Workforce Planning – An Oxymoron?

The Thinker by Rodin

“We are all interested in the future,” the “futurist” Criswell once said, “because that’s where we will spend the rest of our lives.”

I spent the last week or so at work planning for the future. All good businesses are supposed to look ahead and anticipate the future. The same is true with the federal government. In my little corner of the civil service my boss handed me the responsibility of putting together a workforce plan for the next five years.

Well this was certainly something new. I wondered if this was just another paper exercise or something that we might actually use. I was tempted just to jot down random thoughts in a Word document, call it a plan and then archive it somewhere where no one will actually see it or use it. Why? Because it seemed to me that if the Congress and the White House can’t adequately plan for the future, why should my little corner of the federal bureaucracy? My poor overworked boss, for example, has to make our federal information system comply with the Clinger-Cohen Act. Among other things the act requires that federal systems be rigorously planned and projected out for the next five years. Performance standards are set in advance and variances of just five percent can end us up on watch lists. It’s not a good thing to get on a watch list. If you are unwise enough to get on one of them you will spend your days being terminally micromanaged instead of actually getting any work done.

What’s sauce for federal agencies should be sauce for the Congress. But of course it doesn’t work that way. My agency should be able to count on its annual appropriation bill being passed and signed into law before the start of the fiscal year on October 1st. But nine times out of ten Congress has found more important things to do then get around to the pesky business of passing appropriation bills. So we linger for months in a series of congressional Continuing Resolutions that dribble out money to our agency until Congress decides what it really wants to appropriate for the fiscal year. Generally this means our plans are on hold because we don’t know what we will be allowed to spend. Eventually the appropriation bill is signed into law and money arrives in a rush. And then often chaos ensues because the actual money appropriated and the money planned rarely match up. Yet while all this is happening we are planning for the next three years. Given past experience these plans will mean little either.

So I was somewhat sanguine when I sat down and tried to create a workforce plan looking five years in the future. It was time to see if I had any psychic powers. Could I read the mind of the President and the Congress where so many had failed? It seemed best to me to plan for the most likely worst-case scenario. It was a good bet that if President Bush had to choose between tax cuts and fully funding my agency, tax cuts would win. So it seemed a safe assumption that we’d have the same amount of money, or less than we have currently. Water resources are pretty boring compared with homeland security and defense so we won’t be on the top of anyone’s list. Plus the Washington Post said President Bush was going to propose a flat budget. Figuring our appropriation would at best stay steady but cost of living raises would have to be absorbed, a three percent reduction in man-hours over the next three fiscal years seemed prudent. Why three years? Because after the next three years Bush would be out of office. For years four and five I assumed the next president would at least fully index us for inflation, so I kept the manpower steady.

Three percent of man-hours though are not trivial. It means someone won’t be doing work for us. It also means our water information system will be more in maintenance than development mode. A lot of our work is done by federal employees whose time we buy part time from other districts inside our agency. Most likely these people, and not the full time staff, would take the brunt of the reductions. Some of them might be out of a job. Hopefully their districts would scramble and find other work for them.

But with attrition rates of about five percent a year, it looked possible that no one would lose their jobs. But of course workforce planning is also about making sure you have the skills you need in the future, not the skills you have now. What skills would we need in five years? It was time to summon my psychic powers again.

Coming from an agency where outsourcing was king I figured my agency would likely see a lot more outsourcing. It was hard to imagine how they could outsource many of us. After all finding information technology people who know hydrology is not a trivial task. But looking over the people we employed I could see the green eyeshade people would likely scrutinize some of our employees. For example, in theory database administrators should not be outsourced since they hold the keys to sensitive information. But in actuality they have a commoditized skill so they are fairly easy to outsource. The same is true with the people running and managing our servers. In fact in the network area the trend is to outsource not just the people but the whole network infrastructure. I could see in five years that my agency would be paying some private data service center that would guarantee bandwidth and storage space. Anyone involved in configuring and patching Solaris and Linux machines might well be unemployed or doing other stuff.

Ouch. This hurts because a lot of these people are my friends. I didn’t want them to lose their jobs. But my hunch is they would be a lot more likely to stay employed with us if they knew how to manage contracts with external service providers. In fact, with trends like storage area networks I could see the whole notion of managing physical servers going away. Want a server? Create a virtual dedicated server in a storage area network. Need more space? Tell the Oracle 10g database and it will find it, configure it and put it to use immediately. By using grid technologies we will neither know nor care where it is. It will just be a network service purchased with government money and professionally managed by external corporations optimized for this sort of work.

I finished my plan and gingerly gave it to my boss. I warned her I felt it had to be politically incorrect. I was stepping on too many toes. But she said I did an excellent job and to coordinate it with the other unit chiefs.

And so I find myself rooting against my own plan. I put it together trying to do it in the most benign way possible and still recognize the likely reality that we were going to get less and less money but be asked to do more and more. But it seems however controversial my ideas they seemed fairly well grounded in reality, at least according to my boss.

