in other jobs and they never worked. Why? Because everyone was multitasked by various managers so there was no guarantee a task would ever get done in a particular time frame. Now I have the authority I need. My staff works from my lists and respects my deadlines. Maybe this happens by default in private industry. But this is the first time I have seen it work in a governmental organization.

I have a terrific boss always willing to provide guidance but who refuses to micromanage. I have numerous travel opportunities that broaden my perspective. I can basically choose to travel to any place I want provided it is business related. I have a team that is geographically disbursed but still works as well together as if we were all sitting in the same office. Biweekly teleconferences and web pages with meeting minutes that are continuously updated work great! If I feel the need to go to a professional conference the money is there. I can bring the team together in person whenever I need to. (We all met here in Reston about a week ago). I never worry that my team is bored or unmotivated because I am confident they like what they do.

Together we are changing our little corner of the universe for the better. Our work is meaningful. It means something to the whitewater rafting community to know if the streams are high enough or flowing fast enough. It means something to scientists to have a way to analyze ground water levels, or to know if their local water quality is getting better or worse. And because the information we provide is meaningful, my work feels meaningful. And I don’t mind so much going to a conference and listening to users. In the process I find out from them what they need that our system is not providing. I can then subsequently direct resources to make our information more useful to the public.

And I can do all this while balancing the needs of my family, without adding the stress and hassle of two hours or more in commuting every day, with more than adequate leave and at a level of pay commensurate with my skills and knowledge.

It’s a good place in which to be. I keep wondering when the other shoe will drop. But I don’t think it’s going to. I’ve been swimming upstream for too many years. Hopefully that struggle is behind me and now I can do the real work that I was meant to do.

It’s Not the Scorecard, It’s the Mission

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been at my new employer (the U.S. Geological Survey) about a month now. Last week I was surprised to get in the mail a survey from my old federal agency asking for a candid assessment of why I left.

There were a lot of reasons why I left. The primary reason I left remains the same: the new job is 3 miles from my house, old job was 25 miles from my house. But the timesavings weren’t the only reason I left. I also left in part because the guy who sent me the survey really pissed me off. But it wasn’t until I filled out the exit survey and sent it back to him that I was able to fully articulate my feelings.

It was pissed because this “brilliant” guy in the Senior Executive Service had confused a scorecard with actual success.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you were watching the former White House terrorism czar, Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes Sunday night. He was upset because he tried diligently to get the attention of the latest Bush Administration to the threat of al Qaeda and was largely ignored. There were bigger fish for the Bush Administration to fry in those sweet pre 9/11 days, like missile defense spending for a bogus threat from rogue nations and tax cuts for the rich.

But no matter. Bush must have remembered one lesson at Yale when he was working on that MBA. It must have been the lecture on metrics. Measure progress by keeping metrics. We saw it after we invaded Iraq. Bush has this obsession to get the whole top Iraqi leadership, the “Deck of Cards”. According to Clarke, Bush would check them off one by one. By golly, as soon as he got all of them problem over! Cross Iraq off the list of national security problems! (It was never one to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Events in Iraq proved that this approach was painfully naive. But it’s not surprising, because Bush came into office and put in place the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In principle the goals seem sound: get results and don’t make empty promises. But the PMA’s modus operandi is interesting. They include such dubious approaches as “competitive sourcing” (i.e. replace federal employees with contractors) and “faith-based and community initiatives”. I guess it does take a lot of faith to buy into both of these dubious notions.

Naturally federal agencies are bending themselves over backwards to show they are becoming leaner, efficient and results oriented. Their scorecard is the PMA. My last agency was no different. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration was hired because he had a reputation of being a no-nonsense, results oriented guy.

And I have to report our scorecard looked great. Throughout the government agencies are competing hard to show they are making a “clean sweep”, changing old practices and putting in these great new practices (like competitive sourcing) that Republicans believe will make the government more responsive. Outside the wall of his office my SESer had hung a broom spray painted green with the words “Clean Sweep” embossed on the stick in gold letters. Next to it was an enlarged chart showing the key points in the President’s Management Agenda and how ACF was doing. Our metrics were great! We were getting all greens! We were doing so well our SESer was favorably written up in Government Executive magazine.

