Of false choices and government girth
“I’ll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.” So preached Rick Perry as he announced his desire to, ironically, take the helm in Washington, D.C. I wonder what our founding fathers might say to the idea that one of the top GOP contenders for the presidency sees the government they fought to build in such a diminutive light. Perry and others’ similar arguments generally devolve into questions about the size of government. Democrats respond with a common (but foundational) point that we need not conflate size with efficacy — “smart government,” as it’s often dubbed, can be the goal.
In March at Vanderbilt, the day before Tim Pawlenty announced his (brief) run for president, I got the chance to ask him face-to-face about this very concept: “Unless we are planning to get rid of the government, don’t you think it’s a more productive discussion to stop talking about big or small government, and instead talk about smart government?” After conceding that yes, there’s a role for government, he artfully dodged my plea to ratchet down the hyperbole.
I shouldn’t be surprised though. These questions of the size and purpose of government lie at the heart of our political impotence. Earlier this year, President Obama hit on a similar theme, offering a counter-proposal to Paul Ryan’s draconian budget: “If we believe the government can make a difference in people's lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works — by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.” He’s also suggested significant government reorganization efforts (as many have before, granted). I’m cautiously optimistic. Why am I at all optimistic?
It’s a complicated answer, but it starts with my personal experience of both the problems and potential of the federal government. Indeed, during my two years of work at the Department of State, the problems felt so systemic that all I could think about was one of Bob Dylan’s stark refrains: "Everything is broken.” It came to mind again, and again — and again. First it was depressing, then sobering (though still fairly depressing).
Our broken U.S.G.
I took the job in the politically charged summer of 2008, an idealistic 26-year old Democrat, so this admission doesn’t come easily — but as I suggest in this article, it needs to come a lot more often from Democrats if we’re going to avoid ceding these discussions of government efficacy to the right.
I worked in the Office of Facility Management (FAC) within the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) at State. OBO essentially coordinates the building and maintenance of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, with FAC working the maintenance side. I wasn’t in a particularly important position, just administrative support, but I saw enough. My duties included facilitating FAC’s internal travel processes, developing and maintaining a document library for embassy and consulate drawings, and helping coordinate the overall administrative side of our office. Even though I was low on the totem pole, I took my work seriously and even received a $1000 award for it.
So, was everything really broken? No, of course not — but let unrest like the Occupy movement be a sign that things are seriously awry, from U.S. corporations to U.S. government. In my experience with the latter, there were too many unaccountable and under-performing staff, too many examples of that good ol’ government waste, and all kinds of inept business processes. For the record, FAC and OBO have some damn good technicians, engineers and other staff; but that only makes sense, nothing is black and white. That said, there are three specific examples I’d like to explain here: broken travel processes, $200,000 of needless document destruction, and an entire category of unjust employment.
Starting with the travel processes, it is worth noting that travel is a critical, if underappreciated mechanism for diplomacy and overall State Department functioning (i.e., you can’t effectively talk with China, or fix our embassy’s leaky roof there, without first flying over). The company that designed the travel software used by State and other agencies, and who also acted as State’s travel agency, is worth mentioning for the simple fact that the software they designed would not have satisfied some of the most basic standards of computer programming. (They were finally working on some software issues around the time I left.) But the board is really in the eye of the individuals within the federal government who accepted such a shoddy product in the first place — which, to note the bipartisan responsibility here, occurred under the Bush administration.
I tried a few different avenues to press this and various other travel issues, including asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about it at an employee town hall in January 2010. My comments were well-supported by the flood of comments and specific travel-related ideas on an internal State Department blog called the Sounding Board. At the town hall, the secretary of state responded graciously, but unfortunately I saw no meaningful action on her promise to “follow up with [me] to see what additional ideas need to be explored.” Later, I wrote an in-depth memorandum listing issues and recommendations for State travel processes. That memo came out of a collaborative meeting with 17 different travel processors in OBO, and was later submitted by the director of my office to his superior. But I’ve been told that none of the recommendations have been acted on.
As an important side note, before resigning to attend graduate school in the summer of 2010, I had the chance to meet one-on-one with a high-level manager (and now ambassador) involved in oversight of the Sounding Board. He stated that the Sounding Board, which had been sold to us as a bottom-up tool for employee ideas in early 2009, was primarily a “cathartic” outlet for employees. Someone might want to explain that to the mass of State employees who cropped up to suggest specific, often in-depth ideas online — over 1,500 by the summer of last year. Indeed, when I left there was no meaningful process in place to review and take appropriate action to either reject or on some level adopt these employee suggestions.
