Category Archives: Nature of Federal Workers

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.









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.

On CIA, typewriters, and sensemaking

Check out my guest blog post on IBM’s Smarter Planet blog.

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.

Has Twitter Eaten My Brain? (Lesson 22)

It’s been more than a month since I wrote a blog post. Reasons:

1. I’ve started doing some hours as a consultant, so most of my pleasant “thinking and writing mornings” have disappeared. I need to develop a new routine.

2. I’m getting ready for a vacation to southern Africa. I have two more nights of good sleep left before it’s wheels up, and stay tuned to this space for pictures and reports of what we hope will be excellent adventures. My interest in the world has many antecedents, but one in particular was the show Discovery that ABC aired in the 60s and 70s as part of its weekend children’s programming. Perhaps some of you remember it as well? Hearing the jazzy score after four decades is Proustian in its effect.

3. I haven’t had anything to say that I couldn’t say in 140 characters or less. Is this scary? I can’t quite decide myself, but generally I quite like the discipline of having to convey ideas in short, digestible snippets, although admittedly the “telegraph” language and spelling used in twitter just seems to confuse/annoy some people.

I keep a list of topics, ideas I might want to blog about, but none of them seemed worthy of an entire posting.

  • On Diversity. One of the ways I can tell that Latinos haven’t really made it into corporate America yet is how easy it is to use my surname, straight and unadulterated, as a userid on business-oriented websites. On the Harvard Business Review website, I was able to walk right in as “camedina”. At the CIA I was just plain “medina”. No medina25, no convoluted acronyms. Medina is a pretty common Spanish surname; according to it ranks 30th in frequency of use in Spanish-speaking countries. (In the US the 30th most common surname is King.)  The list of 100 most common US surnames makes for good perusing. The two most common Spanish surnames in the US are Garcia and Martinez, which come in at 18 and 19, with Rodriguez just outside of the top 20.
  • More on Diversity. There have been some comments on my post from a few weeks ago on the essential Latino heritage of the US. I’ve really no interest in argument, because I’ve learned over the years that debate never really seems to change most people’s views. I’ve been struck recently, however, by the dynamic impact that new waves of immigrants are having on US society.  For example, the south Asian, specifically Indian, contribution to the US economy cannot be overestimated. I’ve read estimates that upwards of 25% of Silicon Valley startups are Indian-run firms. Personally, I think the most prosperous future economic scenario for the US is decidedly multicultural.
  • On the Difference between Government and Private Industry. As I dip a toe or two into work outside of government, my first impression is that the two are more similar than not. Both probably have about the same proportion of good/dumb ideas and competent/incompetent staff. The key advantage for private industry, however, appears to be that it can kill bad ideas/projects a lot more easily than the federal government seems to be able to.
  • Lesson 22 from a CIA manager: Be clear about what kind of management problem you’re facing. Sure, there are many sticky situations the artful manager can unstick, but be careful to diagnose problems correctly. There is a whole set of problems that managers can never solve. They can only be solved by the passage of time (and generations). Many of these can only be managed like some kind of chronic illness. The Arab-Israeli dispute comes to mind, for example. Really difficult people are also likely to “outclass” you. Remember, you will only spend at best a few years with this individual who suffers from really difficult emotional issues or pathologies. My motto was: If your parents weren’t able to correct your behavior, there’s very little chance I ever will.

Another Commercial Break

A piece I’ve been working on concerning the future the government needs to start preparing for was just published on the Center for American Progress website. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

Does the Government Have any Pull?

About halfway through their new book The Power of Pull, John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison write about how individuals can use emerging social networking capabilities to harness personally the power of pull–pull being their term for the capability of institutions and individuals to contribute to society by becoming centers of attraction, rather than continuing with the old model of pushing their value propositions regardless of how tired these may have become. But the authors admit there is a problem, that being ” the certain reactionary peevishness with which some people dismiss social media and digital culture.” And I thought when I read that, gosh that describes many federal government employees I encountered over the last few years of my service. I routinely confronted downright hostility to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter often, I thought, based on ignorance and on this odd conviction that experts do best by working by themselves, not by sharing with others. Now, I admit this reaction may have been particular to my Agency, but my sense is that it is rather characteristic of individuals above a certain, ahem, age.

I just finished reading the book, which is both an easy and provocative read and provides a detailed and I suspect largely accurate prescription for the adjustments we need to make to become power surfers of the pull economy. (Their argument is actually much more complex so here’s a link to Hagel’s blog post introducing the book.) In any case as I read the book I came across many concepts that I think will be challenging for the federal government–not impossible mind you, but hard.

One of their more ambitious points is that “rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be recrafted to serve the needs of individual.” Wow, I thought, rather breathtaking and a good example of something that will be quite a stretch for federal agencies. Many, for example, are formed around needs that are at least today considered essential, such as the military, the Coast Guard, tax collection, and intelligence. It will be quite an intellectual journey to get to where we will be comfortable having these necessary functions carried out in a manner that depends less on rules and more on personal initiative.

