Category Archives: Government Performance

The Trump Civil Servant

Two controversies this inaugural weekend led me to reflect on the challenges for federal employees during the incoming administration of President Trump: the retweets by the official twitter account of the National Park Service and the content of President Trump’s speech at the CIA. Both were wrong for largely the same reason: they injected partisanship where it does not belong: in the execution of the duties of federal government employees.

The issue of political activity by federal employees is the subject of rather important legislation–the Hatch Act of 1939, which prohibits almost all federal employees from engaging in most forms of political, partisan activity. Of course, when a new administration takes office, the directions and policies of cabinet departments will change, and civil servants are expected to carry out these new policies whatever their previous and/or personal views.

In the case of the National Park Service, its twitter account retweeted comments that had partisan implications, one comparing the size of inaugural crowds, and the other criticizing changes in the content of the White House web site. Although defenders of the Park Service would say the comments are innocuous, they really weren’t. They were not-so-subtle digs at the incoming Trump administration and as such just plain inappropriate. In fact,  the Park Service has been prohibited by law since 1995 from estimating crowd sizes at events on the National Mall, in part because these estimates can become politically controversial.

The same general principles–federal civil employees should not engage in partisan political activity during work hours–can help us think about President Trump’s visit to the CIA on Saturday,. The fact of the visit is not a problem–but the content of the speech was a disaster. The President had no business suggesting that CIA employees overwhelming voted for him. A CIA officer’s personal views should have no bearing on the performance of her duties. I know this is a high bar and, in reality, impossible to reach. Cognitive science has shown that no human can be a perfectly objective being. But the future of intelligence activities in democratic societies depends upon every employee striving for this goal.

US law stipulates the federal employee oath of office:

An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” This section does not affect other oaths required by law.

(Pub. L. 89–554, Sept. 6, 1966, 80 Stat. 424.)
The first commandment for federal civil servants it to uphold the US constitution, but there’s a lot of squishy room for interpretation in the phrase “faithfully discharge the duties of the office…” I think most Americans would think that it means execute the law regardless of your personal preferences and follow the policy wishes of the US President and members of Congress, as long as they are legal and constitutional. All new administrations are challenging for civil servants. But I expect this transition to be particularly tumultuous given that President Trump intends to depart radically from the practices of previous US governments across a broad range of issues. To avoid government crises, both the incoming administration and the civil service will need to exercise good judgment and benefit from a lot of luck. Seriously…a lot of luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fallacy of Worst Case Scenarios

Hurricane Sandy has led to some pretty foolish thinking. Just the other night some high school classmates were involved in some dreary silliness on Facebook about what might have caused Noah’s flood. One, a proud climate change denier and I’m sure strong Christian, opined that perhaps global warming back then was caused by dinosaur farts. (I told you it was dreary.)

Hard to take that conversation seriously but there are other statements in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that strike me almost as inane. Several times I’ve heard officials say some version of “no one thought something like this could happen.” What a strange excuse that! First, of course, the Discovery and National Geographic channels have made some decent money the past decade entertaining disaster groupies with exactly how something like this could happen. Second, anticipatory thinking is an essential element of managing and leading. If you can’t generate vision well at least you might be able to anticipate.

So I think what people really mean  by that statement is that no one wanted to think about the scenario that just happened. No doubt they put it in the category of Worst Case scenario. Once you assign a possible event to the category of worst case scenario you are at risk of succumbing to a dangerous fallacy, one I saw with some regularity in government. To wit: the assumption that “worst case scenario” and “unlikely” are synonyms.

Think back on some of the meetings you’ve attended. Some Cassandra in the room starts warning of a frightful worst case scenario. Some other person, determined to avoid excess ruffling, says: “Oh you’re overreacting. That’s just a worst case scenario!” What they are also saying, of course, is “that’s very unlikely.”

(I am reminded here of something I once heard former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say. Because he was a notorious “worst case” thinker he was often accused of being a Cassandra–the prophet who predicted the fall of Troy. At which point he would remind us that “Cassandra was right!”)

Severity of impact and likelihood are independent variables. It is entirely possible for a worst case scenario to be quite feasible, if not even probable. But the conflation of worst case with unlikely is quite common and potentially catastrophic. Unfortunately, things that we find unimaginable have a nasty way of becoming inevitable.

