How to cut the bureaucracy in half; understanding slot syndrome, headless nails, meeting mania, and other government gimmicks.
As FDR developed one alphabet-soup agency after another in response to first the Depression and then World War II, the federal government grew from its 1932 level of about 500,000 civilian employees to 1.1 million in 1940 and 3.5 million by V-J Day. Today, with no catastrophes of equivalent dimension confronting us, it's still nearly as large-3.1 million employees. Ronald Reagan won office by running against Washington; his promises to cut back the federal government included plans to eliminate whole cabinet departments. But the spirit of the tempos reigned instead: During his two terms, the number of government workers increased 7.5 percent.
Analysts of corporate performance know that the companies that came through the eighties best had learned to be leaner. For instance, over the past 14 years, Conrail has cut its workforce by 61 percent-and has gained market share in the process. Here are some other examples from a recent book by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the editor of the Harvard Business Review:
>Beaten by Xerox in copiers and suddenly threatened by Japanese camera and film companies, Eastman Kodak eliminated 24,000 jobs between 1983 and 1986-a reduction of 17.5 percent-and closed its central film-processing facility. This allowed the company to reorganize, giving managers much more direct responsibility, which in turn promoted diversification and the farming out of marginally profitable work.
>ln leading Apple Computer back from the failure of its much ballyhooed Lisa computer and its first quarterly loss as a public company, CEO John Sculley consolidated the company's operating divisions, closed plants, and laid off one-fifth of its employees.
>Before Shenandoah Life Insurance combined the operations of several divisions, a particular form was being routed to 32 people, across nine sections and three departments. Afterwards, the task was handled by a team of six people who did 13 percent more work, with greater speed, fewer errors, and 80 percent less supervision.
Why can't government learn these lessons too?
And you don't need to appoint yet another Hoover Commission or Grace Commission or Volcker Commission to learn them. Instead, behold the GS-13s and GS-14s, the federal common man. In a graded pay structure that begins with GS-1 and ends with the Senior Executive Service, these 200,000 workers are the middle of the government's middle. (There are additional middle-level employees not included in this figure, such as those at the Postal Service and the intelligence agencies.) A GS-13 makes up to $55,000 a year and a GS-14 up to $65,000. GS-13 is the last stage of federal employment for those who don't have supervisory responsibilities; GS-14 is the first stage for those who do. These are the highest levels most government workers attain. Their military counterparts are the 0-4s and 0-5s, the majors (in the Navy and Coast Guard, lieutenant commanders) and lieutenant colonels (commanders). These in-the-trench bureaucrats already know what the symptoms of government's fatal overstaffings are-and most of those symptoms suggest their own cures.
"The civil service is a unique and talented mix of people with diverse skills and abilities that can't be found anywhere else in the world," George Bush said recently. "And their hard work is not only seen in Washington, but in communities across the country." That's certainly true of many federal employees, but some of those well below Bush in his overstaffed government put it differently. A former GSA employee tells me how her bureau chief made a habit of taking most of the hour before lunch every day to read aloud to his staff from the National Enquirer. And a young Department of Justice attorney complains that the most intense interest in his office seems to be directed towards something called the Porky Preakness, a weight-losing contest. "Half my employment in the past year-no, probably 90 percenthas been useless," admits Sid Finn*, a 10-year veteran of Health and Human Services, who was also at the agency's predecessor, HEW, before that. Finn describes the office he works in as a good example of the idea that "the more inspectors you have, the more mistakes you have.... The office says to Congress that we could do better if you give us more people. But ever since I've been there, I've been aware that we're understaffed in the regions and incredibly overstaffed in Washington." A GS-14 auditor with 23 years experience at the General Accounting Office sums up this different view for me: "If you're results-oriented, the government's not the place to be." *All the people ar real. None of the names are.
Such bureaucratic self-criticism is rare, however. Bush's view prevails-and with it, bureaucratic bloat-in part because of a simple fact of human nature: People don't like to admit that they're wasting their lives. The GS-14s know what the problems are, but you have to ask the right questions to hear about them. If a government employee has the remotest chance of presenting his job to the wider world as meaningful, even inspirational, that's what he'll do.
