Saturday, December 13, 2008

Suggestion #6: Repair the U.S. Civil Service

Some of the proposals I’ve been offering may be “unusual” - unspoken elsewhere - simply because they seem... well... boring!  Have you heard anyone else raise the plight of the civil servants, for example?  It sounds like a tedious “process issue.”  And yet, please do bear with me. For there are few matters facing the next administration that could be more important than the skilled and honest performance of our “fourth branch of government.”

By some measures - especially if you include the military Officer Corps - there are at least three million professional public servants in America, most of whom have suffered for eight years under bullying misrule by eight thousand appointees of the Bush Administration... political hacks who filled the top slots in every federal agency, from EPA to the Justice Department, from FDA to NASA to the CIA. All too often, those top appointees seemed to have just one purpose -- making it difficult, even impossible, for the civil servants to do their jobs.

Of course, it has long been stylish to dismiss “bureaucrats” as faceless drones, or as officious, petty tyrants who stand in the way of free-spirited American enterprise and individualism.  Nor is this a completely misguided reflex!  Suspicion of authority is healthy, and it’s good to keep a libertarian corner of the mind asking - “Is this rule necessary?”  Al Gore’s greatest accomplishment, as Vice President, was to cut both the non-military federal manpower total and government paperwork by substantial amounts, the only time it’s happened since 1950.

Nevertheless, we citizens co-own a republic of laws that were deliberated by freely elected delegates and passed according to a Constitution we all share.  For better or worse, those laws ought to be honestly and openly and capably enforced -- while we continue arguing over how to further change them.  We have hired, at great expense, a large number of highly trained and skilled professionals to help our nation deal with a myriad problems in this complex world.  We all lose when they are thwarted from giving taxpayers their money’s worth.

Which is what the neocons did, all across the initial part of the Twenty-First Century -- whether motivated by a dogma of hating government or some far more nefarious agenda -- interfering with our FBI agents and prosecutors, with the inspectors who keep our dams and roads safe and our food and toys safe, with scientists investigating climate change and auditors charged with keeping an eye on financial institutions.

Might the latter have spotted some of the disastrous practices that led to our present economic meltdown, and taken action much earlier, if not for active and relentless hindrance from above?  Perhaps we’ll never know.  Still, the matter is an important one.

Indeed, it can be argued that Barack Obama will accomplish fully half of what America needs, simply by unleashing a couple of million skilled men and women, letting them get back to doing their jobs.  And it can happen without passing a single new law.

Reclaim The Spirit of Government Competence

Still, there is more that ought to be done.  I have several very specific proposals that would be easy to implement.

MY FIRST PROPOSAL is that Obama Transition Team visibly act to promote civil servants into second and third tier positions, just below that of cabinet secretary.  It would do wonders for morale, showing that this important cadre has not been forgotten and that things really have changed.  It would also offer a chance to reward exemplars of courage and foresight -- individuals who stood up to political pressure during the Bush years, who issued prescient warnings, or who exhibited remarkable displays of rectitude.

  As they saw change coming, a number of Bush era political appointees performed something called the “Washington Side-Step,” getting themselves hired into the bureaucracy as members of the supposedly nonpartisan -- and legally protected -- civil service.  There are hundreds of these people, by now ensconced in positions for which they would normally never have been qualified.  Ways should be explored to do something about this.

Yes, Barack Obama is entering office determined to keep things cool and calm and grownup.  He will disappoint his most passionate followers by eschewing many opportunities for political vendetta or revenge. This policy is wise, overall.  Nevertheless, as I plan to argue -- here and elsewhere -- President Obama reasonably cannot let predators and toadies get away completely free. Surely, some bright people can be assigned to find imaginative ways to both stay cool and rid the republic of parasites. 

(Just one possibility: pass a law allowing all the civil servants in any agency to vote one percent of their colleagues either up or out -- to be promoted or booted. One percent should not infringe overmuch upon administration prerogatives or upon bureaucratic due process.  Surely that would offer a legal and understandable way for the rank and file of agency personnel to supplement and enhance regular hiring/promotion processes, knowledgeably rewarding the very best and getting rid of the very worst, purely as a matter of consensus wisdom, while keeping politics out of it.)

A THIRD PROPOSAL should be obvious.  Improve whistle-blower protections, so that we will never again see bureaucrats intimidated by a competence-hating administration into biting their lips in silence over violations of the law.