I imagine another factor was at play here, one for which I find more sympathy. When they say that they didn’t think something like Hurricane Sandy could happen, what they also might mean is that they didn’t believe the threat was likely enough to justify taking expensive preventative actions given other budget priorities. This strikes me as a much more honest statement and reflects a judgment that public officials must make on a regular basis. Nevertheless, consideration of “likelihood” must still be made independently of any other variable. We humans have a tendency to think we are bulletproof and to assume that bad things are unlikely to happen to us. When in fact the art of living, of government, of leadership in any sector is best captured by how well we deal with calamities.
For those who can, I am linking here to the donation form for AmeriCares, a charity I myself support.

Donate Now.

Federal Workers, Secret Service, Socialism, and Human Nature

It’s been a tough couple of months for Federal Workers, active and retired. The horrible judgment shown by managers of the General Services Administration has been exceeded only by the horrible judgment shown by members of the Secret Service and the US military. As is ALWAYS the case, these episodes have produced extreme makeover suggestions for the Federal workforce. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has made attacking Federal workers a key plank of his fairness platform. I heard Greta van Susteren this week on her show wonder why Federal workers should EVER need to go to conferences.

Why Indeed!!! It always struck me when I was a member of the Federal workforce that we were the only employees in America expected to be motivated by socialist principles. Quite odd really. Our pay system, which emphasized seniority and paying your dues, was redolent of the best European socialist labor unions. So clearly, federal workers are a special breed of Americans who are completely unaffected by money or rewards. (One feels compelled to ask why not freeze their pay forever?)  And as far as going to conferences, well, clearly, federal workers, unlike employees in private industry, just don’t need to engage in the team-building and broadening activities so favored by private industry. Americans pay for these activities in the same way they pay for government activities–but for private industry these expenses are just part of overhead and not directly charged. (This is one reason why I worry that a single payer system for health care is not practical given the American political culture. We will pay more to private industry much more willingly than we will pay more to government.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not justifying anything GSA did in excess of the law or spirit of the government regulations they themselves create. (Hypocrisy has a particularly nasty odor.) But I do take issues with those who see socialism lurking around every corner and yet blithely want to impose these same socialist principles on the Federal workforce.

And now for the second scandal. The horrible behavior of Secret Service officers and US military in Colombia has elicited well-deserved, widespread criticism although the appropriate redresses are not so clear. Some suggest hopefully that the Secret Service should hire more women. Generally I think more gender and diversity balance in all organizations is always a step toward goodness, although I doubt men would think it fair to discriminate against them just because of their sexual organs. The most ridiculous thing I’ve heard is the intimation that somehow this kind of behavior is a function of having President Obama in office or a “lax” Democratic administration. To begin with, the Secret Service Director is a carryover appointee of President Bush.

But more to the point, men travelling away from home in groups have tended to engage in certain behaviors for Millenia. (We will truly have reached an entirely new evolutionary state when such behavior significantly declines, but clearly we ain’t there yet.) Entire genres of fiction and movies have been spawned by such behavior: The Hangover comes to mind. Port cities across the world steel themselves for the visits of naval ships. In fact the oldest profession could not otherwise exist. And then of course there’s pornography–the largest industry on the internet.

I’m not trying to rag on men. My targets are instead the commentators and individuals who like, Captain Renault, claim to be shocked, shocked to find that men behave in such ways. Really?

Last night I tweeted that I distrust Big Government and Big Business. That I believed in individual effort and community. And that people tend toward both goodness and bad decision-making.

Government and business will continue to make mistakes and bad decisions because both are built on the same raw material: humans. That’s why community standards and individual efforts both play a role in shaping societies and nations.

Such is life.

Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

Another redirect to Rebelsatwork.com but I’m hopeful I’ll have some new RecoveringFed content up soon. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered why being a rebel is just like being an NFL running back, then read here.

America’s Government: the Worst of Both Worlds

What’s wrong with America’s government? Essentially we have evolved into a leaderless Parliamentary system, which is the worst of both worlds.