For instance, if you met me at a party I probably wouldn't be terribly reticent about my past service as a naval intelligence officer. And it wouldn't take too much additional cajoling to get me to embark on a story or two about some of the important and exciting things I did in that capacity. But as long as you were unarmed, I would never tell you about The World's Greatest Code Book. Military Scrabble
Once during a seagoing exercise I participated in, our admiral expressed displeasure about what he correctly viewed as his aviators' poor radio security. It's really not that difficult to make improvements in this area: a few additional radio-code procedures will do the trick. But when the airwing commander heard the admiral's comments, he took the whole thing as a personal affront. He'd show that deskbound two-star a thing or two! So instead of merely doing the tactically correct thing, he decided to put together a dictionary of code words so immense, so exhaustive, that it would cover any possible radio message that the admiral or anyone on his staff would ever want to have pilots encode. And not only did this guy want the dictionary assembled immediately, he wanted it assembled in complete secrecy. He was planning for the delicious moment when his boss would ask him why his fighter pilots on station couldn't say X in a tactically safe manner, and he'd be able to produce this mammoth document and coolly reply, "Ah yes, admiral, that would be on page 1,007. The pilots already have them."
Now once such a brilliant scheme is conceived there is the little matter of execution. Who would actually assemble the WGCB? From the first rumor of the plan, every junior intelligence officer onboard the carrier knew the answer to that one. "I'll do it," said my boss. Which all the junior intelligence officers knew freely translated as "We'll do it."
So it was that the 10 or so of us were called together to "get cracking." As my boss explained it, the job broke down into two manageable tasks: a) identifying everything that you could ever want to say from an airplane, and b) making up a code word for it. Then he left, saying that he expected the results in two days. There we were-captive participants in the world's first Military Scrabble tournament. The perfect chord for the program was struck when one of my coworkers suggested that the first message we needed to encode was "My radio is broken."
For the next few days, in between our normal duties, we worked feverishly on the project. Just before the deadline, we produced a huge list. At this point it was clear that what we'd done was tactically useless, if for no other reason than if this dictionary were ever put on the actual "kneeboard cards" that pilots use, it would weigh 30 pounds. No doubt the Russians would have approved. In a matter of days, on just a few typewriters, we had developed a weapon that could herniate every aviator in the Seventh Fleet.
Nevertheless, my boss was beaming when he handed the list in. No junior intelligence officer was surprised that it was never heard of again. Spills and floods
This debacle has a number of important morals. When my airwing was confronted by a legitimate worry, its irrelevant response used up as much effort and morale as the right one would have (probably more). So it's not accidental that cockpit radio procedures didn't improve for several more months. And if there had been only, say, two or three junior intelligence officers attached to the airwing instead of 10, this nuthatch project couldn't have been mounted instantly on such a grand scale; it would have been small and slow and hence probably would have passed out of existence before it ended up consuming anywhere near as much effort as it actually did. Here's the punchline: When a bureaucracy is screwed up, it does not automatically mean that all or most of the bureaucrats are lazy or stupid-we worked like dogs and with considerable ingenuity on that code book-and a modern organization can usually do more real work quicker with fewer people and fewer tasks.
I say usually because a big enemy of efficiency is the blanket generalization. The Department of Commerce does not need more people although it probably needs some different people). But the Coast Guard could use some more-at least in the field. According to a PBS "Frontline" documentary, the Exxon Valdez proceeded unnoticed towards its fateful grounding on Bligh Reef because the responsible Coast Guard station had, in a manpower crunch, eliminated round-the-clock radar supervision and manual plotting of ships' courses. And the government is falling behind in its attempt to make cases and recover funds in billions of dollars worth of S&L frauds because of a dearth of FBI agents. Time reports that the FBI recently sought funds for 425 additional agents to investigate bank scams but received only enough for fewer than half that many. Of the 3,500 major criminal S&L cases pending, 1,500 are inactive, due to such manpower shortages. It's a similar story at the IRS. With delinquent taxes now estimated to be approaching $ 1 00 billion, it would certainly make sense to hire more examiners and auditors.
This failure to get specific about jobs is what's wrong with the IRS's and the Defense Department's current hiring freezes. With a hiring freeze, jobs are eliminated by attrition. But attrition is a random process-people do not quit or retire according to some intelligent overall plan. Freezes do not distinguish between Jones with his feet up on his desk and Smith with his finger in the dike. If Smith quits or retires before Jones does, you don't get improved efficiency-you get a flood. Reductions in force (RIFS) are no better, because they operate by the principle of seniority; if Smith doesn't have enough time in service to make the cut, there's still going to be a disaster. Freezes and RIFs assume from on high that every office has similar manning needs and that within each office, each job is equally needed and equally well performed. But to find dead wood, you can't rely on satellite photos; you have to walk through the forest. Gang of five
When I recently took that walk-when I asked bureaucrats about the causes and effects of the fat in their offices-I learned that there are five main problems. The Slot Syndrome. FDR's tempos are the paradigm of this one. If an organization is confronted with a need, it must respond by creating jobs that meet that need. But if the need goes away, whether because the jobs are performed well or because of other factors, it's just as important that those jobs go away too. But in government this hardly ever happens-bureaucratic slots, once created, tend to take on lives of their own. If the world ebbs and flows while bureaucracies stay put, the slot syndrome is the reason why.