So it seems to be that all I can do is ring the alarm bell. There are icebergs out there but they are hard to see. But if we can be proactive then we can save our valuable employees a lot of pain now by not filling positions and by moving in areas we may not want to move toward, like network consolidation. But there will still be pain. Whether with or without a plan the dollars we’ll get are likely to be fewer. We can only minimize our pain while trying to be the most effective we can with the money we have.

This and that

The Thinker by Rodin

So much happening in my life these days that it is hard for me to even catch my breath, let alone find time to blog. But blogging has been preying on my mind. I’ve wanted to blog but couldn’t because there was all this more important stuff! So this entry will be a bunch of random thoughts and concerns running around my brain at the moment.

First, my wife’s job with the Software Productivity Consortium will be ending in October. Has the Software Productivity Consortium, whose mission it is to improve the practices of the software community (or at least its members) stopped using computers? Hardly. Has she been fired for some sort of malfeasance? Not at all. She’s being outsourced. Yes the pointy haired bosses are firmly in control at SPC and have been for about a year now. Someone apparently had the “clever” idea to outsource the help desk. The mind reels. SPC is not some huge conglomerate; it has about 100 employees, most of them in Herndon, Virginia. People are intimately attached to their computers and their laptops. They depend on the help desk staff to keep all the infrastructure working and to get their computers fixed pronto. After the outsourcing is complete only a token contractor will actually be in the building. Most of the work will be done offsite, adding delay and frustration to SPC employees. It’s hard to imagine how SPC can save any money; it’s not like my wife is bringing home the big bucks. Anyhow the few remaining IT Help Desk staff were largely shown the door midweek. My wife gets to stay and try to do the work of four people until October 8th, which is her last day (if she stays there that long).

Meanwhile on Monday a contractor arrives to try to learn their business. My wife is a highly skilled IT troubleshooter. This is a woman puts together computers in her spare time for friends because she thinks it is fun. She can fix the most obscure Windows errors. So I’m not worried in the least about her job prospects. In fact I think we are both glad her job is coming to an end. Some company around the Reston area with savvy apparently lacking at SPC will likely snatch her up pretty quickly. In the event the economy is worse than I thought my GS-14 salary could carry us forward indefinitely. So the only real losers here are the people who work at SPC. They get to watch a stream of likely underpaid and largely offsite contractors cycle through their organization. Not one of them will do a lick more work than called for by the contract. I should know. I’ve seen many a contracting debacle in my years as a federal employee. I figure the SPC CEO must have marbles for brains or be a big George W. Bush supporter. It’s the only thing that explains such a complete lack of common sense. My wife is not alone. The employees, tired of working 80-hour weeks because their CEO wants them too, are leaving right and left. It used to be a great place to work. It’s hard on SPC employees to see dysfunctional management take over and drive a great organization into the ground.

Second, medical issues with my Mom are not getting any easier. It’s not appropriate to get into too much detail here but my poor 77-year-old Dad is being run ragged. It is good that they are in Riderwood and their life is somewhat simpler. Unfortunately my Mom pretty much cannot even boil water at this point. They really depend on that gratis daily meal in one of Riderwood’s many restaurants. My 84-year-old Mom seems increasing scared and paranoid. I hope my Dad will start getting some adult day care for her so he can get away from it for a while. I help when I can but I have my own family to take care of. In fact I see my mother as very close to needing a nursing home. Fortunately Riderwood has an excellent nursing home called Renaissance Gardens. I’m hoping her visit next week to see a shrink will help her get a grip. But with all the medications she’s on I’m not sure if antianxiety medicine or even an antidepressant would do her much good.

Third, school has restarted for my daughter Rosie, now in 10th grade. My wife and I have been dealing with all those school startup issues: new clothes, books, raids on Staples, endless forms that need to be filled out and checks that must be written. Her teachers increasingly require onerous “contracts” with students that we parents must sign. One small sign of improvement: the information form with all the relevant names and phone numbers is now actually entered into a computer. We got a preprinted form with last year’s information on it and all we had to do was correct it. It’s a small step but one of these obvious steps that should have been done years ago. All this contact information could be submitted and updated over the web.

Fourth, I’m getting a new computer! The parts arrived today. I just need my wife to assemble them. My current computer is about 3 years old and arrived with (shudder) Windows Me on it. The new one is nothing fancy because I don’t need fancy. What I do need is something that doesn’t take three minutes to boot, so my excellent wife worked hard to meet my requirements. The result: my computer will have a fast motherboard and disk drive. My computer will also have a writeable DVD drive. I don’t need a fast CPU. I have learned that fast CPUs mean little: it’s the memory, motherboard and disk drive that are the pokes. So I’m getting a 1.8GHZ Athlon XP AMD chip, which is still 2.5 times faster than what I am using now and likely overkill for my modest needs.