I had an extended conversation today with two individuals who are expert practitioners of American politics. I can’t say anything more specific but they know from personal experience of what they spoke. And they made the above point. Over the last two decades or so, the two parties in Congress have become ideologically fixated so there is no longer a real possibility of compromise. The most liberal of Republican members is too conservative for the Democrats and the most conservative Democrat is too liberal for the Republicans. This wasn’t always the case. The House and Senate that Baby Boomers remember, during the 1970s and 80s, witnessed a few if not several dozen Republicans and Democrats who would routinely support the other party on certain legislative issues. This just doesn’t happen anywhere near as often any more.

What essentially caused this shift? Gerrymandering districts so they are safe seats is one reason. Another is the fact that the social divide between urban/coastal America and the center of the country has become starker over the last few years. But the policies of Congressional leaders have also contributed. Check out this Washington Post story from 2004 on Dennis Hastert declaring that legislation would only be brought forward if a majority of the majority party supported it–a philosophy that inherently prevents compromise and disrespects bipartisanship.

Parliamentary systems work because the leader of the majority party becomes the Prime Minister. No compromise is necessary because you always have the votes. Of course, our system doesn’t work that way. The President is elected separately and has almost no ability to influence the actions of an ideologically fixated opposition party, which sometimes is also a majority party. (And of course the President’s own party is ideologically fixated.)

So there you have it. Compromise becomes almost impossible because for compromise to work best you need the Democratic and Republican Parties to have some overlapping political territory. The end game right now is about scrambling to have the Senate and House pass separate bills so that the two can be resolved in Conference, where some compromises are possible. But even this maneuver may become less feasible over time if Congress continues to polarize.

A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

We the People

Four tweets I posted this morning in search of a blog:

“About 500 years after government as social institution achieved full operational mode, the socials themselves are having buyers regret.” It’s not easy to assign a date for when modern government began, but the 17th century, with its scientific revolution, the long reign of Louis XIV, and Europe’s expansion in earnest into the Western Hemisphere seems as likely a spot as any. During that century, you still had strong allegiance to the theological justification for government, divine right of kings and all that rot, but philsophers in the 18th century began to react by asserting some essential human rights.

“Governments, i.e. Functionaries, think themselves separate from and above people and groups. Au contraire Govt is below both, their creation.” It’s hard to resist thinking, if you’re a senior Government official, that you have somehow attained a higher level that the average Jane. (I know. I was one of dem for almost ten years!) And without you even realizing really, you begin to treat laws and regulations as if they are the primary source. WHICH IS LIKE REALLY WRONG!! Laws and regulations are secondary and tertiary sources: the primary source in democratic societies is the will of the people. My time in government taught me there really is no such thing as bureaucracy. Instead, what really happens is that we all become Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats worship false Gods.

Even in dictatorshps, government survives in large part on the consent of the governed. The people find it difficult to generate enough willpower and fortitude to overthrow it. (What we saw in Egypt was an inspiring example of what happens when the people do in fact get their Motivation going.) I don’t mean in any way to criticise individuals or blame the victims. I doubt I could be so courageous. But I’m simply repeating what my priest-professor once said in a Catholic University philosophy class: The only way you can be compelled to do anything is if someone physically picks you up and makes you do it. Otherwise everything is coercion, and the success of coercion always correlates to the strength of the will.

“Social networks, computing power allow individuals, groups 2 redress balance of power btw them & institutions of Govt. Trend will continue.” For much of human history, government, once established–even democratically, began to accrete to itself more and more power, in many cases, particularly with 20th-century authoritarian regimes, creating effective monopolies of power. Today, the balance of power is sliding rather
inelegantly but joyfully away from government and toward the Socials, the people and the groups they form. We are only seeing the start of a dynamic that will affect all institutions, even democratic ones and private businesses, that have allowed their actions to wander away from their popular mandates or customers.

“In a sense Govt laws and regulations are like the terms and agreements u receive when u install new software..cept u really can NOT ACCEPT.” As I wrote these tweets I was reminded of the Terms and Agreements you never can read–I mean really who would have the time and power of concentration?–but nevertheless must default accept to install new software. When we join a group we accept similar terms and agreements, except the ones written down are supplemented by unwritten ones you figure out yourself through trial and error, like playing a giant game of Myst. Demonstrations and popular uprisings are not unlike mass selections of the “I do not accept” and “I do not agree” options. To function better as societies, we need to make the “I do not accept”option much less traumatic–by the way, software developers need to do the same for this step to become meaningful again in software deployment. Government and business engagement in social activities and networks and their willingness to adjust in real time and meaningful ways to feedback are the only ways to ease the trauma of rejection.