Derek Rodgers, a GS-14 at the Commerce Department with 24 years' government service, gives me a clear example: "The payroll in my office is about 600,000," he says. "It had some things to do years ago-there were special projects all over the world. But there's no big money to fuel those anymore and yet the bureaucratic entity that was to promote this still exists."
According to Jane Gustafson, an attorney who worked in one of HUD's regional offices for over 10 years, HUD's inefficiency is certainly not confined to the scandal at headquarters. Gustafson says that from 1976 to 1982, she was pretty busy with legal work, reviewing contracts, doing closings, and the like. But even then, she recalls urban renewal specialists being added to the office when there was virtually no urban renewal going on. Later, when the big Reagan housing cuts began to take effect, Gustafson's office still didn't scale back. "After that, there was less and less work to do and I had more time on my hands," she remembers. "There was very little professional challenge for me."
That leads to one of the most damaging effects of the slot syndrome-goldbricking. Much of the inner office life of today's bureaucrats could come from the pages of the late-forties play Two Blind Mice, which is set in the "Office of Seeds and Standards," a department with so little to do that it had been abolished five years before-but persisted because it had never been notified.
The official HUD description of Gustafson's job states that her duties were "to handle litigation for which the office of regional counsel has lead responsibility as well as litigation for which the general counsel's office claims lead responsibility." That meant that she was supposed to "prepare all necessary legal documentation and do all things necessary to competently and professionally represent the department and/or support the general counsel's office." Gustafson is a very bright person who would have eagerly undertaken such a formidable assignment had it been offered to her. But what did she actually wind up doing?
"By the end, I was really fudging my time." Suddenly Gustafson breaks into laughter as she blows a professional secret: "In the bottom drawer of one of the file cabinets, the secretaries had a lot of trash novels; in the last two years, I got a lot of reading done in the office. A lot."
"We have enormous numbers of people who don't do anything," says Sid Finn of HHS. "And I mean anything. One sells real estate. I spend an enormous amount of time on my volunteer work. There's a tremendous amount of socializing. People fall into each other's arms every day as though they had not seen each other for a year, catching up on what they had for dinner the night before. It's very social."
"In every major defense plant you have three, four, five officers, usually colonels," explains George Tracy, who worked as a Defense Department auditor for 26 years. "They give them that assignment three to six years before they retire and that's when they make the contacts with these people they end up going to work for. They receive the reports of the technical people who work for them, but they're not expert in any of the areas. And they liaison' with the contractors by going to lunch with them. There's very little they do that's productive. I'd say they contribute virtually nothing to the performance of the procurement function. They screw off. They've got their Wednesday afternoon golf and their long weekends."
Derek Rodgers tells me about coworkers selling real estate or computer software from their office desks. "There was one guy who finally got his income in real estate up to the point where he said, 'I don't need this anymore."' So he decided to retire. "And to do that he ran another scam: He used to dress like an absolute slob in the office. He walked around the office without his shoes. He looked terrible. He carried this charade on for two years just to get what they call a discontinued service retirement." As a result, at age 50, the man got out with 90 percent of a full pension. "The day he retired he had on a neatly pressed suit, his hair was all slicked back. He looked great.
"Today most people in the international trade administration don't have a full day's work," Rodgers continues, readily counting himself in that category. (Nevertheless, his official job description runs five single-spaced typed pages.) He says that out of 1,500 workers, only 100 are "notable exceptions" to that characterization. "We have GS-14s and GS-15s running around without jobs. We're talking about people that make $60,000 and 70,000 a year."
Supervisors who have slots added to their domain find themselves with additional subordinates and a weightier payroll. And since supervisors are conditioned to feel a greater glory anytime such augmentation occurs, they aren't going to take any steps to undo it. "Your pay and your position all depend on the number of people that you supervise and the size of your budget," explains Rodgers. "That's the battle in Washington."
The assignment of intelligence officers to every squadron in a carrier airwing is a perfect example of the slot syndrome. Every squadron skipper enjoys having his own intelligence officer, even though only a handful of the wing's squadrons really need them or, indeed, ever find anything productive for them to do. In other words, the slot syndrome was the reason I found myself sitting around a table with nine other earnest young intelligence officers trying to think of a cryptic way to say, "My foot's asleep"-instead of oh, say, collecting intelligence.
