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Bloat people.

It's bitter political irony that liberal Democrats like Sharon Pratt Dixon are the first leaders since the election of Ronald Reagan (under whom the federal workforce grew more than seven percent) to really grapple with the hard business of laying off public workers. But given the budget gridlock this summer, stretching from Maine to California, other officials probably won't be far behind. Which is why the model Dixon is forging is so alarming. As she tries to "downsize" her government, she isn't pausing to distinguish the civilians from the water buffalo from the real enemy.

Last fall, Dixon bravely campaigned on a promise to "cut 2,000 mid-management-level paper pushers from the government payrolls." The pundits thought she'd get creamed. Then they thought she wouldn't deliver. Now, less than a year later, she's poised to make good--or, sadly, to make mediocre. It's impossible to tell which workers will get the pink slips, but the mayor's firing strategy is likely to bring no lasting reform to the D.C. personnel system and, worse, no lasting reform to the D.C. government. Political compromises with the city council and fear of the civil service process have driven Dixon to adopt a firing strategy that counts only bodies, not brains or performance. Furthermore, her plan can affect barely one in 10 workers--and even among them, it's more likely to be demoralizing than motivating. In the end, as a trip through one D.C. agency shows, the mayor's plan will do nothing to wipe out the real enemies of District residents.

The fundamental problems lies with what is touted as the chief virtue of the mayor's plan: "We are not targeting people, but positions," Lorraine Green, head of the Office of Personnel, explained to reporters. As a matter of policy, an employee's skills or dedication can't be considered, only his job description--essentially the same approach that Mayor David Dinkins is using in New York City. This approach got a stern editorial endorsement from that good-government gadfly, The Washington Post: "No administration, even one with the best intentions, should be given an open license to target individuals, to decide who should be let go rather than which jobs should be abolished."

Roll that one around in your brain, and then recall the time you were standing in line to get your license renewed, listening to two city workers

chat while another three did all the work. Wouldn't you want to choose which of the five got the boot? Or consider this: If a manager has two "nonessential" employees working under him who are to be, in the New York parlance, "excessed," that means he's been wasting, say, $80,000 per year--as surely as if he were taking that public money and blowing it on live entertainment for his Friday afternoon meetings or on a Lamborghini for the staff. Maybe that manager's position is essential, but he sure isn't. Shouldn't he be shown the door? No, explains the Post, patiently. "The payroll bloat is the emergency, and the elimination of 2,000 employees is the immediate priority." That is, the deficit is the enemy, and counting to 2,000 positions, regardless of the quality of the people who fill them, is the goal. Any resulting improvement in dismal government services--any progress against the real enemy--will be pure serendipity: "Some deadwood will surely be cleared in this process, and that is good."

Homeless alone

Kevin E. could tell you a few stories about D.C.'s deadwood. In 1979, at the age of ten days, he entered the District's foster care system, a world run by bureaucrats who apparently love children so much that through assorted tricks (like losing paperwork and classifying tots as prepared for "independent living") they manage to hold onto them, as the kids learn in limbo to walk and talk and think, for as long as 11 years. According to court documents filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Kevin was returned to his mother at one point, but she abused him, so back he went to foster care. Two years later, thanks to a paperwork lapse, he was shipped back to his mother again--then, after being neglected and possibly abused, back to foster care one month later. By 1986, the Department of Human Services had settled on a great goal for Kevin: Have him adopted. But his caseworkers never tried to do so--even though two families, according to court testimony, expressed an interest. Under the supervision of at least 17 different caseworkers, Kevin has bounced from hospitals to group homes to foster homes to mental institutions. Rather than find him a family, the department finally came up with another way to comfort this needy little boy: powerful psychotropic drugs.

Then there's the deadwood at D.C.'s notorious ambulance service, still amazing after all these years. This spring, no D.C. ambulance was available to help an old friend of the mayor's when she went into cardiac arrest during an asthma attack. It took 29 minutes for a Montgomery County ambulance to reach her. She died. One woman whose husband had a heart attack recalled that, after waiting for the ambulance to arrive, she then had to wait again for the driver to find his keys. To cut its emergency response time, the District is now sending a fire truct to every medical emergency, which is a little like dispatching ambulances to put out fires. But the fire trucks aren't always so speedy, either. In February, a dispatcher goofed, failing to alert the station closest to a blaze in an abandoned building. Minutes were lost as trucks raced from further away. When they reached the scene, firemen found the body of a lone woman, apparently a vagrant who had taken shelter from the cold, a few feet inside the front door.