You Feel the Earth Move Under Your Feet

You feel the sky come tumbling down.

EGYPT

Egypt is about much more than a popular uprising against a ruler who has stayed in power through what can only be described, charitably, as a corruption of the democratic process. Egypt is the most compelling example to date of how the physics of human society are being rewritten. In much the same way that Quantum Physics turned Classical Physics on its head, the twin revolutions of information and connectivity are turning society upside down or perhaps better put, every which way and loose. 

The fact that Egypt, the society political scientists always marveled at for its stability even in the face of daily, accumulating disasters, is the country that’s exploded has concussed even the most loyal adherents of the Status Quo. When the Tunisian regime fell you could discount it as the kind of thing that happens to small countries, even the Colored Revolutions of the former Soviet Union didn’t really capture the elite’s attention, because in these revolutions you often were replacing one elite-based power construct with another. (And this might still happen to Egypt, by the way.)

But Egypt seems different right now.

And everyone should be paying attention. Not just the political scientists, the national security experts in their dark suits reciting by rote the laws of classical society, the intelligence agencies. Everyone should be paying attention, particularly anyone supposedly in charge of an organization of any kind. Steve Denning today writes a blistering post on what the dynamics behind Egypt mean for American business leaders. There’s very little I can add but these two points:

  • The history of the world has been dominated by the machinations of men, and they’ve usually been men, making secret deals in backrooms. Transparency and Collaboration are destroying the backrooms of all institutions. Open, dynamic forces that carry with them their own advantages and disadvantages will take their place. Start adjusting now.
  • All institutions of any age are disconnected from this powerful dynamic. Their survival depends entirely on how quickly they adjust to it. Time grows short.

What To Say about Wikileaks

Now that Clay Shirkey has posted the following on Wikileaks, there’s very little left for me to say. Shirky expresses I hope the discomfort of many when they read of otherwise wise individuals embracing the idea of extralegal action against Wikileaks (including thinly veiled threats of violence.) Are people nuts?

So I’ll restrict my comments to some thoughts about how the Wikileaks/open internet controversy appears to me to be part of the next big battle in the millenia-long war over the proper relationship between government and society.  When I was a kid in college, some 35 years ago, I came to hope that government is in essence a temporary construct, a necessary evil. Humans need to cooperate on a whole host of transactions to make living with each other more pleasant, particularly as we clumped into larger and larger groups, and for millenia we’ve decided to hand over day-to day responsibility for this management function to something we call government. Actually we didn’t quite always hand it over; in the beginning some people or institutions such as warriors, priests, or religions actually just kind of grabbed the power and the populations essentially acquiesced. But even before the ancient Greeks, some communities were trying to figure out ways to handle these transactions and resolve differences in ways that didn’t require the creation of a permanent governing class, which unfortunately throughout history has tended to acquire a PERSONALITY OF ITS OWN, and, darn it, not always a very pleasant one.

So for all my adult life, I’ve been kind of a practical libertarian in the sense I always thought government was a lamentable but unavoidable fact of the human condition. (Along with this conviction, is the related view that the worst characteristic of humans is the desire to control others–the conviction that “I know the best way forward and you’re going to follow me or else.” (I’m afraid, based on admittedly incomplete knowledge, that Julian Assange suffers this all-too-common affliction) That’s why I tweeted the other day that the people I most admire in history have been those with radical goals who adopted moderate tactics. It’s always seemed to me that your pursuit of change always has to leave open the possibility you might be wrong and/or that better ideas exist. Going a little bit more slowly than your ardent followers would want is one way of accommodating that possibility.)

But back to imagining a good world with minimal Government. In the last ten years or so,  the internet revolution, the ability to link millions across the globe in essentially peaceful dialogue (Twitter) got me to hoping  we might eventually think our way through to a self-organizing planet. Woohoo!! Now there are lots of problems, not the least of which is the “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the “I’m better, you’re not”, and the “We’re together, you’re the ‘other'” pathologies that plague the planet. I know, I know, but, gosh, a Puerto Rican can hope.