A SIDE NOTE: the shift of the state of Virginia into the Democratic column, during the 2008 election, may have had a great deal to do with anger on the part of members of the U.S. Civil Service toward the Bush Administration, and the GOP in general.  This topic has political ramifications, as well as those having to do with the general national good.

And finally --

MY FIFTH & TOP PROPOSAL may seem a bit strange, at first.  But it is simple and would prevent recurrence of countless travesties. Create the office of Inspector General of the United States...

... or IGUS, who will head a uniformed agency akin to the Coast Guard or the Public Health Service, charged with protecting the legal and ethical health of government.

This one requires some explaining.  Which I’ll do next time.

See: Suggestion #7 Free the Inspectors General!


Anonymous said...

After reading the following, I don't need to be convinced that we need an Inspector General:

Report Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders

'In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.’ ”'

' The history records how Mr. Garner presented Mr. Rumsfeld with several rebuilding plans, including one that would include projects across Iraq.

“What do you think that’ll cost?” Mr. Rumsfeld asked of the more expansive plan.

“I think it’s going to cost billions of dollars,” Mr. Garner said.

“My friend,” Mr. Rumsfeld replied, “if you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.”'

expup: As a dog owner, it's too sad to contemplate.

Unknown said...

I agree. As a former (state) civil service employee, I know what it's like.

I went through a "regime" change where the new management didn't understand what our group (IT) really did. They sacked our manager immediately and left it up to the supervisors, young, inexperienced in handling upper management, and more importantly not savvy enough that they needed to get together and show a uniform front, and we didn't talk a good talk about what our services were. It didn't help that the few people that were truly against us stayed, along with some back stabbing from within our own ranks.

Only after going through a few temp managers and ending up with the second in command as our manager, did the thinking turn around. The major PITA got told to have his section totally divorced from our area. He was given an extra two months from the deadline that HE selected, and still fell flat on his face. Despite what he thought, Macintoshes don't fix everything and programming them isn't just a snap.

I moved to a different area with the same pay and a hell of a lot less responsibility and stress, not to mention free parking as I no longer worked downtown. And did more.

Oh, and after a two and a half year battle, our old manager got his job back (different agency) complete with back pay. Nice job is you can get it!

Anonymous said...

The IGUS needs to be a directly elected position, running in "off years".

If the clowns get to appoint and confirm, the position won't mean much. If that worked, we'd be fine just having the AG.

The office needs to be created through ammendment, not mere statute, if we want a fully impartial and fully empowered force of professionals maintaining accountability.

The IGUS needs to have full acess to all records, period, with a built in and completely protected waiver against "Executive Privilege" and "Security Concerns". We can empower a panel of Federal Judges to decide what the IGUS is allowed to go public with.

BTW - Obama has listened already. While I'm not the worlds biggest fan of Gates, and I know what he did in the 80's...he got the nukes back under control. There is enough interesting stuff involved in how he did that to write a dozen books...and no doubt someone will. I'll just say that B-52s rarely fall out of the sky.

Also, Shinseki is in at Veterans Affairs. I'm hopping for Taguba to either get tasked to handle a "Detention Reform" position, or flat-out get tagged for Secretary of the Army.

Obama is still dipping heavily into the Clinton pool, but we'll see what else happens going forward.

I'd sure like to see the whistleblowers who exposed the NSA passing around "sexy phone calls" get hired backed.

Tony Fisk said...

Yep, give the civil service back its shoes!

twerver: a quick google hints at something selacious. You might want to throw something at it.

Anonymous said...

This is not directly relevant to this topic but;
I would like to see a change to the way documents have their "secrecy" established.
Each document that is classified should have the identity of the classifier attached.
There should be penalties - similar to those for disclosing classified documents - attached to incorrect/political classification.
Legal,Criminal penalties.
Documents should then be audited and those who inappropriately classified them charged.
The Audit process would have to leave a fair amount of leeway for "it seemed like a good idea at the time" but knowing that this process can be applied later and that part of your retirement could be spent in jail should help the classifiers make their decisions more sensibly.

Anonymous said...

Inspector General? it evokes some unfortunate comparisons with Russian literature and Soviet history: the early USSR has an office named Rabkrin (Office of the Workers and Peasants' Inspection) whose aim was exactly the same of the became the first power base of one up and coming bureaucrat named Josif Vissarioniovic Djugasvili...'nuff said.