We’ve been feeling very geeky lately. August was our flush month for cash since we each got three paychecks. We budgeted about $1200 for new computer stuff. By buying parts we’ve gotten some amazing values. My computer will cost about $600. Rosie gets a 17-inch flat panel monitor (about $350 after rebate). Terri gets the computer toolkit she wants. And we purchased another printer because the old Epson C82 died almost immediately after the warranty expired. The new one is an Epson C84. Since our first Epson experience wasn’t good we bought this model somewhat reluctantly, and only because it got a Consumer Reports Best Buy recommendation. It had better last longer! Look for a rant on our disposable society coming up in my blog in the weeks ahead.

I also now have a 128MB USB flash drive. Boy, these little suckers are great and so cheap. (Mine was $25!) They are sort of like what PDA’s were in the 1990s: you don’t know you need one until you’ve got one. What’s on mine? Not much yet, but I have 14MB allocated as a backup for my Quicken data going back to 1992. I am looking forward to doing geeky things like installing the Firefox browser on my flash drive. I can take it with me wherever I go and have my browser of choice and all my bookmarks available! The possibilities of flash drives is yet another topic for a blog entry in the weeks ahead.

I’m still deeply involved in political blogging. I’m trying to make sense of these polls showing Bush getting a double-digit bounce coming out of the Republican convention. I’m torn between feelings of despair if these are real and my gut feeling that these polls are meaningless when other polls are showing perhaps the weakest bounce from any political convention in history for Bush. I actually woke up at 5 a.m. this morning worrying about this stuff.

It is so obvious to me that Bush is bad for the country on all levels. He has succeeded in nothing. Yet I have to wonder if our electorate likes to elect morons. Or maybe it’s the moron vote that Bush is counting on. My hope is that Gadflyer is correct and that the vast majority of people made up their minds months ago. If so it may be a nail biter of an election, but it still favors Kerry. Anyhow it’s no time for us Democrats to be complacent. If you don’t like Bush and you aren’t registered to vote please get registered if you still can. Dig into your pocket and support liberal 527s organizations like ACT. Spend some time if you can possibly find it to work in a precinct, make cold calls and go door to door. The election won’t be handed to Democrats on a silver platter. We’re going to have to work for it with every last ounce of our strength. But when victory arrives it will be all the sweeter.

The end of the fast food job

The Thinker by Rodin

It seems even the fast food industry is not immune from outsourcing. I don’t know why this article surprised me, but it did. An excerpt:

Pull off U.S. Interstate Highway 55 near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and into the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s next to the highway and you’ll get fast, friendly service, even though the person taking your order is not in the restaurant – or even in Missouri.

The order taker is in a call center in Colorado Springs, more than 900 miles, or 1,450 kilometers, away, connected to the customer and to the workers preparing the food by high-speed data lines. Even some restaurant jobs, it seems, are not immune to outsourcing.

The man who owns the Cape Girardeau restaurant, Shannon Davis, has linked it and three other of his 12 McDonald’s franchises to the Colorado call center, which is run by another McDonald’s franchisee, Steven Bigari. And he did it for the same reasons that other business owners have embraced call centers: lower costs, greater speed and fewer mistakes.

Cheap, quick and reliable telecommunications lines let the order takers in Colorado Springs converse with customers in Missouri, take an electronic snapshot of them, display their order on a screen to make sure it is right, then forward the order and the photo to the restaurant kitchen. The photo is destroyed as soon as the order is completed, Bigari said. People picking up their burgers never know that their order traverses two states and bounces back before they can even start driving to the pickup window.

Davis said that he had dreamed of doing something like this for more than a decade. “We could not wait to go with it,” he added.

Bigari, who created the call center for his own restaurants, was happy to oblige – for a small fee per transaction. McDonald’s Corp. said it found the call center idea interesting enough to start a test with three stores near its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, with different software than that used by Bigari. But it added that it was more focused on other, continuing customer service improvements, like adding wireless Web access, or Wi-Fi, to restaurants, and introducing ways to let customers pay with credit and debit cards.

Jim Sappington, a McDonald’s vice president for information technology, said that it was “way, way too early” to tell if the call center idea would work across the 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.

You realize that it is now only a matter of time before you pull up to a fast food franchise and instead of your order being taken by a call center in Colorado Springs, someone will take it in Bangalore or Manila.

But this is just a start. I have to wonder what took the fast food industry so long. For an industry that works on tiny margins, low wages and lots of sweat I would have thought they would have outsourced their drive through order takers years ago. Like the amoral owners of Wal-Mart fast food owners have no shame. What they seemed to lack until now is some imagination on how to change their business model to pump up their profits. Shannon Davis has figured it out.

Of course I have to wonder why fast food restaurants require a human being to take orders at all. There are ways to remove the human being entirely from the drive thru order taking process. Most likely you pump and pay for your own gas. For now fast food restaurants can simply create an express drive through lane. In this lane you enter your order onto a touch pad screen. You can even pay for your order by inserting your debit or credit card into the convenient slot next to the screen. For a while restaurants may need a lane for those old fashioned types who can’t seem to place an order without talking to an actual human being. But that will change as we evolve into a cashless society.