Yup, I expect he will get an outstanding performance rating this year, and even a bonus.

Too bad it is all spinning wheels.

It’s all bullshit.

He wouldn’t agree of course. The Bush Administration wouldn’t agree either. But it’s bullshit. The reason it’s BS is because it is all window dressing. It hasn’t made my old agency any more effective or efficient. Far from it. The outsourcing, for example, has left the staff shell-shocked and demoralized. Cutting so many managers from the hierarchy may have looked good on paper, but it disconnected employees from their managers. In effect managers didn’t have the time to proactively manage. Instead they were spending their time heeding instructions from those above them and making motions like they were getting things done, but having little idea what their own people were doing. Here’s a clue: it wasn’t always that way. But in buying into this management philosophy no one bothered to figure out if the philosophy could really work in a government culture.

Management today is like sending a novice to a computer certification boot camp. Put someone with half a brain in a room for 12 hours a day, make them cram for a test every night, teach them exactly what they need to know to pass the test and watch them ace it. Then watch them take their certificate to an employer and try to solve a real problem. Then watch them fail. Knowing how to follow the business ideology of the moment doesn’t qualify you to solve real world problems. Intimately understanding the problem domain and effectively working in that domain solves the problems.

As I said in my critique, it’s not how well you score on the President’s Management Agenda that counts, Mr. SES. It’s how effectively you and your staff do the agency’s mission that matters. If you cut expenses by 20% but productivity is down 50% you are not effectively managing. If you take the domain knowledge of a highly talented and dedicated staff of federal employees and give the task to some contractors who are out the door in a year or two, you are not effectively managing. If your agency gives more money to faith based organizations and they cannot show good or better results with the money than a nonsectarian organization, you are not effectively managing.

At USGS we live in a bit of a time warp. Not that we aren’t also subjected to the PMA and similar nonsense. But we are a scientist-heavy organization where federal employees are plentiful and contractors are still largely on the sidelines. With the exception of one person every member of my team is a federal employee.

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with my new team. These people are engaged. They are on the ball. Work is not a chore to them. Work is fun and more importantly work is meaningful. Go look at our NWISWeb system. Get real time information on stream flow, water quality and ground water information for your site, county, state or the whole darn country.

Contractors from SRA with impressive credentials and $200 an hour billing rates didn’t put this together. Ordinary federal scientists and engineers who were trusted and empowered by their managers put this together. These employees had a vision back in 1995: to put the vast National Water Information System data onto the web for the world to see and use. Management said “Go for it. We trust you.” Guess what? They did it. The system was an instant success. Today our hit rates are phenomenal. School districts open or close based on the quality and accuracy of the real time information we provide.

I got an email today from our office in Puerto Rico saying that Caribbean countries depend on the timeliness and accuracy of our data so they can make accurate predictions of their own. Our information not only tells fisherman when might be a good day to catch some trout, but it saves lives.

This administration doesn’t get it but maybe the next one will. But here’s an idea: try truly empowering your federal workforce. Instead of nickel and dime-ing them to death and constantly frightening them with the grim reaper of outsourcing tell them you trust them and have confidence in their ability. You will have in place a workforce that will not only do the people’s business but also do it brilliantly.

Maybe results oriented government isn’t so hard after all.

The Long Goodbye

The Thinker by Rodin

I came home Thursday to find a welcome packet from my new employer, the U.S. Geological Survey. Inside was my official job offer letter, lots of forms to be filled out, and a CD about USGS from a human resources perspective. The CD was put together with good intentions. But it was obviously created by somebody with way too much time on his hands. It’s a multimedia CD. It is full of nautical “ports of call” that you must visit, or rather navigate to with your mouse. In the background are the sound of seagulls mourning and waves crashing on a beach. Umm, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I would have preferred a manual with the pertinent information. This is just dumb.

But there is no point in watching the CD right away, or even filling out the forms. Because although I gave noticed weeks ago I still have two weeks to go before I can begin my new job. Yes, I have to endure two more weeks of rising at 5:15 AM. Yes, two more weeks of working in some sort of limbo land. Two more weeks of being there and not being there.