Those are the spectacular examples, the kind that make it all the way to the TV screen. The true horror of the way government functions, however, lies not in such shocking instances of incompetence, but in the everyday, banal ones. Whether you hold a government job or not, you must know people who "work to the rule." They never arrive early and they never stay late--they're the first to demand comp time and the last to make up for that two-hour doctor's appointment. This winter, a woman staying in one of D.C.'s homeless shelters grew increasingly deranged, refusing to come in from the rain. She had a history of mental illness, so workers at the shelter spent the day trying to reach her caseworker. The caseworker finally called back at 4:50. Too bad, she said, but I'm off work in 10 minutes.

A kindred spirit of that caseworker teaches fifth graders in the D.C. schools. She isn't selling drugs or fondling the kids, but she isn't teaching, either. "She might as well have been making canned tomatoes," fumes one parent who watched his son waste a year in the woman's class. She never prepared, didn't return papers, never stayed late to help students. "The kids became completely cynical, saying, 'She just wants us to copy the answers out of the book. She just throws them away, anyway,'" he says. "For the kids, it's about 20 percent of their conscious lives wasted."

Aside from the heartache they cause the people they're supposed to help, all these workers have something else in common: The mayor's downsizing plan can't touch them. Which means it can't even push them to work harder. The mayor won't fire people like the teacher, who works for an "independent agency" (the superintendent of schools has generously offered to pony up 300 administrative positions; a commission chaired by the economist Alice Rivlin that thoroughly evaluated the D.C. government last year conservatively asked for 800 slots). The mayor won't fire people like the dispatcher, who ranks below DS-11--the civil service level Dixon has established as her floor. She won't fire anyone who is a member of a union. That leaves her with a pool of 5,207--barely 10 percent of the District workforce--to pick from. And that pool includes people like the caseworker, whom Dixon won't fire because she holds an "essential" position. Now, cutting from those attenuated ranks will certainly help. As Scott Shuger showed in these pages last November, each manager in the District supervises about three workers; consolidating do-little management-level jobs can only make the government more efficient.

But after the sense of a coming D.C. renaissance Dixon's campaign generated last year, that gain seems so slight, and it promises to be so fleeting. Even for the 5,000 who are blowing in the breeze, Dixon's plan is less a goad to work harder than an excuse to complain. After all, their efforts will have nothing to do with whether they get sacked. "They're scared generally, because they don't know, but they don't have the fear that 'If I don't do my job, I'll get caught,'" says one worker. Once the position to be cut are announced, the so-called "bumping" rule will swing into effect, guaranteeing that the cuts will have nothing to do with performance. Through bumping, managers with little tenure in their slots can be shoved out by anyone fired from their division who has the same rank but more years of service. "That doesn't give you much solace--if you have to bump someone you know is performing," explains a city employee who is nevertheless quite prepared to take the step if need be. It doesn't give much solace to the potential bumpees, either. "I wish that some of those qualifers [about competence] were part of the criteria for selection," says one who is suspiciously eyeing her more senior coworkers. "I could lose my job, and you could wind up with someone who doesn't give two shits." Indeed. "People," explains Lorraine Green, "were never part of the equation."

Dixon's downsizing flows from a cop-out similar to the one that supervisors throughout the District government have relied on for years: It's too much work to fire a civil servant the oldfashioned way, even though he's earned it. Faced with the paperwork, D.C. supervisors say, the easiest solution is to transfer the bum--or, perversely, to write him a glowing recommendation in hopes that he gets promoted out. Because so many supervisors can't be bothered, a review of a representative sample of the D.C. personnel files last spring showed that 85 percent were missing current appraisals. The study concluded that "the present condition . . . is such that management actions which rely on these records could be seriously impeded and successfully challenged."

For all the complaining, however, it is possible to fire civil servants. In fact, often the mere threat of exposing their miserable records is enough. "More often than not the person decided to resign. My tack usually was, 'You're not doing your job, and I'm going to go through this process,'" says Dwight Cropp, a 30-year civil servant who served as Marion Barry's director of the Office of Intergovernmental Relations. No one likes to have his failures thrust in his face (or in a prospective employer's). Green says the records are now in shape. That means if Dixon challenged her supervisors to use the system, then encouraged her lawyers to trumpet to the world the incompetence of workers who illegitimately appealed their firings, she might find it's not impossible to chop away the deadwood after all. She could dismiss people because of the jobs they're doing, not their job descriptions. By taking the faster and easier route instead, she's powerfully reinforcing the notion that there can be no real accountability in the D.C. government.

