The Unfair FAIR Act

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.

Dissing Excellence in Government

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

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 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 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.

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