Hagel, Brown, and Davison convincingly argue that as we move to the pull economy we will discard the “detailed demand forecasts, operational plans, and operational process manuals [that] carefully script the actions and specify the resources required to meet anticipated demand.”  I agree. The complexity of today’s age just mocks tight planning concepts–the impact the Icelandic volcano is having on our just-in-time economy is an apt illustration. But unfortunately for the federal government, we may have no choice but to remain prisoners to arbitrary budgets and program goals primarily because of the flaws in our law and budget-making processes. I suspect Congress will remain quite determined to keep federal agencies on a short leash.

One of the best sections in the book is the discussion of the need for institutions to arrange for creation spaces and for their employees to be exposed regularly to the potential for serendipity. Why? Because  only the explorers in your organization can hope to spot the advantages and opportunities that will, like fireflies, constantly flash before them. (By the way the need for employees to have an explorer’s mentality is another reason to ban the use of the metaphor “short leash”.) I would think these are ideas that federal agencies could start implementing right away. But to do so we have to realize that innovation requires failure to succeed.

Hagel, Brown, and Davison also provide a warning for federal agencies given the looming shortage of skilled workers. They write that “any institution that cannot provide a powerful platform for talent development will find its most talented people fleeing their cubicles and corner offices for other ‘homes'”. Well, we all know that government workers NEVER voluntarily give up corner offices, but otherwise federal managers need to take seriously their responsibility to create an environment where talent can best develop. In a pull economy, only those organizations that can attract the best talent will prosper.

There’s a lot more insight I could point to, but they all support the conclusion that the pull economy will eventually lead to significant changes in how the mission of government is carried out. For me the change needs to begin with how we define the roles of government workers. Right now too many of them are in fact pulling at short leashes, assigned to narrow jobs that allow for little innovation. Despite public prejudices that the opposite is true, I suspect the key to better government performance is not to have government employees do less, but to encourage them to do more.

On Another Subject: What is the Difference Between Government and Community?

One of the things I like best about my public identity is that advertisers and spammers are in disagreement as to my gender, my age, whether or not I know how to speak English, and, most interesting, my political affiliation. I get bombarded with emails from every possible political angle. Today I received one from a very conservative group who is worried that schools will soon start forcing boys to wear dresses and that an army of 80k troops is lurking to put down civil unrest. Normally I would pay little attention to such an email, in the same way I wouldn’t pay attention to one from the opposite end of the spectrum. But the tag line on the email grabbed my attention:

The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

Well, I agree with that I thought. Everything I know about history and human nature tells me that governments which purport to take care of a long list of needs for individuals somehow mess up the essential motivational structure of the human being.  And accounts from many totalitarian states agree that the dignity of the human and her independence suffer horrifically under these regimes. Among the eeriest things I ever watch are the documentaries about the so-called life of ordinary citizens in North Korea.

But I do have one caveat about the phrase. And I present it in the form of a question: What is the difference between government and community? Because if you replaced the word government in that phrase with the word community it stops making sense.

The bigger the community, the smaller the citizen.

That doesn’t sound right. Being a member of a thriving community enriches the life of an individual. That’s why urban areas worldwide are the essential centers of innovation and economic activity. That’s why individuals find mega-churches enriching, both socially and spiritually. And that’s why, in all but the rarest of cases, hermits seem like very diminished persons indeed.

My memory of civics class tells me government is, at its best, an expression of the community. This tendency to see government as some type of monstrous entity independent of the individuals it serves is very disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like very much the survey of political attitudes on that’s been bouncing around Facebook the last couple of weeks. Government is presented as some kind of monolithic THING that acts independently of the wishes of any citizens. The agenda of the government is somehow seen as completely independent of the agenda of the citizens. This is an unhealthy view. In a democracy, the agenda of any elected government will of course not be to the liking of some citizens (perhaps even 50% minus 1) but regardless of which side we’re on, we cannot view the expression of another reasonable view as illegitimate.

One last point rant. This depiction of government as an independent, weight-throwing monolith also carries with it the view of bureaucrats as evil, aspiring tyrants. Here’s my problem with that. For the life of me, I don’t understand how we bureaucrats can be both lazy and stupid AND evil and dominating, but I’ll leave that to cleverer people to explain.

Who Are You Calling Old and Selfish?