This revolution underway is not, of course, the first global revolution against previous concepts of government. The Age of Enlightenment marked by the American and French Revolutions, essentially discredited the “divine right of kings” concept of government.  And the collapse of the remaining aristocracies at the beginning of the last century brought down the idea that only a particular, genetically-defined group of people could serve as the governing class. (I know this is a distorted thumbnail view of history, I’m leaving out all the really thrilling economic bits, for example, not to mention the cultural dimension, but I’m already at 580 words…)

And so the Wikileaks controversy is unfortunately part of the next battle in this effort to define the relationship between government and society. What’s at stake in this battle is the idea that governments require secrecy and control of information to protect its citizens and that there are a lot of things that citizens just don’t need to know. Many people are arguing against this concept, including many politicians who are winning elections based on the call for more open and transparent government. Many existing governments  in power, in fact, are demanding that other governments be more open.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t think Wikileaks is a particularly good ally to have in this battle, because it is taking an absolutist position–nothing needs to be secret –and because it is increasingly clear it’s agenda is not really about open government and transparency. Before its most recent leaks, most advocates of open government probably viewed Wikileaks much in the same way Winston Churchill viewed Josef Stalin during World War II; now advocates of open government and transparency need to be clear as to whether they want Wikileaks to represent their goals and vision. I don’t.

But that doesn’t mean I completely support how governments are reacting. One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that when something unfortunate happens, it is difficult to contain the damage; lots of other suboptimal consequences follow. Eventually we will navigate  through this period and come to a better understanding and an agreement between government and the governed as to what is appropriate transparency. I suspect this transparency will be much greater than most members of the governing class can imagine today. And it will be a necessary precondition for much greater social self-organization and much smaller and less secret government.

Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween

Waiting for my first trick or treater gets me to thinking about some of the ideas floating around our society that I think are really, really scary. Here are my Top Five:

5. Why do you want to make your ideas public? Said just last night by a kind man who admitted he never had visited a blog (which is pretty easy for him to not do as he does not own a computer.) Now this individual is also quite educated and reasonable, but I could tell as I described blogging and tweeting to him that he could not comprehend why people would see any benefit in sharing ideas as broadly and as often as possible. Given the difficulty and complexity of the problems facing our species right now, I see no alternative but to be part of the Great Insight Stream, from each according to his abilities, to each according to her needs. (said tongue in cheek.)

4. A great leader makes decisions quickly and never compromises. Oy!! Who came up with such a ridiculous notion? Maybe somewhere there is still an organization that can afford leadership by gut instinct and ideology (more on that later), but I’m not hearing too many success stories these days along those lines. Even an NFL quarterback needs to read the defense, work through his progressions, and make the right decision, which is often a compromise from his first choice.

3. I have the right to be invisible . OK, I admit you probably haven’t heard anyone say this directly, but if you listen carefully this is exactly the argument some people are making when they claim the right to privacy. If you think about it, most if not all of our actions have always been visible, but only to that limited number of people who could “see” what we were doing at any given time or place. If any of us did something criminal, the authorities would then go look for those witnesses who could testify to what they had seen. For the most part, today’s technologies don’t make activities more visible but they do reliably make a record of ALL visible activities; the digital record acts as the new witness. I myself am not sure where to draw the line here; some type of consensus will emerge. But I think we need to be clear that the right to privacy does not mean the right to be invisible.

2. If you’re a progressive, you believe in big government. Aaargh!! I consider myself a progressive because I believe humans have a lot of upside potential and as we collaborate and share more knowledge we will find better ways of doing just about everything. This does not mean, however, that I believe government has to do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, I fully expect Government to be one of the things we will find a better way of doing.

1. The US will become stronger if it returns to the past. It pains me that this even needs to be argued, but there you have it. Its funny how organizations in trouble and societies that become less confident revert to the same argument: we need to return to the principles of our glory days and just execute them better. Please, someone, show me one example where this strategy has actually worked. Deterioration in our competitive postures doesn’t occur because we’ve abandoned our principles; it happens mostly because the environment around us is changing. Ideologically-based attachment to old ideas is the greatest sin of politics.