The solution to the syndrome isn't all that complicated. The problem exists only if the number of people you command and the amount of money you control are allowed to be more important than what you accomplish. If organizations are forced to articulate clear goals with a reward/punishment structure to match, there won't be much prestige or advancement in diddling around, no matter how many people are doing your diddling for you. (Sure enough, the Navy's fondness for the slot syndrome is borne out by its confused reward structure. The captain of the Vincennes and his weapons officer were recently awarded medals for the period of service that included their shoot-down of a civilian airliner.) Grade Creep. In 1955, 8.2 percent of those in the federal civilian workforce were in grades GS-12 through GS-15, the middle levels of government. In 1975, that figure was 23.2 percent. The latest available figures indicate that it is now 28.9 percent. In 1955, 2.9 percent of all military personnel were officers at the 0-4 and 0-5 level. In 1975, that figure was 4 percent, and it remains 4 percent today. This progression toward the middle is grade creep; it's primarily caused by an advancement scheme that's too generous until you hit the top of the middle ranks, and it's behind a lot of the trouble. When I ask Derek Rodgers of Commerce if government is getting more cumbersome, he grabs the legal pad out of my hand and starts drawing charts. In no time, he's drawn me a couple of interesting pictures of his agency-a series of boxes and arrows that get more and more baroque. "In the early Carter years, international trade administration"-Where Rodgers works-"was headed up by one assistant secretary. He reported to the undersecretary. At the time, the undersecretary was the number two man in the department. That assistant secretary had in the next line under him, four deputy assistant secretaries. And under those four deputy assistant secretaries there were the various office directors. That's not the case today," continues Rodgers, now on page two. "Under Carter, we got 13 deputy assistant secretaries in international trade administration. And under Reagan, we got 26. That's quite an expansion." The pad in front of us now looks like hell.
The chief consequence of this gross expansion at the middle is that there are too many layers to traverse to get anything done. Dividing up into more empires doesn't produce more trade; it just produces more emperors. Rodgers recalls that under the old scheme, office directors supervised hundreds of employees and controlled millions in resources. By contrast, Rodgers's office director today has only 15 employees. However, there is one thing that has gotten much larger-the office director's salary.
Grade creep is a sign of, as well as a cause of, the slot syndrome: most vestigial slots are filled by employees in the middle grades, and an increase in the number of such employees fuels a need to find fancier-seeming slots to put them in, a need not tied to real-world demands.
Not only that, but grade creep actually pushes government away from the problems it should be solving. The higher end of the middle job grades is dominated by policy-making and policy-evaluating slots while the lower end bears the burden of most of the policy-implementing and policy-enforcing jobs. It's in these line positions that you'll find most of the overworked government employees, and their plight is considerably aggravated because they serve so many underworked people in staff positions. "As a street agent you don't have as much autonomy as people think," Len Cartwright, an FBI agent for 19 years, explains. "Say you're working a major criminal case, and they give you a background investigation"-a routine check into a federal job applicant's history-"the case gets put off until you get that done. That happens constantly. There's just tons of paperwork. For example, they need surveys, they need this, they need that. You have to stop everything you're doing in the field to furnish survey data about how much time you're spending on this particular case."
At HUD, Jane Gustafson's boss became obsessed with developing work plans-individual work plans, the regional counsel's work plan, and the regional office's work plan. The only problem was that none of this was coordinated with Washington's plans, which were the only ones that mattered. But that didn't stop the planning from becoming a major project. Gustafson estimates that although in the seventies, the office spent only 5 percent of its time on such internal matters, by the end of her tenure there, it spent 40 percent. While she was sitting in an office slaving away at her boss's nonsensical work plans, nobody was in the field to catch Marilyn Harrell skimming millions.
Again, if government organizations would get clear on what they are supposed to be doing-catching crooks, providing low-cost housing-and adopt a reward structure that reflects that, this trend could be reversed. Most of the government jobs that should be eliminated are top-of-the-middle staff slots; most of the jobs that should be added are middle-of-the-middle line slots. Under grade creep, government has become a football team with too many quarterbacks and not enough interior linemen. Teams like that don't win. Headless Nails. One retired military officer I spoke with gave a succinct answer when I asked him why businesses don't seem to have as much goldbricking as the government: "Simple. Businesses can fire people." As the saying goes, government workers are like headless nails-you can get them in, but you can't get them out. Many government offices are saddled with employees in their seventies who can't really cut the mustard anymore but who possess the virtual lifetime tenure that came in 1978 with the abolition of mandatory federal retirement. The old mandatory rule came about because most supervisors were uncomfortable with going up to old Joe and telling him he was no longer doing adequate work. But now, without that rule, courage to say that kind of thing is even more important. The absence of it has fostered the belief that government employees have an inherent "right" to their jobs.
