Jan 05 2007

Can The Federal Government Function?

Published by at 9:17 am under All General Discussions

Captain Ed Morrissey has an interesting post up on the situation with Negroponte and his move from Director of National Intelligence to the State Department. Ed notes there are challenges in getting government to function – but this has nothing to do with security. It has to do with the Federal civil servant system and Congress. And trust me when I say Congress is much of the problem.

Let me first note Morrissey’s valid points:

The resignation of John Negroponte has produced criticism of his stewardship of American intelligence as DNI from members of Congress that insisted on creating the position. The Los Angeles Times reports that Negroponte has wanted to leave the position for weeks due to the lack of authority over the component intelligence agencies, although that did not keep Negroponte from doing some empire-building as DNI.

As I warned when President Bush caved into pressure from the 9/11 Commission to create the DNI in the manner he did, this would only result in a larger bureaucracy and only limited success in the kind of interagency cooperation needed. The change only succeeded in creating a new bureaucracy to sit on top of all of the old ones, and left Negroponte with only limited power to enforce policy changes in any of the subordinate agencies. In fact, when he first arrived as DNI, the directorate comprised a few hundred employees, mostly pulled from those component agencies with their extreme displeasure.

How bad has the growth become? Nine months ago, the LAT reported that Congress had momentarily pulled its funding when Negroponte’s organization swelled to 700 employees. According to the LAT today, it now employs more than double that number — and people like Jay Rockefeller and Jane Harman complain that Negroponte is leaving the job of building the directorate “unfinished”. How much more “finishing” does it need?

Ed (and the Congress which created this problem) forgets a few things. And that is the bureacracy behind the bureacracy. The reporting and training and auditing and all the other crap Congress has laid into the Federal system as ‘overhead’ is stunning, and under reported. The decision makers I deal with must be at some form of PC training once a month it seems. And they spend most of their time on status reports and dealing with budgets that are not stable for more than 3 months at a time.

For example, the planning for the 2008 GFY budget begins in earnest now, if you want to be prepared. This is the 2nd quarter of the 2007 GFY and many are still addressing the changes Congress wrought on that year’s budget. 50% of the time of the technical and programmatic leaders will be focused from here on in getting good budget numbers out, dealing with Congressional petulence on nickle and diming every line item, and the constant changes that happen all year long. An army of people do nothing but respond to whims by Congress.

The constant unpredictability of the budget becomes the focus of every single government program – not the implementation. I see it all the time. The inability to make decisions, get authority to move out, have the money that was supposed to be there for simple things like trips to meet, creates a process which is all reactionary and as inefficient as you can imagine. And this is why ’empires’ are built – to respond to Congress.

We could do things a lot better and have better results if Congress would agree to budget programs they authorize for the lifetime of the program – not yearly. I have seem programs with no problems whatsoever hit the skids because Congress changed its mind mid year and pulled money. And the impacts of these changes is enormous. A one million dollar retraction halfway through the year will feel like a 2 million dollar adjustment since half the year was run expecting the money and that money now doesn’t exist anymore. Congress is the problem, top to bottom.

They micro manage, they require mountains of completely useless and dysfunctional paperwork that no one uses, and they cannot keep themselves committed to their committments. It is not Negroponte’s fault he needs so many people to interface with the armies of people in the other agencies – but he does. He needs to coordinate on 100’s of different levels – including such things as educational outreach (which is a great idea run amok). The amazing thing is the people involved have the drive and dedication to succeed through all of this and get something, albeit nothing compared to what is possible, but something done. If it was not for the people making the system work despite itself, are system would simply collapse.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Can The Federal Government Function?”

  1. Mike M. says:

    AJ, you’ve hit THE under-reported story.

    I work for DOD, and the amount of man-hours spent on “fighting waste” and reacting to the continuous flow of budget drills is staggering. About half of the manpower involved in program management is spent doing this sort of thing.

    Not to mention the body blows that Congress not getting the budget out on time deals to everything. It’s more than a little difficult to manage a program when you have no idea how much money you will have next month.

    And then they wonder why it’s so hard to retain good people……

  2. For Enforcement says:

    I think being at executive level in the government must really be a frustrating thing. Having worked in private industry all my life, budgeting is an important part of it, but usually once the budget was fixed for the year, you could count on it. Even if you had to reduce it, at least the persons involved usually had a significant input. The way the government functions, it seems as if the hands don’t know what the head is doing. A good manager, with authority, could make a world of differecne. But then, that’s not gonna happen. Congress certainly isn’t going to give up any of i “it’s” authority.

  3. AJStrata says:

    Mike M,

    I nailed it because, like you, I live it. I work for NASA which did not get their budget passed last fall (lazy reps!) and we are now on a one year CR even though we are supposed to start development of the shuttle’s replacement.