There's an important difference between Dixon's approach to downsizing and the body-count strategy used during the Vietnam war. In Vietnam, bodycount logic ultimately had to yield to reality, since the inescapable fact that we weren't winning could only mean that the enemy we were supposedly killing off wasn't losing. When it comes to cutting bureaucrats, there's no such guarantee, because Dixon has misidentified the enemy, calling it insolvency rather than bad government. Five years from now, after the government has made its cuts, when the recession is over and the fiscal crisis has eased, when the leaders of Washington discover that, by the only meaningful standards, we're still losing--that the ambulance is still reaching the scene long after the old woman's heart has stopped beating, that foster children are still vanishing into the bureaucracy like so many stickballs down a sewer--they won't have to rethink their logic. They'll be able simply to blame the problem on too few resurces--"Heck, I guess those excess workers weren't excess after all"--and start hiring those people back . . . until the next fiscal crisis. As long as governments play the numbers game, the real enkeep slipping away, unscathed, into that spooky bureaucratic jungle. Because, ultimately, it's not just the positions themselves but the people who fill them that count, and who need to be counted properly.

Naming the victim

Not just political leaders make the mistake of ignoring performance on the job. For some reason, the press also tends not to treat bureaucrats as people, at least not until theyleave the office for the day. "I still hope [Dixon] reconsiders this draconian scheme to fire what would amount to a large number of black heads of households in exchange for a $200 million payoff from Congress," wrote the Post columnist Courtland Milloy. "[T]o brutally chop at the heart of Washington's black middle class to impress some disinterested white men on Capitol Hill makes her look like a modern-day plantation overseer." His language may be more colorful than most, but Milloy, in writing of public servants only as "heads of households," is simply making his contribution to the chief budget-cutback genre--the victim story.

There are two types of victims: Those whose services have been slashed ("New York City's new budget," began one New York Times story, "means that Ethany E. Watley, an 80-year-old widow who uses a wheelchair because of arthritis, no longer has a daily lunch delivered to her home in East Harlem") and those whose jobs are in danger of being cut ("'I'm holding on to every penny,' said the 40-year-old single parent who has a daughter she hopes to send to college in a couple of years"--The Washington Post). Have you ever seen a piece that treats the two types of victims together? In tackling such a story, the reporter might be forced to draw a line from the wheelchair-bound widow to the 40-year-old worker, and contend with the great, unasked questions: Well, was the worker doing a bad job of delivering the meal in the first place? Could she have found a cheaper way to do it, to save it from the budger axe? Is she really a victim, or a victimizer?

Reporters' desire to play up the drama of the jobloss-victim story has led to some revealing, formulaic lapses. Take the one-in-six refrain: Most D.C. bloat-reduction stories warn that "someone--a father, a nephew, a sister, a grandmother--in one of every six households in the District gets a paycheck from the city. And from those ranks, as many as 2,000 could be out of a job soon." O.K. One in six households has a city worker . . . 2,000 on the chopping block . . . that's one in every 24 workers . . . Hey~ That means a whopping 1 in every 144 homes will be affected~ And come to think of it, 144 in every 144 homes have to file tax returns, and 144 in 144 homes count on the city for vital services. Here's another favorite: The classes of workers that Dixon has targeted have salaries ranging from $31,027 to $81,885--but for some reason, only the bottom figure is ever provided (just as only the top figure for the cuts is ever given; in fact, Dixon is planning to lay off between 1,200 and 2,000 workers). There may be a legitimate case to be made for the government to serve as the employer of last resort, but it quickly unravels when the wages run up as high as $81,000. If John Sununu had taken between 1 and 50 private trips in Air Force jets, don't you susect the Post would supply the whole range?