Government workers who are totally incompetent or worse seem to have these "rights" too. A senior official at one agency told me that he had $300,000 in salary-10 percent of his office budget-tied up in nonproductive employees he can't fire. To get fired from a government job, says Derek Rodgers, "you have to be a drunk and refuse treatment or curse at your supervisor or hit somebody. Short of that, you can get away with about anything."
Scandalous, but true. While serving as the head of the civil rights office of HHS, Betty Lou Dotson took 126 trips to 38 U.S. cities and nine foreign countries at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $94,000. In the face of a congressional investigation, HHS removed Dotson from her job, but did not fire her. Instead, she was appointed to the Bicentennial Commission on the Constitution long enough for her to become eligible for her pension.
Daniel Stein got the same kind of ridiculous protection. Although he was convicted of attempted extortion almost two years ago, he's still employed at the State Department. As a convicted felon, he can't vote, but somehow he can pull down a GS-14's salary and, someday, a GS-14's pension too.
The way things stand now, to fire somebody from the civil service you have to compile a well-documented three-year record of the person's unsatisfactory performance. Most supervisors aren't likely to put in that kind of time. What they do instead the first chance they get is transfer nonperformers-just inflict them on another part of the government. (Sometimes the transfer even gives the headless nail a chance to drive in a little deeper: the first thing one malingerer did upon being transferred was to file a grievance against his new supervisor, so he could claim any subsequent adverse evaluation was merely retaliation.) The same logic that keeps no-loads and criminals employed also leads to promoting the undeserving, thus striking another blow for the slot syndrome and grade creep.
Business has begun to show that there is a way out of all this. Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes that a key step in Kodak's recovery was tying financial rewards more closely to individual performance and getting rid of unproductive managers while making it easier to bring in new, more promising ones from outside the company. She also points out that General Foods is having success with a "pay-for-skill" program, in which bonuses are earned by workers for each new job they learn. Government should aggressively open up its offices this way and get away from the three-year firing process and a hiring process that can sometimes last six to nine months. You can have promotion and retention rules that protect employee rights without punishing the organization for having common sense about job performance. Doing so will require government offices to identify their real goals, a good thing in any case.
As for the elderly, the alternative to age-based mandatory retirement-which is unfair to capable older employees-is not lifetime tenure. It's merit-based continuance. There is a place in government for an 80-year-old man who can do the job. There is no place in government for a 30-year-old man who cannot. Meeting and Memo Mania. When I ask a GAO auditor what he did during the previous workweek, here's what he tells me: "I went to three briefs on Capitol Hill, I attended three meetings with the Army materiel command. I got four briefs at the Army budget office. I went to a couple of internal staff meetings. And I played golf once." Actually, I don't begrudge the guy the round of golf; after a dozen meetings in five days, my head would explode. Part of the problem is that make-work feels just like real work.
But the question is, "How many of those get-togethers were really necessary?" It's the same with memos. You can get as bad a headache from reading 400 memos as you can from reading 400 pages of an important report. What's more, you can spend a huge amount of time crafting those memos-picking just the right phrasing or addressee list so that your boss replies to it, or endorses and forwards it, or just files it, depending on what you want to happen. And living on in the files as they do, memos are the perfect proof that you are busy. But how many of those memos are important for what the office is really supposed to accomplish and how many are, for example, explanations of when to use sex-specific job titles in official correspondence, notices of an upcoming review of all the different types of envelopes in the office, or evidence that a shaving waiver is being processed separately (all actual examples)?
"Memos are a very important thing," remarks Bob Michaels, who put in nine years as a foreign service officer, "in terms of covering your ass. You want to have the proof that so-and-so agreed or that you sought so-and-so's advice, so that if something goes wrong, you're covered."