But let’s think large. Actually interacting with a human being when getting fast food is so 20th century. Fast food restaurants could have us assemble our own orders too. Hamburgers and fries could pop down through chutes at the pickup window.

Doubtless there are lots of other ways to take the human out of preparing fast food too. Why not a robot at the French fry vat? Machines could also potentially cook, garnish, assemble and wrap hamburgers too.

By 2050 I predict that we will have the virtually manpower free fast food restaurant. Someone will still have to deliver the food to the stores, but perhaps programmed trucks could pull into automated docking stations at the back of a fast food restaurant. Then robotic arms could remove packets and place them into staging areas where other machines would draw on them as necessary. How efficient!

Those who quaintly want to eat at the restaurant could be accommodated without a single member of the service class. Greatly advanced Roombas could take care of sweeping the floors. Other robots could handle wiping counters. Some entrepreneur will doubtless create a restroom-cleaning robot too. Actually they have already created a self-cleaning restroom. But expect that fast food restaurant owners will be savvy enough to charge for the privilege.

Admittedly it will make things tough for youth looking for that first entry-level job or for that knowledge worker whose expertise has been outsourced overseas or is accomplished with artificial intelligence software. But that’s the price we pay for progress in this country. Whatever makes us more efficient is good. These were mindless, dead end jobs that no one could survive on anyhow. We might as well let the technology do it for us.

Watch out Wendy’s. McDonalds will be savvy enough to see the dollar signs in their shareholders’ eyes when this proves viable. Taco Bell has done most of their food preparation outside the restaurant for years. Yes, the first phase of the restaurant wars of the 21st century has begun. And fast food workers will be victims.

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.

What’s Going on at NASA?

The Thinker by Rodin

My friend Tom and I were big space program enthusiasts growing up in the 60s. It was hard not to be excited about the space program during that time, but we were something like fanatics about it back then. The space program embodied the best of American ingenuity at a time beset with otherwise pretty nasty problems like Vietnam, toxic waste and large city riots. In a country that at times seemed to be teetering on the edge of anarchy, it provided focus and pride.

What we accomplished in so short a time was amazing. Alan Shepard took his first suborbital flight on Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. We landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, a mere 8 years, 2 months and 15 days later. We did it in an environment in which pretty much everything was unknown, including whether humans could even survive in weightlessness. In such a short time we created three types of manned space capsules (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) and a number of manned launch vehicles (Redstone, Titan, Saturn 1, Saturn 1-B and Saturn V). Except for the Apollo 1 accident, which killed three astronauts testing on a launch pad, it was a casualty free.

Many of us who were alive then will remember those days as glory days. It was so damned exciting! Moving to Florida as I did in 1972 was something of a mixed blessing, because I was close enough to Cape Kennedy where I could actually see a few launches. I felt the pressure of a Saturn V rocket against my chest launching Skylab into orbit, fully nine miles away watching it from across the lagoon from Merritt Island. The future seemed pretty limitless.

Reaching the Moon turned out to be something of a problem because suddenly there was no goal to shoot for anymore. After Apollo 11 each subsequent lunar mission seemed less compelling to the public and Congress seemed less inclined to open its checkbook to NASA. That pattern has continued to the present.

I have never worked for NASA but my brother Jim worked for it for a while as an intern and as a post-graduate. My brother in law Jim joined NASA in the mid 1980s and has risen pretty far in the organization, and has been program director for a number of projects. More recently my sister Doris, who has been on the edges of the manned space flight effort for years, accepted a job with NASA.

But as you know these are not great days for NASA. The Columbia disaster on February 1st shook me but at the same time I was wondering why it took so long. It was remarkable, under the circumstances that no manned space flight fatalities had happened in our program since the Challenger disaster.

Perusing the compulsory blue ribbon report the other day, there were technical reasons for the disaster, but equally important were the policy reasons for the disaster. It is clear to me that the real cause of the disaster was that the manned space program has been short shrifted by Congress and ignored by the White House for many years. Apparently we haven’t learned much from the Challenger disaster. After that disaster there was a similar blue ribbon commission. There were pledges to make safety a number one priority then too.

But the space program wasn’t sexy any more, and there were tax cuts, and budget deficits, and a lot of silly ideology that NASA was saddled with that really never made much sense but which NASA had to follow anyhow. Over the years funding for the space shuttle was cut 40%. As a result there have been fewer flights, and each flight became more expensive, and despite assurances NASA lied even to itself and made numerous shortcuts around safety.

Perhaps the stupidest decision NASA made was to turn over much of the operations to a consortium. It resulted in decisions being made by contractors that should have been made by NASA. NASA employees were increasingly disconnected from the technical reality of what it took to run a space program. Cost concerns became the primary concern. As much as safety was considered the top priority, it is clear that Congress was not going to provide the money to fund shuttle safety properly. And NASA managers, being managers, weren’t going to tell Congress and the Administration they couldn’t ensure safety anyhow. They knew who provided the butter for their bread.