All of this is not to deny the very real pain in store for those who lose their jobs. It's just to say that, in seizing on the pat drama these victim stories offer, reporters do a huge disservice to both city workers and city residents. Milloy, for one, has ripped into the services provided by what he has called "pitiful city government." If the mayor were targeting workers for incompetence, rather than for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then her critics would have a much tougher time attacking her. But given the mayor's lack of interest, the press ought to take the opportunity presented by downsizing to do the hard work of giving a face to the bureaucracy, exposing the public servants responsible for pitiful government and protecting those black (and white) heads of households who are doing their damnedest to make the system work. It's not easy, particularly when jobs are on the line. But if they would try, they'd discover that bureaucrats at work can provide drama at least as complex and rich as those about to be axed. Consider the city employees who staff D.C.'s Department of Administrative Services. In the course of doing (and not doing) the people's business, they've performed everything from miracle turnarounds to shady real estate deals to sodomy. The stories of the agency and a few of its workers show how much of a difference a thorough downsizing would make--and how little difference the mayor's will.

DAS bloat

First, the duties. The Department of Administrative Services is supposed to help other D.C. government administrators administer their administrations more efficiently. Believe it or not, it's an important role--or at least it could be--as suggested by this pious call-and-response between Rep. Julian Dixon and Raymond Lambert, then the director of DAS, during last year's District appropriations subcommittee hearings:

MR. LAMBERT: We are the backbone of the government.

MR. DIXON: You are the nerve center of the District government.

MR. LAMBERT: And as other agencies increase in size and have more responsibilities, our responsibilities also increase.

DAS oversees procurement for the government; it buys, leases, and maintains its buildings; and it buys its computer and telecommunications systems. Three of the four main goals laid out by the Rivlin Commission for making the government work better--"investing in automated systems and new technology," "consolidating administrative facilities," and "streamlining purchasing and procurement"--are DAS functions, and the fourth--"reducing excessive staffing, especially at middle management levels"--is one DAS could accomplish as well, since it would come as a byproduct of the other three. If you wanted to make a stab at reforming the District government, serving as the director of DAS wouldn't be a bad place to start.

And you wouldn't necessarily need more people to do it--you'd just need to figure out how to use some of the ones you've got effectively. Like the Vietcong, the DAS staff, on paper, doesn't seem too formidable. After all, its numbers actually declined, due to attrition, during the late eighties. Lambert summed up this terrible problem last year: Since September of 1988, "we have lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 115 people. . . . That has had a devastating impact." Despite the devastation, the agency this year requested a decrease of another 75 full-time positions out of last year's total of 439. "If you're looking at an agency for waste, you won't find much at DAS," says a former D.C. council aide who oversaw the DAS budget.

Certainly, DAS can't compete with some other D.C. agencies, in particular the Department of Human Services and the school bureaucracy, for bloat. But when you examine the apparent DAS shrinkage, it reveals what a shell game staffing in the D.C. government can be. Those 75 slots, paid for in last year's budget, were already empty--some of them had been that way for more than three years; either the agency had been taking the money that was intended for them and spending it elsewhere, or, as Lambert says, he wasn't actually receiving the total appropriation he'd been promised. (Similarly, the superintendent of schools came under fire earlier this year when it was discovered that 75 of the administrative slots he'd promised to axe were already empty.)

In any event, in cutting those 75 positions, DAS dumped no one. This kind of cutting, which Dixon has done throughout the government, is smart, because as soon as the fiscal crisis ends, those slack positions, if still on the books, would quickly fill. But it doesn't address the government's real problems, as DAS's response to that troublesome Rivlin Commission demonstrates. The Commission suggested that DAS axe 20 wasteful middle management positions. Of those, DAS cut 11. Of those, 8 slots were occupied, inconveniently, by live human beings. Those people were all transferred to other jobs within DAS. By the way, most of the empty slots were below DS-11; of those warm bodies left in DAS, more than one in three--39.1 percent--are DS-11s or above; in other words, each manager has, on average, about 2.5 people to manage.

What is astonishing about all this is its completely random quality. Surely some of those slots, emptied by attrition, were so crucial that they would have to be filled. But in general they weren't--suggesting that most of them were to some degree "nonessential." Instead of the presence of work dictating the need for a worker, the reverse relationship appears to pertain. Which would seem to imply an absence of work. Rep. Dixon, a year ago, couldn't quite puzzle it out. "It just doesn't make any sense. Maybe the truth," he suggested, "is that [DAS] has got 439 employees and only 39 are working." If he's right--and the way some DAS staff members talk, his guess isn't as ridiculous as it sounds--there's no way Mayor Dixon will ever find out about it.