Turning to the $200,000: Every week for a year-and-a-half I methodically checked in set after set of architectural drawings, only to send them back out again soon after for destruction at the Department incinerator. They were supposed to be reviewed to ensure that construction and modifications to embassies and other buildings overseas didn’t increase maintenance costs in the long run. Only 41 of 233 sets of documents were ever looked at prior to destruction. That adds up to a conservative estimate of $200,000 of wasted documents — small to some, but significant no less. I brought these issues up many times, formally and informally, only to have them dodged by well-meaning but clearly disillusioned supervisors. (They had raised this and other issues with higher-ups in the past, with little support for change.)
Lastly, to choose just one more of a number of issues, I have to mention the PSC’s — “Personal Service Contractors,” in State parlance. Think of them as a nebulous category of employee that falls between civil servants and private contractors. Civil servants work for the federal government, private contractors work for a private company. PSC’s? Well, I was a PSC, and we also worked for the federal government — sort of. Our offices were in the same buildings as civil servants, we did the same work as civil servants, we even received paychecks from the same source as civil servants — we just, somehow, weren’t civil servants.
That became abundantly clear to me when a PSC engineer told me how he discovered, after waiting six months to start work while a security clearance went through, that the only benefits he would receive would be a 50 percent reimbursement for health insurance and sick and vacation days — certainly many U.S. workers don’t even receive that, but the White House has rightly been pressuring the private sector to provide 60 percent of health insurance costs and retirement plans. Some PSC stories are even more egregious, like an employee I knew who traveled over 200 days in 2009, worked for over five years at State, and somehow was still a PSC. He’s just one of a sizable group of older PSC’s who have slogged away for as many as 10 or more years without receiving retirement and other benefits, simply living one contract year to the next. Some have been converted to civil service, but last I heard, more are hired every month, and the State Department won’t provide a justification to its employees for why this shameful practice continues.
Can the United States be united about anything?
The list could go on with issues ranging from allegedly unnecessary trips to far-off locations, to reckless hiring practices, to a striking lack of leadership on too many levels. I was able to stay in the job for two years, but it was stressful, demoralizing, and enough to drive off some of the young blood the government needs. But I wouldn’t write this if I thought I was alone. A number of people have told me that other federal agencies — Agriculture, Interior, Energy, etc. — confirm my experience. But again, the glass is not half-empty for all of them, or for me.
Indeed, I still plan to vote blue in 2012. And I intend to be involved in government reform in some way or another in the long run. Why? In part because of the president. We’ll see how his administration delivers on his call for reorganization, but he, like other thoughtful reformers before him, knows that smarter government is possible. Sure, some of government is superfluous, and some too small, but that narrow argument is beyond unhelpful.
This point has support in the organizational sciences, where scholars John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid contend that “Large, atypical, enacting organizations have the potential to be highly innovative and adaptive.” Additionally, if we could think up a single reason why anyone — from our forefathers to those who took to the streets in Cairo — would want to form a government, we might come up with the simple idea that it’s good to act collectively sometimes — to “promote the general welfare,” as our Constitution puts it. Or, as Lincoln once said: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves privately.”
We need it where it’s needed, you might say, and can’t simply reject government action because it’s government action. Just as Domino’s Pizza or Google or our local Red Cross could not do what they do without an umbrella entity and collective effort, government must be thought of as a similar attempt at human collaboration — and one which indisputably can improve life inside and outside our borders. For example, by pooling our resources as a nation, we have been able to: pull 40 percent of those over 65 above the poverty line through Social Security; give $7.2 billion in tuition, housing, and stipends for more than 425,000 veterans and their families; and provide emergency responses to disasters, roads to drive on, and schools for our children.
Therefore, I would suggest our discussion about big or small government change from one of abstract questions of size to two specific questions about our values: First, as Lincoln proposed, can we do something for the public good better as a collective than as individuals? If so, then how can the government most efficiently accomplish that purpose? This would also start to address spurious arguments about privatizing government, which Republicans often use to (falsely) claim reductions in the size of government, while abdicating questions of the purpose of government.
Apart from both an earnest grappling with those questions and immediate State Department action on the above issues, there are all kinds of things that can be done moving forward — starting with President Obama’s proposed reorganization. Here are a few other suggestions, not just from a former government employee, but from a 29-year-old who wants his too-cynical generation to know public service can be not only effective, but a high calling: We need some real business processes, based on bottom-up approaches that place primary import on the ideas of front-line staff; there needs to be a throng of engaged public servants who can lead as well as get dirty and manage in hands-on ways; lastly, those leaders and their staff need to be held accountable — if they don’t meet clear, measurable standards, they should be replaced with someone who will.
Are any of these changes beyond the federal government? Well, if it’s our government — of, by, and for us — we need to ask if these changes are beyond the people of the United States. Until we realize that those questions are one in the same, our pathetic divisions will continue and our skin-deep politics will win out.