We wanted to run a manned space program on the cheap and it didn’t work. The idea of a reusable shuttle as a cost effective means of providing transportation to space has, unfortunately, been discredited. This is not to say it is not possible, but it wasn’t possible with the technologies we had available in the 1970s. And we continue to limp along with that because Congress doesn’t want to pony up the money to replace it. And so old hardware continues to deteriorate, accidents happen and people die. Congress will browbeat NASA, but if it wants to see the true cause of the problem, it only needs to look in the mirror. This is the consequence of underfunding, inattention, lax oversight and one size fits all agencies ideology from both parties.

I wonder now if there is the will to even continue our manned space flight program. I suspect it will survive somehow, but it will be a long time before our geriatric shuttle fleet is retired and replaced by something else. That something else, perhaps the National Aero-Space Plane, seems a long way away. It will require much more money than it is getting now to make it a reality. Its technology may be too advanced at this particular time in our history. Time will hopefully tell. But so far Congress hasn’t invested much money in a replacement to the space shuttle, beyond basic research.

I do hope our manned space flight program survives. It continues to inspire not just middle-aged people like me but plenty of youth. If it is killed it will be like sticking a knife into the soul of our country. You can probably trace the beginning of the decline of the United States from such a decision. A space program doesn’t look all that good to administrations driven by capitalist ideology and enamored with balance sheets. We need a new goal: a colony on the moon perhaps, or a manned trip to Mars. None of this is beyond us. But it costs money.

It would however continue to be an excellent investment in our human spirit and potential.

An Open Letter to George W. Bush

The Thinker by Rodin

Dear Mr. President,

I hope it’s okay if I can be informal and call you George. I promise not to call you, for today at least, some of those less flattering names that many have openly called you.

I have for you today, sir, one heaping serving of humble pie for your immediate consumption. It is time for you to come to the table. I know you don’t want to but I know you are heading that direction, however unwillingly, because I read this today online, from Reuters:

With American soldiers dying nearly every day in Iraq the Bush administration decided to negotiate with the United Nations Security Council on a multinational force under U.S. command that would encourage more countries to contribute troops and money.

All I can say is good luck George. You’re going to need a lot of it. You’re not just a day late and a dollar short. You are six months late and at least $50B short. And I fear even after eating this large dish of humble pie, it won’t be enough. You’ve so thoroughly upset our traditional allies that they want to have nothing to do with you or your ideas now. No one will blame Germany and France now if they say “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

How could this have happened George? You knew that our invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. And that was largely true. The invasion went fine. We rolled over Saddam and his army without too much work. This is, after all, a nation that had suffered over a decade of sanctions. It is a country where outside of Baghdad much of the population lives in mud huts. With the largest and best equipped army in history winning the war was a given under these circumstances. I’m sure you felt a great deal of pride at your sterling leadership when you walked out of that fighter jet and onto the desk of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln back in May. You said major combat operations were over. But golly, it seems we’ve lost more soldiers in Iraq since that day than prior to it. This must be very puzzling to you George.

In retrospect are your mistakes clear yet? Probably not, but let me lay them out for you:

  • Even the largest military in the free world has its limits. We apparently can occupy but not actually control one country the size of California with the bulk of our Army, which is about 150,000 men and women. Better put those dreams of an American empire on hold.
  • The United Nations may be a disagreeable organization to you and what you perceive to be our national interests, but it is not irrelevant. In fact it is the only organization on the planet that can speak for the world. Because it can, it has legitimacy the United States does not. When the UN speaks, people and other countries listen.
  • You don’t launch wars based on what you believe the truth to be. Decisions of this magnitude are based on actual facts and credible intelligence. You discounted your own intelligence community because it wasn’t telling you what you wanted to hear, and you gave credence to known Iraqi expatriate flakes with known criminal backgrounds like Ahmad Chalabi.
  • They are not either with us or against us. They are with us when it meets their selfish needs, and against us when it doesn’t. Actually most of the time “they” don’t give a damn. The fact that terrorists attacked us on 9/11 is our problem, not the government of Botswana’s.
  • If you tell terrorists and insurgents to “bring ’em on” they are likely to rise to the challenge.
  • For some reasons countries behave a lot like people. Perhaps that is because countries consist of people, and their leaders have feelings just like you do. So telling France and Germany effectively to piss off does not build good will; it makes these countries react in more extreme ways than they would otherwise.
  • As I told you before diplomacy does not mean “we get things our way or we leave”. It means coming together in good faith and without bad feelings and making necessary compromises so that all parties can find a “win-win” solution. It means going in to negotiations with a genuine willingness to listen and to take the positions of other parties seriously. The United Nations is not irrelevant, George. Rather than proving it irrelevant, you have proved it is needed now more than ever.
  • Wars can’t be won on the cheap, and are much harder to win when large and ill advised tax cuts are bleeding the treasury of the money it needs to run the government. Tell us taxpayers again how, in a bad economy, it is more important to rebuild Iraq instead of restoring the cuts to fully fund your “No Child Left Behind” law.
  • Maybe contracting out essential services on the battlefield is a terrible idea. Your contracting out nonsense means that our soldiers cannot get spare parts they need to keep their Bradley vehicles running. Haliburton employees apparently aren’t going to risk their lives to get spare to our forces when our army isn’t sufficient to ensure their safety. They are contractors, not soldiers. They cannot be compelled to put their personal safety at risk.
  • Maybe it’s not a good idea to open up a second front while the first front is still engaged in heavy action. Maybe we should have demonstrated we could find and kill bin Laden, destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda and bring democracy to Afghanistan BEFORE we rushed into Iraq to topple a despot who was no threat to us.
  • In fact, maybe to run a war on terrorism, we should concentrate on those terrorists who are an actual threat to OUR citizens. There is no doubt Saddam terrorized and killed his own people, but he was NO threat to our citizens. Al Qaeda is a demonstrated threat to our national security. Hezbollah is not. Let Israel deal with Hezbollah and if we ever destroy Al Qaeda then let’s then think about those lesser known terrorist organizations with other axes to grind.
  • Maybe it’s a good idea to listen seriously to divergent opinions before starting a major war. We were out there holding peace rallies and marching on the Mall. You were in Camp David isolated with your parroting advisors. We were wasting our breath protesting. You had made up your mind months earlier to invade Iraq and wouldn’t let some “misguided” fellow citizens deter you from your own pompous convictions.