Although bloat is a drain on the District's resources and contributes mightily to inefficiency, the problem is more profound than that--a fact the mayor's strategy ignores. "In most cases," says Dwight Cropp, workers "have been around a while, and have been allowed to function at a mediocre or less level, and in many cases it wasn't that they couldn't function at a higher level, it was that they hadn't been challenged and so had gotten into bad habits . . . and it was hard if not impossible to turn them around." Working to the rule isn't a problem just in D.C. As Bruce Gordon, a recently retired DAS manager, puts it: "You know what's wrong with the system? People who are mediocre become superstars. Mediocrity looks like excellence. I kept getting outstanding ratings in the federal system, but I'm not outstanding--I'm mediocre. I just get it done." The really good ones, he says, the ones who show initiative, stay late, take work home, "are the ones getting screwed--the Sarah Lyons."

Sarah Lyon doesn't work at DAS anymore; she quit in May. "She breaks the mold," Gordon explains. "She was a hard worker, and the mold there is to be laid back and comfortable." Lyon has filed a suit against the District alleging she was discriminated against. A DS-12 staff appraiser for the troubled Real Property Administration within DAS, she applied for three different supervisory positions in 1988. According to court documents filed by Lyon's attorney, of the four to six people who applied for each position, Lyon was the only applicant who was white, the only applicant who was not rated "well qualified" and hence was not interviewed--and the only applicant who had training in negotiating contracts, a BA degree, a graduate business education, and a real estate broker's license. (But then again, even the associate director of the Real Property Administration, William Reddick, who supervises millions of dollars worth of property, doesn't have an active broker's license; according to the records of the D.C. Real Estate Commission, his license was suspended in 1988 for "conduct [that] demonstrated unworthiness to act as a real estate broker so as to endanger the public interest" and that "constituted fraudulent or dishonest dealing." That finding apparently hasn't slowed him down much: "Like everybody else," says one Real Property staff member, "Bill buys a real estate and does personal things while on the job.")

Maybe Lyon, who wouldn't speak about her case, didn't deserve the promotion. But she certainly didn't deserve what came after she began filing internal grievances. As happened in at least two similar cases at DAS, supervisors began to harass her, Lyon claims: She was denied material she needed to do her work; she was designated "absent without leave" while she was on her lunch hour. Eventually, she requested to be detailed to another agency (where she was credited with helping beef up the District's new appraiser licensing program), and then, from that new position, asked not to be returned to DAS; DAS put her right back under the same supervisors. Lyon quit.

It might be that Lyon really wasn't much of a worker, that, despite the praise of co-workers, all her credentials were only that, credentials . . . except for one thing. Sarah Lyon is the woman that Housing and Urban Development investigators say blew open D.C.'s own HUD scandal, the nation's largest. As a temporary employee at HUD in 1984, Lyon came across disturbing similarities in the applications for mortgage loan guarantees she was evaluating. Her supervisor told her to forget about it and stick to her paperwork. Lyon stayed on the trail, using her evenings and weekends to study property records and visit sites. Eventually, she found enough dirt to spark a federal investigation that uncovered a network of hundreds of lawyers, real estate brokers, and investors that had cost the taxpayers millions of dollars and tossed hundreds of District residents out of their homes. Thanks to Lyon, more than 50 crooks have received prison terms so far. She was presented with assorted awards, including a special City Council resolution last year commending her for uncovering "the most notorious real estate scam in the District of Columbia." But Lyon breaks the mold--she is a whistleblower and the kind of worker who makes her supervisors look like laggards--so today she's looking for a job. HUD wouldn't hir her as a permanent employee. And now DAS has driven her out of government work entirely.

Inspector generous

The mayor's downsizing is the reduction ad absurdum of a system that doesn't track performance by agency, let alone by individual. "There are no standards, there are no yardsticks--deliberately," says a former DAS worker. "See, that way you can keep changing the rules so the person in control can stay in control."

Take how DAS responded to the Procurement Practices Act of 1985. The act demanded, sensibly enough, that after all these years the District establish guidelines for training its procurement officers--you know, the folks responsible for spending millions of taxpayer dollars. DAS was tasked with designing the training program. The Office of the Inspector General, the mayor's watchdog, followed up to make sure the job was getting done:

March 31, 1989: In establishing a procurement personnel and procurement training system, DAS has placed the establishment of the [Procurement Officer Warrant Program] and the training of those procurement officers as the highest priority. . . . DAS expects to formally announce the POWP to agencies and the fee schedule for the required training by the end of June 1989.