Are Civil Servants Too Old and Selfish for Gov 2.0? That’s the title of an interesting blog post and discussion on Generation Shift. When I saw the tweet about the post well, of course, I took it personally. I’m 55, I’ve been tweeting for almost two years and I can’t really remember when I started Facebook it’s been so long. Not only did I adopt these practices personally, but I promoted them as best as I could at CIA, including being a senior sponsor early on of the Intellipedia effort. I must admit however that all of these activities made me “a person of interest” at CIA–that‘s meant to be funny. (I’m reminded of a conversation I had once with a colleague, during which no doubt I was lamenting the slow pace of change and the general reluctance of government to engage with the new. He looked at me wisely and wryly and observed: ” being for change in a government bureaucracy is not unlike being a mobile home in the path of a tornado.”)
So of course I agree with the principle that government is slow to change, but I don’t think it’s because we are too old and selfish. Yes we are old and no doubt selfish, but that hasn’t stopped us from doing other things that clearly were better for us. In our lifetimes we’ve stopped smoking, started walking long circuits in our neighborhoods most evenings, and learned to recycle plastic and paper products…….so we’re not like dense.
But clearly there is a problem. Why have so many in my generation, particularly in government, decided to draw the line against transparent collaboration (except, of course, they don’t use those terms–the terms I’ve heard are “waste of time” or “lonely hearts clubs.”) Some factors that I think are more credible than the cheap shots of  old and selfish are:
  • Insulation. This applies particularly to government civil servants in managerial slots. Once they reach a position of authority their days become so programmed (with both necessary and Alice-in-Wonderland events) that it becomes impossible for most outside factors to penetrate their consciousness, at least not without serious lag. It takes a real act of will to step outside “the cone of importance“ to look at what is actually going on in the world. This is not necessarily related to age or selfishness.
  • This brings me to a second point, related to insulation, but worth calling out separately. Let‘s call it  Government Exceptionalism. Not unlike the view that America holds an exceptional place in the world and a special role, government exceptionalism argues that the role of government is somehow different from other functions in human and civil society. I don’t know that this position is often explicitly expressed but I would argue that it is implicitly accepted by almost everyone. Those outside government even espouse this view, except they often argue that government is exceptionally inefficient. The function of government itself is inherently broken, they say. But within government, the exceptional argument goes more like this: what we do is very hard, very critical, very special and we just can’t accept any new method that comes down the pike. (I actually don’t believe that most of what government does is exceptional. Most of what government does is actually transactional or knowledge work, which makes it very eligible for the introduction of transparent, collaborative practices.)
  • The final factor I’d offer is Existential Fear. I admit this is probably rather rare, but I do believe there are those in government who understand that Gov 2.0 implementation would eventually lead to a different, and I believe necessarily smaller, footprint for government. Often government is simply the mechanism by which one group of citizens connects to another for necessary interest or mutual advantage and through which the norms of behavior in that transaction are stipulated and enforced. These are exactly the types of activities that mature social networks can do automatically. In the same way that the internet paradigm has destroyed the middleman role in many economic and social activities, social networking has the potential to do the equivalent for government.
(I’m reminded of a visit to my local Post Office almost fifteen years ago. If you remember AOL installation CD’s were everywhere then. It was raining AOL CD’s. This particular year the Post Office had a stack of AOL CD’s available for perusal as you stood in line. When I got to the counter, the postal worker, whom I thought eccentric at the time but now realize was prescient, said “I can’t believe we have these AOL CD’s here. Don’t people realize they will drive us out of business?”)

We are Part of the Solution

At my car dealer this morning bringing the old 2001 Mazda in for service. (I need to give a shout out to Rosenthal Mazda in Arlington, VA. They provide free if somewhat poky WIFI. And I guess as a blogger I need to state clearly that Rosenthal Mazda has provided me no financial renumeration. Au contraire!! But I digress…) Anyway I was checking out my Twitter feed for useful leads to interesting information and found William Eggers, who just wrote a great book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, about making government better, providing a link to his new website Policy Design for Execution. If you pick up the book or check out the website, government workers will appreciate the  sympathetic analysis of what leads to government disfunction. As the website notes, “policy ideas go straight from the idea stage through the legislature without being subjected to the exacting design process that occurs in the private sector.”

Well, I don’t know that the design process in the private sector is always that exacting, but I think the general point is still true. Government workers are often asked to turn some incompletely (or worse ill) conceived idea into reality, and then get all the blame when it doesn’t work. You can’t even say it doesn’t work as designed, because it WAS NEVER DESIGNED!!! And then, most galling, the very individuals who generated the idea–the legislators–then enjoy beating up the incompetent government workers who can’t get it right. Really, it is time for us govies to stop accepting victim status and join the conversation about out what, other than our own performance, also needs to change to produce better government results.

At the start I mentioned that I checked my Twitter feed. If you don’t twitter and don’t use it specifically to gather a posse of smart people you turn to for advice and ideas, then you are really missing out on one of the real benefits of social networking. At least among the people I follow, Twitter has evolved from idle chatter to focused sharing. For example here’s a link that just popped up to an interesting article in Foreign Policy on the new rules of war: .

Give Twitter a try.