Anonymous said...

Off topic:

So much for not shouting into the cosmos.

sociotard said...

40 Inspirational Speeches in Two Minutes.

Obama's inauguration speech is so highly anticipated it can barely help but be overhyped. To avoid being a letdown, it must be at least this inspirational. :)

Anonymous said...

Speaking of just how garbaged things have become:

Ilithi Dragon said...

You know... The more and more I look into the state of our government, the more and more I'm finding parallels between the state of the Manticoran government after the assassination of their prime minister and the resulting shift in power that let the 'loyal' opposition parties take control, in David Weber's Honor Harrington novels. The motivations and base actions are very much the same. Even many of the specific actions match up.

David Brin said...

David Brin said...

The Debategraph folks have set up a representation of my civil service concept at:

See also one re Somalia:

Tony Fisk said...

Very nice!

... I was kicking about a similar idea for the Superstruct game using SVG (which every browser bar one supports rather well these days.) It was stymied by a poorly connected database structure, and what I took to calling the Oedipus viral plague, so we ended up linking structs via tags.

'lordb': Who's he?

Anonymous said...

What to do with your old shoes.

Tony Fisk said...

For some reason, I am reminded of an old cartoon featuring an 'Ogre' (an emblematic cybernetic tank from a Steve Jackson game) cruising along whilst humming 'All gods chilluns got treads...'

I don't think it made the cut in 'Soundtrack to War' (I'd duck, too!)

rephyphi: musical form favoured by cybernetic tanks

Ilithi Dragon said...

Stefan: Thanks for the link! Definitely gonna send an old pair his way.

Resibins: D&D-based recycling method that resurrects your trash.

Acacia H. said...

And briefly looking at science, Dark Energy is apparently responsible for stunting the growth of galaxies.

And they STILL don't know what Dark Energy is. ^^;;

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

... "dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return"

chillt: what thou art when colt

JuhnDonn said...

Another example of hamstrung civil service, packed with cronies at the top?

Another blow to reputation of SEC

The latest black eye for the commission came when it was disclosed that inspectors and agency lawyers had missed a series of warning signs at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. If it had checked out the warnings, the commission might well have discovered years ago that the firm was concealing its losses by using billions of dollars from some investors to pay others.

The firm was the subject of several inquiries over the years, including one last year that was closed by the agency's New York office after it had received a referral of potentially significant problems from the Boston office.

Similarly, the commission's chairman, Christopher Cox, assured investors nine months ago that all was well at Bear Stearns, which collapsed three days later.

The enforcement division has been hamstrung by budget cuts and changes adopted by the SEC that make it harder to impose penalties on corporations, even when there has been egregious wrongdoing, Arthur Levitt Jr., the SEC chairman from 1993 to 2001, told the U.S. Congress in October. The result has been "a demoralizing of the enforcement staff," Levitt said.

Some experts said that appointees of the administration of President George W. Bush had hollowed out the commission, much the way they did various corners of the Justice Department. The result, they say, is hobbled enforcement and inspection programs.

"You are dealing with a commission whose effectiveness in fraud deterrence is open to serious question after cases such as Bear Stearns and Madoff," said Joel Seligman, the president of the University of Rochester and a leading authority on the history of the commission.

Seligman said there were three causes of the current problems at the commission: "A Congress that's been comfortable with vast unregulated areas, such as hedge funds and credit default swaps, which sends a message to enforcement. The failure since 2005 to increase the enforcement budget. And some commissioners whose skepticism about enforcement may have undermined the SEC's effectiveness."

Investigators from the commission and the federal prosecutor's office for the Southern District of New York, which includes Wall Street, have been examining the firm's books since Madoff told others that his firm had been one huge Ponzi scheme.

At least they realized something was going on, once the perpetrator confessed.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the SEC is mucked up by a combination of:

a) Old Boy Network politics; if everyone knows each other, golfs with each other, and went to school together, they're going to "trust but not verify."

b) Free market ideology, which is used as a club to beat down suggestions for reform and oversight from outside their in group.

The old boys and ideologues won't give up easily. They'll have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their sinecures and boardrooms.

The right-wing talkers and desperate RNC ops will try to blame it all on Obama, of course.

tonco: Potent hallucinogen made from the testicles of an amazonian . . . well, doesn't matter, they just went extinct.