March 31, 1990: Plans are under way for the development of subsequent training sessions for District-wide procurement personnel. Also, work continues on the establishment by DAS of the Procurement Officer Warrant Program which will result in the certification of contracting personnel upon successful completion of mandatory procurement courses. It is anticipated that this program will be implemented during fiscal year 1991.

March 31, 1991: DAS is still focusing on developing training sessions for District-wide procurement personnel. Also, DAS continues its efforts to establish the Procurement Officer Warrant Program. This will result in the certification of contracting personnel after the successful completion of mandatory procurement training courses. It is anticipated that this program will be implemented during fiscal year 1992.

You can picture the inspector general, hunched over his word processor, slaving away at next year's blistering critique--

SEARCH: 1992.


Training programs like this are the sort of thing that allow governments to cut bloat effectively, doing more work with fewer workers . . . which may be one reason DAS has failed to come up with one. As one DAS staff member puts it, "Why would I teach someone else to do my job?"

This failure of follow-through by the official watchdogs leaves the field to one guardian: the press. But while both The Washington Post and The Washington Times report on the occasional scandalous contract negotiated by DAS (most recently, on the purchase of a new headquarters for the D.C. government, for which DAS had wildly varying appraisals), neither paper has looked to see how the system itself breaks down. "Everyone at the Post sort of stayed away from [DAS] because it was supposed to be such a morass," says Margaret Engel, a former Post Metro reporter. "You could never get any reports out of it." Unfortunately, you could stick almost any agency's acronym between those brackets, and the statement would still ring true.

Contract killers

When you ask them about accountability, some veteran DAS workers start talking dreamily about the brief period that Bruce Gordon ran the procurement division. Gordon's accomplishments there--and how they were undone--demonstrate why it's the person, rather than the position, that matters. The District government charges DAS with both overseeing the $1 billion in procurement city agencies do each year and handling a large chunk of the contracting itself. As one might expect, given the absence of a training program, it doesn't do a very good job. A study completed for the Rivlin Commission reported that some 70 percent of contracts reviewed contained errors or lacked documentation. The federal government sets as its standard that each contract officer handle 25 contracts per year; in the District, that ration works out to 1 to 10. "There is not," the report observed dryly, "a discernible relationship between the procurement workload of the many departments/offices and their staffing complement." If the District hit the federal standard, it could lay off 122 procurement officers, for savings of $5 million; if the remaining workers jacked up their productivity by a mere 2 percent, the Rivlin auditor calculated, the city could save $25 million each year.

When he arrived in 1988, Gordon wa shocked by what he found at DAS. "One of the things I found, if you were experienced, you were taken advantage of. . . . The other people sit back and read the newspapers while you're working hard and staying late, and everyone else is going home. It's always the people who are doing the right thing who get taken advantage of. It's a disincentive to doing a good job." Thanks to that environment, DAS was taking up to three years to process contracts. There was no system for tracking the millions of dollars in procurement requests that poured through the office, Gordon discovered, no system to show who was gumming up the works and whether the process was being abused.

So he created one. Gordon broke his staff down into teams: "What I was trying to do was to make them accountable by giving performance markers to make sure they had produced within a certain time." As procurement requests came in from the agencies, he sent out memos laying out specific deadlines for moving contracts through. "What we were doing was establishing contract specialist standards to measure them on a weekly and monthly basis, from when the contract was instituted to when it was executed: Were they producing on schedule, and was it accurate and complete? [Their reports] all had to come to me with signatures." What happened next, according to one involved DAS worker, was "magical." "They started competing among themselves, putting peer pressure on the nonperformers," says Gordon, giving an appraisal that is supported by other past and present DAS workers. Productivity shot up. (Just to give you some sense of how low the standards were to begin with, however, here's one observer of the process waxing rapturous over Gordon's reforms: "One Friday afternoon they had a meeting, and the staff did not leave till after 6 o'clock--they did not want to leave.") "The number of errors decreased considerably," says Lambert, the former director. "I don't know that that was continued after [Gordon] left."