But memos (and meetings) aren't just for coalition-building. They are also mechanisms by which the government worker can convince himself that he's not wasting his life and our taxes. "You start doing memos for everything," says Michaels. "It becomes a way of life. Memos for who you're going to have lunch with. Memos for where you're going to be at 3 o'clock in the afternoon." Perhaps the ultimate example of memos for everything is what the State Department calls a "memcon," a "memorandum of conversation." For almost any conversation with a non-American, says Michaels, "you were supposed to put down what you said, how that person replied, etc. A lot of people get into the habit of doing them because they enhance the apparent importance of their contacts. They make it look like you're out doing your job. "You want to get your name on as many pieces of paper as possible," says Michaels. "It's like running for office. There's a vast incentive to turn out repetitious documents, replications of reports that were done six months or a year earlier. It's the 'heft test.' t Repeatedly, my colleagues and I were criticized for not turning out enough material. Even though the general consensus was that it was never read." "My office did nothing but chum out policies very slowly, which no one heeded," recalls Elizabeth Carlson, formerly at EPA. "I was in charge of working on a memo outlining how the Clean Air Act should be implemented on certain federal lands. The people living on the land submitted a plan, and this came to us out of the regional office." After going several years without getting a definitive response from headquarters, someone in the regional office wrote a legal opinion. "She probably spent a year or two on that. Then somebody else at headquarters got the project. She probably spent a year revising the memo. Then it was given to me to revise." Why did this take so long? "Nobody cared. . . . Nothing was propelling it-what moves the agency mostly is litigation and congressional pressure." Eventually Carlson got the memo through all the hoops in Washington-all but one. "On the last day of one general counsel's tenure, we brought the memo for him to sign. And he said, 'I'm going to leave this to my successor even though everything looks fine."' By the time the new man signed the memo, it had been sitting in his in-box for another year and a half.
Carlson says that much of her job was reviewing things, like letters going out in response to congressmen's inquiries. "You review the draft that somebody in the program office has written, and that has to go up your chain of command too, and everybody has to circulate it. There's an office that's specifically responsible for circulating congressional inquiries. A lot of the responses were just EPA being evasive. Depending on the complexity of the answer-uh, evasion-responding would take anywhere from a month to four or five months.
"Everything took on a bureaucratic tone. We would have lunches and letters and memos about how people were going to choose offices. This went on for years. We were still working on a formula for who had priority-it was a very convoluted formula based on years of government service, and how long you had been at the agency, and what grade you were-when I left."
One major hidden cost of all these memos and meetings is that even the ambitious and talented (especially the ambitious and talented) have to read them and go to them. An office director at EPA tells me, "I'm probably a bad example because I actually have an exciting job," and that his condition for staying has been that "most of my personal time has been addressed towards current real issues." But when he begins accounting for his time, it becomes clear that there are lots of obstacles between him and real issues. A typical day would include meetings with people at other government agencies, on a large committee that plans cooperative research strategies so that we can address issues together without balkanizing it, . . . internal staff meetings with our own staff here, and then a staff meeting twice a week with my boss and my peers."
In addition, "If you are ambitious and you want to get promoted," he explains, "you have to devote a lot of time to internal agency committees and task forces and personnel review boards and all sorts of other things like that, that allow you to become more broadly known around the agency." As examples of these "developmental assignments," he mentions a committee on the Earth Day celebrations, and task forces on personnel or compensation changes, on reorganization, and on improved budgeting. "You name it, and it's out there."
Here's the reverse logic of bad bureaucracy in all its glory. Too many people doing the same thing requires extra committees to coordinate their activities and extra assignments designed not to produce real output, but only to provide a chance to break out of a too-large employee pool.
Do these task forces ever accomplish anything? "People go off for hours at a time and for weeks at a time," says the EPA man, "and some document gets written, and whether or not it actually gets implemented, I don't know." However, there is at least one measurable consequence of all these meetings and committees. "The time for actually studying things and reading is just abysmally short."
"I would think that at certain periods we spent as much as half our time in meetings," a recently retired Marine lieutenant colonel says of his two tours of duty at the Pentagon. "With 20 or 30 people sitting around a table, going over a document line by line: "Is everybody happy with 'cat'? Oh, you want 'feline'? Well, let's think about that." "We had 58 offices that we had to report to that controlled our program," says a retired Air Force colonel who managed an aircraft project. "Let's say we decide to change the canopy on the aircraft. Probably we'd have 20 meetings on it and several hundred drawing packages and, oh, within 18 months there would be some kind of decision about whether to do it or not.... In the meantime, of course, you're still building the planes the way they were. If the reason. you changed the canopy was that it was bad, you're building at least 18 months worth of planes with the old canopy that you will someday have to replace. And it was all paperwork, because you and me and an engineer could sort all this out in a week."
According to Paul Quentin, a civilian who has worked for the Pentagon since 1966 both full-time and as a consultant, "The amount of time spent on actual technical thought on what makes weapons good, as opposed to having meetings, writing memos, and writing propaganda for more money, is only about one-tenth." So why all the memos and meetings? "To increase the budget."
Janet Kostas, a GS-13, tells what happens to a letter when it comes into the Department of Commerce, where she works. "It tends to get held up right there at the secretary's level, but when it comes down through the undersecretary to our group we're only given three days to write [a response] and it usually gets done and then frequently it will sit for three or four weeks." Why the delay? "Once it gets back up to the undersecretary's office, it has to go around for clearance, it has to go around to all the assistant secretaries. It gets cleared by the division director, the office director, the deputy assistant secretary, the assistant secretary, laterally to three more assistant secretaries, then the undersecretary. About nine clearances before it gets to the secretary's level. And there's the general counsel, and congressional affairs."
