The Corner

Civil Service Stories

Hoo-ee. Following Friday’s post I’m getting some hair-raising reports from inside the belly of the Civil Service beast.

Dear Mr. Derbyshire — I’m the [middle-management job title] for the [name of state] Dept. of Correction BECAUSE OF YOU!! After 20 years in IT in the private sector I got a goverment job after being laid off from [name of firm which outsourced their IT work overseas]. I’ve been in the government for 2 years now making about 60% of what I did in the private sector. State doesn’t pay like Federal.

I knew it would be bad in gummint, but the scale and pervasiveness of idiocy and sloth at every single level is astounding. It’s fractal. Nobody cares how long something takes, or if anything gets done poorly or at all. Everybody here thinks everyone else is a moron, and everybody is right. Management is inept to the point of being criminally negligent. More layers of management too.

Nobody [expletive] cares about anything except maintaining the same routine until retirement and [name of state] is a right-to-work state. At a state with a public employee union, I can’t imagine.

When you said GET A GOVERMENT JOB I wish you would have warned me about the cost to my work ethic, skillset, sanity and liver.

The poor fellow just hasn’t adjusted yet. Give him a couple of years, he’ll love Big Brother.

Hello, Derb — You wrote: “Would it have been so difficult for the INS computer to set a flag on the Social Security database signaling citizenship?”

As a general rule, government agencies cannot and do not talk to each other very much. This is partially out of the inherent American distrust of government. Not for us the governmental panopticon of the Scandinavian countries; we don’t trust our government with that much information.

Part of it, though, is simply bureaucratic logrolling. If the INS and Social Security systems could talk efficiently, you’d no longer need some bureaucrat to contact you about your immigration status, and someone would be out of a job. I deal with this every day in my job as a [federal job title]. Recently we wanted to send a dataset to some people in Toronto. In the real world, where proper scientific practice prevails, this takes about ten minutes … At the [name of federal agency], this is a yearlong process at least … I can’t imagine what the various bureaucrats involved would do if you fired them (assuming you could); they’re not qualified for anything else.

Here’s one from a DoD employee making a cogent historical argument, which I’ve had to abbreviate a lot:

…the 1990s was a boomtime for federal contractors, with the whole Clinton-Gore “Reinventing Government” effort leading to tremendous outsourcing of what were once core government functions … Also recall that during this time, the Dot Com boom was in full swing, with the private sector leaching off technical talent from the government left and right, especially in the D.C. area. This area saw AOL, Cisco, and a whole bunch of other tech companies sprout up in large part because of the glut of ex-government talent available.

By the time I came into the government in 2000, it was easy to get a job, and easy to get hired at a high grade. This was impossible only a few years before, but the government had mismanaged its personnel changes so terribly that it was essentially left with two cadres of employees: the very old civil servants who were just counting the days until retirement, and the very new civil servants who were new to everything. Anything approaching a middle management experience base had long been lost to the private sector and federal contractors.… Government had lost its “in house” expertise, so we had to rely on contractor promises — we had no one to double-check their work. Everything from civilian IT to military systems development and procurement has since become a disaster, and even now in 2010, we still haven’t found a way to recover from the loss of all that expertise. In my opinion we may never recover — for all its downsides, the Cold War at least gave us a glut of American engineers and scientists that this country may never enjoy again).

What you’ve been seeing in recent years, however, is the government trying to recover from the 1990s via the clumsiest mechanisms available: high-grade hiring, big pay raises, and experiments with “pay for performance” systems. These mechanisms all made great sense to fix the personnel problems the government faced…back in 1999…

If there’s anything worse than being in a dysfunctional government department, it’s being a private-sector employee trying to deal with such. Here’s a cri de coeur from out West:

I’m in charge of regulatory compliance for my employer and, as such, deal with all too many federal and state regulation and regulatory agencies.

There are some good civil servants, but they’re very much in the minority. The state agency that occupies a big chunk of my time has about twenty staff members. One is terrific, one is conscientious but not too bright and the rest are folks who would have a hard time getting hired anywhere else for one reason or another…

The way our statutes and regulations are developed doesn’t help… The giant healthcare bill that was passed without anyone having read the whole thing isn’t that unusual. Most statutes provide that some administrative agency will promulgate various regulations. The development of these regulations is filled with lobbying, hearings and infighting. I’ve testified at many legislative and regulatory hearings. The elected and appointed officials who make those decisions are politicians who neither know nor care much about the topics they’re addressing. Sometimes regulations can still be in development a decade after legislation has been enacted. The civil servants don’t necessarily know what the regs mean or if they’ll change tomorrow, they just know that the politicians don’t want to be embarrassed by someone actually doing something.

A sub-theme in the email bag is that while European countries may be more bureaucratic than the U.S.A., they are better at bureaucracy, possibly from long practice.

Derb — I lived in Barcelona for a number of years and was struck by how efficient both the national (i.e., visas, immigration, residence cards, etc.) and regional (registration on city rolls for enrollment in various state medical programs, etc.) were. The offices were nice, the people friendly if brusque in that uniquely Catalan way … all in all, those core functions went quite smoothly …

The difference between my experience there and helping a Colombian friend with her immigration paper work in this country just boggles the mind.

I got many emails like this:

Derb — I worked for 26 years in the civil service as an attorney and got to see a wide variety of levels/types/classes of the US Civil service. The main problem is that it is so stinking difficult to fire anyone in the civil service … If a person wants to work at a very low level for many years, they can do so without any fear of consequences as long as they follow the rules …

After all that, it’s nice to record a contrarian view:

John — I worked in the Civil Service before testing was dropped. In terms of organizational function, it was much worse than today.

This was not due to lack of intelligent people. The first civil servants I worked with were overweight, chain-smoking middle-aged guys, maddeningly slow and cautious in their work, the very caricatures of infuriating civil servants. Then at lunchtime they did math puzzles that might have challenged you, and they whipped through to solutions in a way that dazzled me.

I think the Federal Civil Service actually functions better today than it did in the 1970s, at least at many routine tasks. Two reasons: technology and outsourcing. Information technology has made it much easier to get information out of the government, as it has for the private sector. And a lot of routine government work is now outsourced to private firms that have incentives to perform…

I’m curious about that “testing was dropped.” It can’t have been completely dropped. There are still Civil Service exams — you can buy books to prepare for them. Perhaps it was just tests for promotion that were dropped?

Finally, just going back to the point about Europeans, for all their bureaucratism, just being better at bureaucracy, there’s a connection there with Matt Welch’s piece in America’s Newspaper of Record today. Matt argues that even as the Obama administration is embracing every European policy idea in sight, the Europeans themselves are dumping those ideas.

The grand irony here is that the very continent we’re scrambling to emulate has been moving aggressively in the opposite direction on taxes and economic policy. While the US keeps corporate taxes frozen near 40 percent, EU countries have slashed them down to an average of around 25 percent. Top marginal income tax rates, which in the US are 35 percent, are under 25 percent all across the former East Bloc.

If Matt’s right, we’re turning to statist dirigisme just as the Europeans are turning away from it. And we probably won’t be half as good at it as they were!


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