Can’t I just leave already? Apparently not. I don’t start at USGS until February 23rd. My new boss is traveling so an earlier date wouldn’t work for her. So I have plenty of time to wind up and transition projects. And I have lots of opportunities to say goodbye over and over again.

Maybe it is just coincidence, but it seems all of a sudden I can get people to work on my projects. Typically when I want others to do work for me, my work drifts to the bottom of a long queue. But since I’m leaving all sorts of mini applications I’ve been working on are moving through development and testing into production. This is good. I’d rather leave things completed if possible. I’m a reasonably tidy person and don’t like to leave loose ends. I have eight more work days to bring them to closure. It should be more than enough.

For days after I gave my boss the news I was leaving I wandered around and no one said anything unusual to me. I found that very odd. Eventually I figured out that the chain of command hadn’t bothered to tell the rank and file that I was leaving. So I just announced it myself. Once the news got out then people stopped by my desk to wish me their best. I thanked them of course, but reminded them that I’d still be around for a while. I don’t want them to forget me quite yet. I don’t want to feel like a ghost walking down the hallways.

I still don’t know if there is a plan to give me a farewell luncheon. I don’t particularly care if I get one or not. I know Lynnette and Yolanda plan to take me out to lunch, and Yolanda is working on some sort of presentation. But I haven’t heard of any date for such an event. Perhaps they will hold it and forget to invite me.

I’ve heard a number of people tell me I am wise to leave at this time. “Get while the getting is good,” I hear often along with “You are one of the first rats off a sinking ship.” I heard this a lot when I left my last job, but AFPCA is still there. And I am sure ACF will continue to exist too. But it’s probably not a good omen for ACF that so many of its people feel this way. I would hope our management would take note. But they seem to be too busy demonstrating they can score all “greens” on the President’s Management Agenda than to worry about minor things like whether the staff’s morale is going down the toilet.

Doubtless to meet one of these pointless goals my position won’t be filled. According to Bush, fewer staff is good because we’ll be meaner and leaner. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration recently publicized our scorecard for the President’s Management Agenda. Woo hoo! We are all green! We’ve met goals like reduced staff counts and increased outsourcing! But this does not mean we are necessarily doing our job better or more effectively. It most likely means the opposite. This means fewer people overseeing work. And that means loss of focus and a higher likelihood that things will be poorly managed.

I’d feel better about leaving such silliness behind but I’m in Club Fed. That means USGS is going through this silliness too. And since I will have some supervisory responsibilities in my new job I too will probably be looking to get green marks to show how effective I am. A note to my new boss: expect me to support these goals but don’t expect me to believe this crap.

Sokhama took me out for a birthday lunch on Monday. Sokhama was my chief customer point of contact for a system I deployed back in late 1999. She since left ACF but since she is still located close by we meet for lunch once a month or so. One of the drawbacks of leaving is I will see a lot less of her. I’ll miss meeting her for lunch on a bench in the gardens of the Smithsonian castle, talking about stuff, then enjoying a walk on the Mall. As much as I’ll be glad not to work in D.C., I’ll also miss the energy of the city and the loveliness of the National Mall that was always so close to me.

I doubt I will have a lunch partner like Sokhama at USGS, but who knows? However, I will be able to come home for lunch any day I choose. And meeting my wife for lunch will be no big deal.

Eventually. Meanwhile, the days pass by so slowly.

The Outsourcing Madness has reached its logical end

The Thinker by Rodin

As a career federal employee I am keenly aware of the Bush Administration’s outsourcing initiative. In case you don’t know it is, it means the Bush Administration would like to fire federal employees and hire contractors to do their work providing (they say) that they can justify a cost savings.

As you may recall I have discussed this topic before in an entry in January and an entry in May. What is new is that Congress is beginning to pay attention to this subject and it appears they are saying “Enough!” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) managed to attach a rider to a House spending bill that would essentially require the Bush Administration to play by the old rules on outsourcing. What is surprising is that a Republican controlled House, virtually always in line with whatever the Administration proposes, deviated from the Bush’s position on this issue.