George, one would think we have learned these lessons before, such as in Vietnam, and would have learned from them. It’s a shame you couldn’t be bothered to read about the causes of our involvement in that war before you launched this one. Some would contend you were strung out on cocaine at the time, or drunk. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s clear you avoided Vietnam like the plague and your service in the Texas Air National Guard was scattershot at best.

It was my opinion even before this war started that not only would it turn out badly, but it would be your undoing, be bad for your party and put a Democrat in the White House in 2005, if not overturn the Congress. George, when history is written about the decline and fall of the modern Republican Party, you will be its poster child.

I hope you enjoy clearing brush in Crawford, Texas in 2005. You’ll have plenty of time for it.

Sincerely,

Mark

Outsourcing Madness

The Thinker by Rodin

News item: 150 federal workers rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D. C. to protest zealous efforts to “outsource” their jobs to the private sector.

I had no idea about this rally. I suspect if the word had gotten around there would have been a lot more people at the rally. But hey, it’s a start.

It’s the same everywhere in here in Fed World. Today in my vanpool those who work in the Department of Agriculture were noting their “All Hands” meeting today. The primary discussion of course is outsourcing. How many of these good and hard working federal employees, many of whom have been employed for dozens of years, will still have a job in a year? How high do you think their morale is while this process is underway?

Maybe the way to keep their job in this economy is to surrender and to find out what contracting agency will fill their jobs and apply to them. At least they’ll have the requisite experience for the job. Anyhow, if airline employees can be continually downsized why not federal employees? What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander after all. Umm, all this IS good, right? Taxpayers are going to get a great return for their tax dollar right? Think again.

In the process of moving from federal employee to contractor they may give up some of those little fringe benefits they took for granted, like more than a week or two of vacation a year, or health insurance, or a 401-K plan. But at least maybe they will be employed, although for likely far less than they make now. These new contracting executives will need their Mercedes Benz and their cushy offices. That will require the usual deal: charge the government more than the true cost of federal employees but caveat it with “Hey, if you don’t need them they can be easily terminated”, take 50% of the margin for “overhead” and give the rest, or less, to the employee. Federal employee numbers go down. Bush can claim he has reduced the size of the government and made the government more lean and efficient.

Now I’m certainly not saying that some contracting doesn’t make sense. It would make no sense to have civil servants build B-1 bombers. It didn’t make much sense 20 years ago when I started working in the government to have civil servants cleaning restrooms or maintaining an agency’s fleet of automobiles. There are jobs that are so generic that there is nothing the least bit “federal” about them. The crux of the matter is whether a job is “inherently governmental”. Over the years as the politically inspired outsourcing pressure has increased the line between what is inherently governmental has gone from dubious at best to outright silly.

The latest example that I read about is this attempt by the Department of the Interior to outsource grants management specialists. What does a grants management specialist do? Their job is to ensure that when the federal government doles out the dollars to accomplish some mission on behalf of the federal government that the money is used according to law. But apparently the Department of the Interior thinks “Hey, we can hire a contractor to see if our contractors are doing the job correctly.” This is lunacy. What the hell is more inherently governmental than this?

But outsourcing is just one example of dubious management in the federal government. The Bush Administration, like those before it, is convinced there are too many supervisors in the federal government. The solution is to reduce middle management and “flatten hierarchies”. In my agency we’ve become so flattened that management has basically no idea what I actually do and no time to monitor my work.

No, I am not kidding. I wish I were. We were reorganized recently. Of course we’re not going to get any new people to replace those who left because in addition to flatting hierarchies we want to give the appearance that the federal government is not growing too. My new supervisor is a GS-15 who was given the job in addition to his previous job of being the information technology security officer for the agency. What is he actually doing day to day? Think he’s managing the people below him? Think again. Mostly what he does is spend 80% of his time working on some departmental security initiative that keeps him out of the office or unavailable to manage during that time. This is what his bosses are telling him. So he has almost no time to know what any of us are doing.