Clearance delay is very hard to contain because some messages are important and no deputy assistant secretary is going to let the other 25 deputy assistant secretaries get a leg up on those. That's why no one I asked could remember any bureaucrat ever requesting to be dropped from a clearance list. Still, the key is not to get a lot of deputy assistant secretary's assistant's deputies off the list. It's to get them off the payroll.
Meetings and memos are a vital clue in the search for ways to make government leaner. If there are people in government office A who aren't busy all day, should we fire them all? No-because most of them do something worthwhile. If there are needs that are not currently being met by government office B, should we automatically hire new people in response? No-that way lies the slot syndrome. A better idea is to find the people in office A who can go over to help in office B. And one excellent way to find them is to determine who in A and B spend a lot of time at the same meetings, trading memos with each other, and talking together on the phone regularly. Once these people are identified,
two wonderful things can happen: 1) Offices A and B can spend less time communicating about X and more time doing something about it; 2) The time saved by thus solving the problem with X can be applied in a similarly effective fashion to doing something about Y.
While there are undoubtedly personnel cuts to be made in most government offices-and the workers I talked to tended to estimate the number of useless personnel in their offices at between 25 and 50 percent-too much talk about bureaucratic reform emphasizes body counts: Department X announces (or is urged to announce) a hiring freeze to hold its staff to n employees; Department Y announces (or is urged to announce) that it will be laying off n employees. But going by body counts is just as much a fallacy in this war as it was in Vietnam. The issue is not how many bodies are served up, but what they did and what the ones still out there are doing. You don't achieve 1) and 2) above just by eliminating people-you do it by consolidating functions. In effect, most communications channels are like friction points in an engine. Paying attention to the wasted energy they throw off helps you improve the design.
Of course, the key to pulling off this kind of redesign of government is flexibility--especially since it must be achieved without switching the engine off. The experiences of the bureaucrats I talked to confirmed the need for government to avail itself of two of the most effective tools corporations have been using to become more competitive: decentralizing and contracting out. These measures are crucial for consolidating functions. Cutting down on checkpoints puts more responsibility in the hands of on-the-line managers, and temps make much more sense than tempos.
Although the government employs some part-time and temporary workers, federal regulations discourage the practice. The Federal Personnel Manual states that no agency can abolish a full-time position in order to create a part-time one, and that no person employed full-time can be required to accept part-time employment instead. This sounds fair for jobs where the work is really there all the time-but there are a lot of government jobs where that is not true. Why should taxpayers support the difference in those jobs? Good candidates for a changeover to career part-time (workers in these jobs would have some health and pension benefits) are park rangers, whose work is seasonal, and air traffic controllers, whose workloads vary drastically during the day. Part-time positions can be especially good for workers. They provide income for many, such as students and parents of young children, who would otherwise have none. And part-time workers are by design task-oriented; you don't bring them in to go to pointless meetings. Sleep and Creep Creep. Perhaps the most pernicious feature of the slot syndrome, grade creep, headless nails, and meeting and memo mania is that they are silent killers of the spirit. Under these influences, good people become indifferent and indifferent people become bad. Government becomes worse.
"I get paid too much for what I do, which is checking off things and following procedures," confesses Sid Finn. "I've gotten so lethargic." "I have preached to my children," says a GSA employee, "that I would never want to see them make a career in government."
"You don't take on too many things that might put you in a grey area," confesses FBI agent Cartwright, who was once investigated by the U.S. attorney for the procedural violation he committed by giving $5 to a prisoner so he could make a long distance call to his dying mother. "So after a while, what you see is a lot of guys who are totally mediocre who gravitate to the top."
Bob Michaels, the former foreign service officer, points out that the competition for FSO slots is incredibly stiff-last year only 205 out of 13,903 applicants were accepted. As a result, many junior foreign service officers are quite skilled and eager to do great things. "And then," he explains, "they find they are not doing great things. . . . And yet they fought so hard to get in that they don't feel they can quit. After 10 years of this stuff, the work ethic gets sapped away. . . . You know you're probably not going to make ambassador, so then it's how are you going to get through the day as easy as possible? . . . People start looking through the want ads for real estate deals, start calling their stockbroker five or six times a day ... some guys have televisions in their offices."