It wasn't. Once the system was up and running, Gordon had a meeting with his supervisor, Lorraine Green: "I was looking for an 'attaboy'--a pat on the back. What'd I get instead? A kick in the ass." Gordon says Green told him she wasn't interested in his reforms. "The reason you're tired," he remembers her saying, "is that you're doing things you don't need to do." When Lambert, who today says Gordon did an "outstanding job," nevertheless backed Green up, Gordon tried to quit. But Lambert convinced him to accept a post in another division of the agency. "I never in my career directed anyone not to work hard," says Green of the incident. "I don't recall that," says Lambert, now the inspector general of Philadelphia. "It might have happened, but I just don't recall."

When Gordon transferred, Lambert moved another man into the procurement job. "The fellow who took over after him just scuttled the entire system, reduced accountability to zero," says a recently resigned DAS manager. It's worth noting that a previous director of DAS, after raising questions about the way city officials were manipulating the contracting process, found himself demoted within two days, investigated by the mayor's office within a week, and out on the street within two months. Lorraine Green, you will recall, is now the director of the Office of Personnel, from where she is supervising the mayor's effort to downsize the government--deciding who's doing precisely the things they need to do.

Inside jobs

Zero-point-two percent: That's how many of the people who work for her D.C.'s new mayor has been able to hire. At DAS, she was able to stick in one person to energize an agency of close to 400. As a result, she confronts a network of longtime District workers who can subvert not only her downsizing, but other reforms as well. The mayor's tightly circumscribed ability to hire and fire is a function of the civil service reforms intended to protect good government from political shenanigans, reforms that have been consecrated by time. Even as the city council gave the mayor emergency powers, it retained the bumping provision to ensure that she could exercise them only in a random manner--in a way that, in the words of Council Chairman John Wilson, "protects the integrity of the civil service process."

Trouble is, that process doesn't have too much integrity left--a point understood by every government worker but virtually unaddressed in the press coverage of downsizing. The merit tests that once so enraged the political bosses have more or less disappeared. That makes sense; experience and specific skills should count more than scores on standardized tests. But in practice, those factors don't count much either. It's the "who-ya-knows," in the words of one DAS Real Property worker, who get the jobs. "Say for instance you came by and you were my buddy," says this worker. "Say for instance I want to hire you. I'll tell you all about the position, so you can fill out your 171 [the District's standard employment form] so you perfectly fit the position, so you get on the 'qualify' list. Then I select a few to interview, including you. So then I break it down to two, and then I just hire you. I just pick from there. It's the same with inside hiring. . . . Real Property has always been a dump, because they always want to get somebody they know, instead of somebody who can do the work."

Similar tricks can be used to promote your pals. "There are 15,000 ways to do that," says Bruce Gordon. "Like you create a career ladder. Let's say you have a DS-14 position but your friend is only a DS-9. So what you do is drop that grade from the 14 down to a 10, so that he qualifies, then you create a ladder so that the job moves back up to a 14 over time. So you've [created] a six-year growth pattern that's restrictive, not competitive." The result of ploys like these, according to past and present staff members, is a network in the upper levels of DAS--inded, throughout the District government--with no interest in change. "There are a lot of people in top-level positions who are there as a result of [the buddy system]. They undercut [Lambert] something terrible, and I think they would do it again," says a recently retired top DAS manager. These are the people who will ultimately decide which positions are "nonessential." "You're using people inside to identify them, but someone's been protecting them all these years," says one DAS worker. "Think about it. If I'm the administrator and I've been working with these people a good six, seven, eight years--I know them, they do my bidding. The administrators advance to the directors the positions that are excess. And if you like somebody, you're not going to advance their position." Imagine: All the insider dealing of a patronage machine, with a .2 percent solution to that old nagging problem of political accountability for miserable services. George Washington Plunkitt would have been impressed.


Come downsizing time, it won't be the who-ya-knows who wind up on the street. It'll be who-ya-pissed-offs, like Patricia Kidd. Kidd says she left the federal several and came looking for work at DAS in 1987 because "I wanted to be with the young black government." Since joining the team, she's been harassed, humiliated, sodomized, and stripped of her duties. After somewhow enduring this nightmare, she appears to be headed for her final reward: a pink slip. "I'm not the enemy," says Kidd. "I don't know why these people acts as though I'm the enemy."