In short the hierarchy has been flattened so much that accountability has been squeezed out! There is no time to manage people and balance the resources and work among us. But in reality my boss, through no fault of his own but simply through circumstances, really has no idea what I do beyond “project management”. When it comes time to do my employee evaluation, assuming he actually has time to read my accomplishments, he will find out what I did for him last year. Hopefully it will be in line with what he would have wanted me to do in the first place, if he had the time to tell me, which he won’t. He won’t have time to even think through the problem in the first place.

In reality there is no accountability in my organization. I come to work and do my job but I could just as easily sit at my desk and play solitaire all day because it is unlikely anyone would notice. In fact I do come to work and put in a solid day’s work, but even so I have no idea whether I am doing good or bad. My performance evaluation criteria are so generic it bears little or no resemblance to my effort. There is no clear expectation of what I am supposed to be doing in the first place. I just keep doing what I’ve been doing and perhaps naively volunteer to take on new tasks from time to time feeling I should be a “team player”. These new tasks generally show up as a result of talking with people or from phone calls.

One would hope that our executives would understand the dichotomy of what they expect from their managers. In short they expect the impossible. If you tell my manager to spend 80% of his time doing something other than his job, which has supervisor in the title, then he is not going to be able to manage us. If in addition you flatten hierarchies so much that even if he had the time he wouldn’t be able to manage our time effectively then the obvious conclusion is that you need more managers, not less. If a manager can’t manage the people under them then they can’t hold them accountable and employees’ productivity is likely being squandered.

It is time to acknowledge the obvious: you get the government you pay for. We’ve collapsed hierarchies too much; we need to add managers, not subtract them. We need not just figurehead managers, but real managers, trained in actual management who read books by Jack Welch. And our executives need to set their managers free so they can actually manage their people in alignment with organizational goals.

And as for outsourcing, it based on the notion that just about any task can be neatly packaged and handed off and doesn’t require any real governmental oversight except for remembering to renew the contract when it comes up. No one will admit that, of course, but that’s the naked reality.

That’s not management, folks.

The True Size of Government

The Thinker by Rodin

My agency is going through another one of its periodic, politically required, staff reductions. My agency is hardly unique. Cutting the number of federal employees has become the key metric for demonstrating that government itself is smaller. In 1996 when President Clinton declared the era of big government was over there were approximately 1.9 million of us on the payroll. This follows a downward trend that President Bush is only accelerating.

If government is getting smaller why does it still feel so big? Our office space has not shrunk, and I don’t pass rows of empty cubicles every day. The answer becomes a lot clearer when I look at who is now occupying cubicles of the departed. Their badges are not white. Their badges are pink. In my agency this means they are a contractor. It should not be news that the federal government has relied more on contractors and less on civil servants to get its work done. Indeed in my agency the political imperative to contract out is written into the performance plan of every manager. These contractors are doing work that previously was done by federal employees. Those in favor of a leaner and meaner federal government should applaud. But is the government really any leaner?

Clearly the cost of a federal employee is not a trivial expense. We come with generous leave allowances and decent health care plans. Those of us who remain often have other benefits, such as flexible work schedules and, increasingly, flexible work locations too. And no civil servant I’ve run into can candidly admit they haven’t seen fellow employees abuse the civil service rules and get away with it. Clearly some reforms are needed. I can report after nearly 20 years in the federal trenches that the stereotype of the lazy government bureaucrat is a rare exception to the rule.

One motivation for hiring a contractor instead of a federal employee is that they are expendable. Or are they? I found a curious thing when I arrived at my agency in 1998. Many of the contractors had been working for and supporting the agency longer than many of the federal employees. On those infrequent occasions when contract companies changed, the new contractor invariably picked up these old time contractors. Even more alarming from my perspective is that they often had sole subject matter expertise. If all our contractors were to leave tomorrow it is not even clear that my agency could even function in any meaningful sense. In the information technology shop where I work, many of us “feds” would be hard pressed to modify a line of code, and would be harder pressed to find it. If a contractor looks like a fed, talks like a fed, and squawks like a fed, isn’t it a fed? Clearly the Bush Administration doesn’t think so, and Congress shares this opinion. To admit otherwise would be to admit that government is not leaner than it was.

A leaner government should be able to squeeze more value for the taxpayer. As a taxpayer I certainly hope this is the case, but I am skeptical. Most of the contractors I encounter work on services contracts. While there are exceptions most of them work in-house. My agency provides them virtually all the standard services it would provide a federal employee. Their cubicle may be a bit smaller, but they use the same phones and copiers. When they travel, they use government travel services and get the same discount airfares. But there are a few things that are different. Some of them have to take leave on federal holidays. And work cannot be directly delegated. It must go through contracting supervisors, which can create lag times. In addition the contract can be performance based.