There are similar rumblings going on in the Senate too, although nothing like the language in this bill has emerged yet. The Bush Administration promises a veto of the bill if it gets to the President’s desk in its current form.

Naturally I have a vested interest in the outcome of this fight. I don’t believe for a minute that my job is any safer from outsourcing than anyone else’s. I have twenty years in the civil service, have consistently earned top performance ratings and generally take pleasure in my job. It would be nice to be treated with a little more dignity for my long years and hard work, but to the guys in the green eye shades I’m not really a person, just a statistic in a political game that affects real people who are often doing very good work.

Yes, certainly the perception exists that there are lazy and incompetent federal employees out there. And there are. There aren’t nearly as many as critics would like to believe. There are also lazy and incompetent contractors working for Uncle Sam out there. I see them all the time in my organization. In some cases they are goofing off because of the inability of the government to keep them busy. (We federal employees are very multitasked and increasingly we have to delegate rather than micromanage.) In others they simply ARE being lazy and they find checking their Yahoo! Mail far more engaging that the drudgery of doing their assigned tasks. So it cuts both ways. But in general, and I have had SOME experience in private industry, despite my 20 years in the government, I have not seen a correlation that people working in the federal government are any more or less efficient than our private industry brethren. Just like our private industry brethren, we are making do with less … a LOT less. I have seen our own staff shrink year after year. Year after year I take on more and more complicated projects from people who are retiring, transferred or moved on. When a guy in my office transferred to the Social Security Administration I got stuck with two of his projects, at no extra pay of course. His slot vanished so that we could make some arbitrary administrative goal about keeping down the size of government.

The resistance to outsourcing is increasing for a variety of reasons, but rest assured it’s not because federal employees alone are complaining. We’ve been doing that for years and it hasn’t stopped the trend. What it has resulted in are all sorts of gimmicks like early out retirements instead. Outright layoffs are relatively rare, which is better than most private sector employees receive.

But the real reason things are somewhat different now is that Congress is starting to figure it out: the government is about as outsourced as it can get. To use one metaphor, the “low hanging fruit” was picked off long ago. Now the ladders are way up in the apple trees and people are extended out on weak branches trying to grab the apples. In real life this would introduce a lot of risk and take a lot more effort to collect apples. The same thing is happening with outsourcing. It has reached the point where in most cases going through the effort is more costly than any imagined benefits and negates any marginal cost savings that would result.

For example The Washington Post reported that much of the National Parks Budget, which would have otherwise gone to desperately needed improvements to the parks infrastructure, was instead spent this year on numerous and costly outsourcing studies. Can we get rid of a handful of park archeologists and geologists and outsource them instead? We certainly could and there are beltway bandits spending gobs of taxpayer dollars to prove it in official looking reports. But Congress is finally paying some attention to these increasing bizarre outsourcing stories. It just doesn’t make that much sense, unless you are trying to pay off some political contributors, to throw some GS-12 archeologist out of work to save a couple thousand bucks. Certainly park visitors have a more enriching experience when someone who has been around a while can provide education and insight that some fly by night contractor cannot.

Enough already! Yes, if government takes on a new function let’s look carefully to see if it can be done more efficiently by the private sector. But trust me on this: there is not an agency in the federal government that hasn’t been combed from top to bottom numerous times by various administrations trying to find spurious savings on jobs that can be outsourced. The low hanging fruit was picked long, long ago. There may be an agency or two that somehow managed to hide a pocket of people, but they will be the rare exception. There are no more GS-2’s cleaning restrooms, or GS-5’s maintaining motor pools. It’s been years since I’ve seen a federal computer specialist like myself actually program a line of code. Computers have squeezed out almost all the administrative and secretarial staff. Even my office director, a GS-15 who likely makes $100K a year doesn’t qualify for a secretary. He has to type his own darn memos.

This outsourcing madness has reached its logical end. It’s time to stop pretending we are shrinking the cost of government by transferring duties from federal employees to contractors, and to admit the government has grown much, much bigger because politicians have hidden the true size of government in an expanding contractor community. This shell game is over and even Congress is realizing it. Let’s hope the Bush Administration emerges from its ideological hole and stops this nonsense that no longer saves taxpayers any money.