Janet Kostas paints a similar picture: "There are people that I work with today who are every bit as competent and intelligent and hard-working as the people I worked with at [she names a large corporation], but the average person isn't. I can't think of anybody at [that company] who was sitting around not busy. Here they periodically write a briefing paper for the undersecretary if someone is coming in to meet him"--a two- or three-page outline giving the background on a problem a visitor is coming to talk about. "If you're knowledgeable in your field, it shouldn't take more than several hours," explains Kostas. "But they feel overworked if they get one a week because they're not used to it anymore.
"You can't see why it would benefit you to work harder for the rest of the day.... Most people won't take the extra initiative. Most people will just grab the extra time and do their checkbook or write a letter. Ten years ago, I would have gone looking for something to do with the extra two hours at the end of the day." It's especially significant to hear this from a woman who will tell you in an instant why she came into government--"It was Kennedy: Ask not what your country can do for you. . . ' Now, I would take that time to get something else done for myself, or just unwind a bit."
Besides the moral uplift that would come from doing away with the slot syndrome and all that goes with it through personnel cuts, job consolidation, and the aggressive use of part-time employees, there would be a great economic benefit as well. Last year, civilian government salaries totaled $85 billion. And under typical life expectancies, all those GS-14s and 0-5s out there will eventually draw around $1 million apiece in total pension income. In addition, the government sets requirements for the office space and equipment and travel per diem and geographical pay adjustments, etc., proportionally due these service grades-requirements that are just as ironclad as salaries and pensions. That's why, for instance, the amount of office space per civilian government employee has gone up 66 percent since 1965. So, undertaking the above reforms could save billions.
Despite these spiritual and material advantages, the cause of government personnel reform has remained completely stalled. Why? Well, first, there's the Washington "it's too hard" syndrome-a tendency that is aggravated by a long history of no change and by the growing complacency of even the good people inside the system. Second, there's the active resistance of all those not-so-good people inside the system. The formidable job protections in the civil service were adopted to shield against the possible excesses of the spoils system, but they have also encouraged many government employees to think they have "rights" to a job that take precedence over the public interest. One of the biggest obstacles to streamlining government is this wrongheaded belief that the civil service is not a tool for doing what needs to be done, but a jobs program.
The politicians who could bring about the needed changes are only too aware that the headless nails can still draw blood. An interesting local example of this came recently in the D.C. mayor's primary race. One candidate kicked off his campaign by pledging to reduce what he criticized as a bloated local government, but retreated after receiving numerous complaints from city workers, saying he was "not going to get into this numbers game." Of the five announced Democratic candidates in the race, only one has flatly proposed a substantial job cut. She is lagging behind the rest of the candidates, who appear less concerned with overstaffing than with the potential endorsements of the 15 unions representing city workers. This is just a microcosm of the problem facing congressmen and senators, who worry about how hard it would be to run against the various federal employees' unions. There is a solution, though: political courage. If even just a few key elected officials would show some, the federal government could be made to work again. Up against D. Wall
It's a shame that "bureaucrat" has a negative connotation (my dictionary defines a bureaucrat as "a government official who follows a narrow rigid formal routine . . . ") because government will never improve without good ones. But almost all the bureaucrats I spoke with were frustrated by their office's tendency to drift away from real problems into make-believe. Paul Quentin summed up the problem when he told me that the workaday world of the GS-15s and 0-6s at the Pentagon isn't about winning in combat: "It's about managing technology, it's managing systems, it's managing personnel, it's managing computers," he explains. "You use the words 'victory' and defeat' in the Pentagon, and people look at you a little funny."
For the people Quentin is talking about-people who change the subject from what they ought to think about to what's easier to think about and who in the process lose sight of their real purpose-'bureaucrat' is way too good a word. You want the strongest possible expletive for that kind of person.
If you think that an interest in government bureaucracy is slightly quaint, just remember that Danny Wall is that kind of person. Michael Binstein reported in Regardie's magazine that when Wall took over the job of overseeing the rapidly deteriorating S&Ls, "he decided that the bank board's headquarters needed a face-lift. So instead of putting out financial fires, he did housekeeping. He replaced and rearranged furniture. He ordered a new desk phone because the color of his didn't match the shoulder rest. He loved to redraw organizational charts.... One of Wall's first requests was to call for a thorough inspection of the building. With engineers in tow, he noted the changes he wanted made. 'I proceeded with the building supervision people just to try to get things going in sprucing up things so that it was a more businesslike environment,' [Wall] explains. There were letters missing from the sign downstairs. Nobody paid any attention to that."' And Wall recently told Joseph Nocera of Esquire that "I never lost any sleep. I knew I had done my best."
Danny Wall is a very expensive variant of the make-believing bureaucrat. But there's lots more where he came from. Let's get them before they get us, and leave government in the hands of those who know what it means to have done their best.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 1990|
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