I do know that of those contracts I have seen that the billing rates have raised my eyebrows. I know there are indirect costs (such as the cost of the infrastructure) that must be added to my direct costs that make my official salary nowhere near my true cost to the government. But these are mostly services we provide to our in-house contractors. So it is tempting, though perhaps not completely accurate, to compare direct federal costs vs. contract billing rates.

If our contractors were federal employees I’d guess their average grade would be a GS-13 making perhaps $65,000 a year. Let’s add a generous 70% for other direct employment costs such as employer contributions to social security and amortizing costs for retirement then if they were federal employees they would cost the taxpayer about $110,000 a year in direct costs. This amounts to about $53 per hour.

How much is the government being billed by the contractor for these services? If you were to add 50 to 100 percent you would be in the ballpark. Ah, but contractors are disposable! Congress could come by tomorrow and wipe out the program they support and off they would go. But of course Congress hardly ever wipes out programs. So contractors stay. And their meters keep running.

The true size of government is hard to calculate. Statistics are hard to come by because it appears that agencies don’t want to collect this information. The Brookings Institution published a persuasive book called “The True Size of Government” in 1999 that argue as of 1996 there were in excess of 12 million fulltime federal employee equivalents. Even if the true number is half that amount, the true size of the federal work force is growing.

Federal employees keep retiring at a brisk pace, often spurred on by early retirement options provided by agencies desperate to make the latest politically motivated head count. Those who remain grow grayer. It is increasingly difficult for agencies to bring in new employees to replace them. It is a safe bet that domain knowledge is being transferred to contracting staff. This assumption means that large numbers of government contractors are in effect federal employees performing inherently governmental functions. And contracting agencies are likely making very nice profits.

As a federal employee I am concerned about this trend. Congress needs to examine the true size of government and think about what it means if inherently governmental functions are being done by those who are not federal employees. New and meaningful metrics on the true size of government are needed. As a taxpayer you should consider that increasing the number of federal employees might well be in your interest, provided they are coupled with meaningful reforms in the civil service system. Be suspicious of numbers you are hearing about how the size of government has shrunk. Most likely you are being sold snake oil.

Let’s keep doing more with less and less!

The Thinker by Rodin

This is going to win me no friends on Capitol Hill, or in the White House for that matter. But isn’t it time we civil servants said “Enough with the downsizing crap!”?

I’m sick of it. Our agency is going through another one of its politically required processes to bring the number of federal employees down, down. Fortunately no one has been laid off (to my knowledge), perhaps because there are so few of us still around to actually do the government’s business. Anyhow there were “early outs” recently and it doesn’t take an abacus to figure out that this trend is going to continue until I find it worth my while to take an early out too. Since I am 45 though I would hope it wouldn’t be too soon.

But the real problem is that it’s all a numbers game. Guess what … the work load keeps increasing! Yes, fewer and fewer of us “federal staff” are expected to do more and more managing of tasks, and yet it’s not always true that we have the skill to manage the diverse stuff thrown at us. Working as a fed in my agency is like juggling balls without having any training. Okay you are doing two, now do three without even stopping. Now four! Five!

Guess what happens: less and less actually gets done. When you juggle lots of balls you have less opportunity to actually complete anything because you fight fires instead of trying to manage the big picture. So things keep getting delayed and delayed and guess what: that’s not really serving the public interest.

True we have contractors. In my office the contractors outnumber the federal staff about 5:1. It’s gotten to the point (actually it’s been this way for several years) that contractors are effectively doing things that should never be delegated to them, like making decisions on how to conduct the government’s business! There is simply no other way to do it other than to say “we can’t do it” and no one in the chain of command is capable of having spine like this.

Meanwhile middle management, who shall remain nameless but know who they are, are imploring us NOT TO QUIT. Their worst fear is that some other federal agency will hire us away. They know our slots won’t be renewed if we leave and that means even fewer people to do more and more.

It’s a vicious cycle to the bottom. Who’s at fault here? Why your leaders, of course. It’s a numbers game and has no basis in reality. What is the effect? Government is costing you more. It takes longer to do stuff and because contractors are doing the work instead of feds it costs more.

But I know you bought that soap Rush Limbaugh puts out about how “efficient” the private sector is. Yeah, right. Admittedly a federal employee comes with some long term costs: like pensions and stuff. But a GS-13 might cost, max, $50 an hour to the federal government with benefits. I can’t get into specifics here but I can tell you that contractors bill more than that per hour for the most junior level computer programmers. I know this for a fact. The same stuff I did as a GS-9 costs the government more than a fully loaded GS-13!

But you are afraid once a federal employee is hired they are hired for life? Well change the civil service law, dammit. I’m okay with making it easier to fire those of us who truly aren’t earning their salary, but the number is far smaller than people think. Otherwise a federal employee is a bargain compared to a contractor, unless perhaps we are talking about someone hired to clean restroom stalls.

Your tax money is being wasted by this politically correct nonsense. You should be up in arms.