At Kidd's job interview four years ago, her prospective supervisor, Melvin Carter, mentioned that D.C., incredibly, had no formal means of tracking the office space it leased and owned. Once hired, but before she began work, Kidd started drawing up a computer program that would fill the need; her first day on the job, she presented Carter with a draft proposal. Her idea was a hit, and it eventually grew into the Properties and Facilities Management Program, incorporated into D.C. law in 1990. Her hard work did not go unnotice. "Your work habits have always been exemplary," wrote one supervisor from outside DAS who was detailed to work with her on a computer project. "I have rarely worked with a person who had such a driving desire to learn new things, and more importantly, an intense desire to do the best job possible."

But it quickly became clear to Kidd that her immediate boss had ideas of his own, which had nothing at all to do with work. First came the cajoling, then the threatening, then the more aggressive advances. Kidd says Carter would return from lunch, drunk, and make aggressive passes at her. "Coworkers would tolerate it, as long as it wan't happening to them." Kidd continued to try to work on a computer program to help other agencies assess their space needs, but, she later testified, Carter began to forbid her to use the office computer, and he took away her clerical assistant. When she called the Office of Personnel hoping for a transfer, Kidd says, the officer she talked to told her that Carter was her pal; if she wanted a new job, Carter would have to make the request. Shortly thereafter, Carter angrily told her that he knew she was trying to find another job, and that she wouldn't get it. After several months of this, Carter called one day and asked her to join him in a room at the Comfort Inn, near the office: "You are on probation--you can be gotten rid of," she remembers him saying. She went.

She had sex with him on two occasions; he promoted her.

Finally, it became too much for Kidd. But after she cut Carter off, the harassment didn't stop. She complained to her supervisors, to no effect. She began filing grievances, which got her nowhere (although she discovered that other employees had made similar complaints against Carter). She applied over Carter's head for a transfer, which was denied. And so on. After D.C.'s Office of Human Rights ruled against her, Kidd finally took Carter to civil court and won $300,000. The judge granted Kidd a retroactive increase in her civil service grade, ordered that DAS not retaliate against her, and recommended that the city find another job for her outside DAS. Over a technicality, the District is appealing the case.

Today, Kidd is still at DAS. Before Carter took an early-out last November, she would sometimes run into him in the elevator. Kidd, who won several performance awards for her work in the federal system, who even before she got her job would attend city council meetings to figure out what the District's automation needs were, spends her days correcting errors in computer printouts. She's appealed to Ric Murphy, the new director, for a transfer or more challenging work, but he hasn't helped. "I'm working on property disposal. That duty used to be one thirteenth of my workload. My supervisor's working on it with me, too." Her old duties, she says, have been taken away from her and split up among five other workers.

Other DAS staff members make the same complaint. One worker whose rank puts him below the firing line says four people who rank above DS-11 have been "hidden" by being assigned the work he used to do all by himself. As Kidd says, "Why not keep me, who can do it all, and get rid of five people who can't do anything and have to be trained? I'm not the excess, they are. They even made a new division out of the functions I did with the computer program, for about six people."

That sort of information will never turn up in the mayor's downsizing sweep. The only way to get it is by going beyond the elliptical job descriptions and the baroque organizational charts, sending people out to perform desk audits of each of the agencies, interviewing the staff to determine who's contributing and who's not. That's hard work, and the information will never be perfect--but it's the only way to turn downsizing into something more than a fiscal quick fix. "We want dirt and debris cut," says Kidd, "but there's a big difference between that and 2,000 random bodies. You can get rid of employees, sure--but the system's still there."

In late July, Murphy called a meeting of all his staff members ranking DS-11 above. As the workers shifted from foot to foot in the crowded room, he explained that he wanted each fill to out a slip of paper explaining his duties and listing his accomplishments. The city spends $15.6 million on an Office of Personnel, DAS maintains layers of supervisors presumably familiar with the performance of their underlings, and yet it came down to this: scribbled self-assessments on scraps of paper, sent straight to the director, bypassing all the layers of supervisors. All in all, a pretty smart move. Except for two things: Bad people lie. Good ones don't-- and Murphy was interested only in what his employees had done since he came aboard in March. Pat Kidd raised her hand.

I've lost my duties since March, she said. I can't tell you what my duties are because I don't know. I'm really concerned. I'm concerned for me, I'm concerned for my family.

Murphy just stared at her, Kidd says. Well, look, he said at last. You better be concerned.

James Bennet is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provded by Betsy Dance and James Lee.
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Title Annotation:includes related information on Department of Public and Assisted Housing Chief of Tenant Management Carl Greene; downsizing in Washington, D.C.
Author:Dance, Betsy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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Next Article:Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.

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