    It is stunning how much effort is consumed simply responding to Congress as it wanders aimlessly about pretending it is relevant. Same thing when I worked DoD – though I tend to gravitate to upheavel. I was there when WWMCCS finaly succumbed to GCCS (lead SE on the proof-of-concept prototypes). It took a complete collapse of the existing program to let the drammatic changes come forward to move JOPES into the 1980’s. It shouldn’t need to take complete failure to finally remove the rigour to do the right thing. But it does. Time and time again. That is why I circle the troubled programs.

  4. crosspatch says:

    “And then they wonder why it’s so hard to retain good people…”

    Or get rid of the bad ones. I worked in that environment for several years and I don’t miss it a bit. Working for the government has, sadly, become a lifelong game of CYA in too many instances.

    In my opinion civilian government service should be made more like military service in some respects. First of all, all people below a certain grade should be on fixed term contracts. When that term expires they can be shown the door or reinstated for another fixed term. For people over a certain grade, it should be like it is for military officers … get passed over for promotion twice and your career is pretty much at an end. Find another job or tansfer to the pencil warehouse in Yakima.

  5. For Enforcement says:

    Crosspatch, maybe. but how would you like to be in a job where if you got passed over twice, by political hacks, you were sacked? and the reinstatement for another fixed term? would that be automatic, and for how many terms? There just doesn’t seem to be a good way, it’s always been, and always will be political. ugh.

  6. crosspatch says:

    Say you would sign up for a 5 year period of service. Upon the expiration of your term of service you would re-apply. You could be accepted in your current position, a different position, or your contract is allowed to expire.

    I do understand the “political hack” statement but it is often more subtle than one would think. Sure, the vast majority of government employees are Democrats and the government is one of the most highly unionized sector of labor … but the politics is often not of the partisan variety. Often there are cliques and alliances within agencies. To attempt to rid an agency of an underperforming employee often invites retaliation from their “gang”. What I often saw were relatively small groups that operated not unlike street gangs. You protect your own. If someone in your group is being given a hard time, you start sabotaging people in the camp of the person you believe is precipitating it. Pretty petty but I saw it go on. I was a contractor so I wasn’t directly involved in the office politics but I saw enough of it for me to know that I would never want to work there as a government employee.

  7. crosspatch says:

    Also note that my experiance was some 20 years ago. Things could have changed in that time. But reading blog entries from people who currently work close to where I did … it doesn’t sound like it.

  8. Bikerken says:

    Well I work for govt too in a way, I’m a contractor and I’m quite happy with that. I retired out of the Navy a few years back and I’ll tell you what really bothers me.

    I have noticed a tendency of military people and civilian govt workers to not only be liberal, but the liberals have no problem with undermining the commander in chief. I was in the Navy while Clinton was president and I didn’t like the guy. But there was no way in hell I would have ever considered doing anything like leaking something to the press that would make him look bad. That is not and never was my position. He was an ELECTED president and my will doesn’t overide everyone elses. Sure, there is a such thing as a legitimate whistle blower, (and Bill certainly allowed that!) but that’s not what I’m talking about, these people leak things to the press that they know are going to be taken out of context because of the military or intelligence field ignorance of the press. Lets just say I were to leak to the press that the US has plans to attack Canada, I could be absolutely technically right because the US works up contigency plans ahead of time to handle any possible situation ahead of time. Now are we going to attack Canada? Hell no, (and I don’t know of any plans for that), but if Canada were attacked, we mostly likely already have plans made up to support them. I just don’t happen to leak that little tidbit. So some jackass prints in the NYT that the US “Plans to attack Canada”, and it puts the president on the defensive for weeks! That’s what I’m talking about.

    Not only will they do that, but they will blindly overlook aggregious acts and behaviour by other lefties in the govt because they really believe that because they “care” they should have power and people who don’t agree with them are from the dark side.

    The whole Plame incident was a perfect example, I’m sure everyone around DC in the state dept cocktail party circles knew who she was, but the press is stupid enough to believe that everyones identity who works at the CIA is “Classified”. Thus the hyperbole. I have no doubt whatsover that the CIA has been on a campaign to oust GW for years. By the way, do you all remember what BJ Clinton did to the justice dept when he came into office? He routed it and stacked it with his own people. He fired all the lead prosecuters and replace them with his own people. This was a very smart move for someone who knows he will probably be in trouble someday. Most of those people are still there too, and thats why things like Plame and other judicial idiocies are still taking place.

    The reason so many govt workers are democrats is because they are beaureacrats sitting in low performance, demand steady paying jobs that they could NEVER retain if they actually had to produce results.