Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Fa was Right about Government Bureaucracy

I may have finally crossed over to the other side regarding federal employment. While I was in college (and shortly after), Government looked like a place where the passable and unmotivated applied when they were not competitive enough or too fearful to take on the corporate life. Admittedly, when I became a General Service (GS) employee, I was conflicted. I liked the possibilities of secure work, but I did not want to become lethargic or pigeonholed where I could no longer be creative, improve, or advance.

As the clock on the television counts down (like it does at Time Square on December 31st); to determine if we are to furlough government employees who are deemed non-essential out of their jobs for an uncertain amount of time, I think it is finally time to accept that the US Government no longer wants an exemplary workforce, (if it ever did).

My grandfather (a.k.a. "Fa") worked for Department of Commerce a long time ago. He was disconcerted on occasion himself when he looked at the inefficiency around him and the lack of motivation overall. On one hand, he deplored the inefficiencies noting, “You could take all the employees out on the front lawn, do a raffle and eliminate two out of three and still have enough to get the work done.” At the same time, he appreciated the requirement to swear an oath to the country and swear to uphold the constitution. No corporation requires you to make an oath to do anything at all short of making money for your employer, client or investor. 

When I joined a federal agency after years in the non-profit sector and the corporate world, it was a cultural shift to say the least. The requirement to be culpable for leaking classified data or for being absent without leave made total sense to me. I figured a person needed to be more culpable, not less, after receiving an Active Secret Clearance and gaining access to classified information. After a whirlwind of incidents in the past couple years from NSA leaker Edward Snowden to WikiLeaks leaker Chelsea Manning and now Alexis; the key issue that is eroding our minuscule remaining credibility as federal employees is the basic philosophical confusion some civilians, soldiers and contractors are experiencing between the desire to hold an agency accountable for perceived wrongs while not internalizing the need to be accountable for illegal acts themselves.

If we are vague in our enforcement of leaking classified information, we will be doing considerable damage to our intelligence, our counterterrorism efforts and our financial security as a nation. Manning’s judge stated herself that providing classified information for mass distribution is a sort of treason if the government can prove the defendant knew “he was giving intelligence to the enemy” by “indirect means.” Enabling treason and no culpability is a fast way to destroy our livelihood and our safety.

There needs to be a higher standard for the requirements of federal civilians if we are to be effective in protecting our citizens and our intelligence. This is hard to achieve when the overall impression of a Federal employee is that we are lazy and uncaring and only out for ourselves. It’s possible that many of us are. We are likely to find out in the next year or so also. If the private sector is thinking ahead and planning for future reactive legislation, they are more likely to recruit the current GS employees who already have the higher clearance levels before they invest their own investors' funds on deeper background checks (especially when they can get taxpayers to fund them). Corporations requiring cleared personnel are apt to go into the pool of the 1.4 million who have a Top Secret Clearance already versus investing private funds to get their current contractors higher clearance levels.

Last year, the military judge in Private Manning’s case ruled that providing classified information for mass distribution is a sort of treason if the government can prove the defendant knew “he was giving intelligence to the enemy” by “indirect means.” This is the point in our history as Americans, where we need to determine whether or not, we are allowed to break the law at no risk other than our clearance, or if we are going to be held accountable to obey the law. The simplest answer is that if we don’t obey the laws ourselves, we might as well abolish the laws altogether, for we will have no right to expect anyone else to be accountable if we are not.

If, in fact, the US Government no longer wants an exemplary workforce, we as a nation, and individually, need to figure out what we want to do as Americans. Do we believe it is better to hold our government employees to a higher standard and respect them for their willingness to meet that standard, or do we simply think of them as the least common denominator in terms of employees? If the latter is true, it is a safe bet that the benefits no-longer outweigh the determents, when we go get our Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance activated and after being furloughed begin to internalize that federal employment is now the same risk and the same benefit as the private sector. Odds are many of the patriotic but pragmatic top people will move over to the private sector. There we will likely do the same jobs that we are doing now, but we will do them for a middleman who submits proposals to the government, gets tax dollars for contracts, pays us a bit more than the government did directly, while charging double that to the taxpayers. Perhaps it would help if a common understanding could occur that cutting federal employees does not enable the necessary work to be abandoned. Cutting government jobs does not translate into the work ending or even into the taxpayers not having to pay for it. For the most capable federal employees however, the calculations become very simple. Altruism is a charming luxury, but when no one has your back, you know what to do next.

United We Stood, Divided We’ve Fallen (But Maybe We CAN Get Up)

I have been listening all week to the multiple commemorative perspectives on the 50thAnniversary of the March on Washington. From Saturday’s First Amendment Demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial, through multiple speakers; through the National Urban League and NAACP and even tribal dances and multiple versions of Amazing Grace; many different feelings arose all around me. While thousands of Americans and visitors of every demographic waited en masse, the Secret Service herded everyone into  were to be checked into a zone that required more scans and security checks than an International Airport without an organized set of ropes between any kind of isles. Upon arrival, I watched hundreds of attendees waiting 4-5 hours to get inside the perimeter. The level of security made the hoses and riot police in Alabama seem more real than the simple systemic control that (as a people) we take completely for granted without thought or protest in the year 2013.
As a communications professional, I was utterly amazed and somewhat chagrined that there was suddenly not one 30th, but two separate events. Rev. Al Sharpton knows full well that segmenting a limited audience and dividing their activities into two disconnected events lead to a disengaged population who would have liked to be involved (whether they were looking only to theoretically be a part of history, or simply to learn how they can begin to take part in moving the country back toward a path that at least feigns an attempt to recognize the needs that MLK put out there 5 years before I was born). 
Millions of people around the globe watched and listened through thousands of media outlets--each projecting different aspects of this landmark occasion.  I am doubtful that any of the viewers were likely to get a bona fide sense of who is there; or how many of them experienced Rev. John Lewis trying to remind and reunite. Unfortunately, his points put the accent on the barriers while keeping the faith those viewers could (by osmosis) internalize the need to address the barriers without being too overwhelmed to do so. All of this while hoping and praying that we can do assume these responsibilities without turning against one another in the process. It’s true that these efforts have been convoluted a lot in the past 50 years due to an intense and dedicated effort of multiple groups to combat the change before 1963 and facilitate reversion as much as possible. Isolating multiple demographic groups of   Americans and convincing them that they were each vying for a limited pie without sufficient pieces. Successful attempts at distraction and blurring the focus of citizens to the point where they were not even advocating for themselves or their own financial, philosophical, moral or political goals or issues. This was not accomplished through segregation, but rather, segmentation.
Every day since August of 1963, political and philosophical advocates have hoped to combat every looming change under The Civil Rights Act of 1964 knowing full well that the best way to combat a wave of true transformation was not by rubbing the public’s noses in it, but instead using subtle tactical methods. Thousands of vigilant steps were taken to maneuver society toward the illusion where they appear to be promoting and facilitating the right to vote, while simultaneously are in fact undermining patriotism and proactive citizen involvement.  In the past 50 years, multiple transitions from affirmative action to unions to elimination of poll taxes have shifted into multiple states trying to revert to a Voting ID law and through all but literally reapplying a poll tax deliberately impede voters of specific demographics from being represented in an election. Why should Americans keep the faith in the government having their own best interest at heart, while simultaneously indicating state by state that they want poll taxes to make their way back to states that have a “minority majority”?
The penal systems, war on drugs, Citizens United etc., have succeeded in intimidating millions of Americans into fearing or avoiding proactive debate, peaceful demonstration or even uniting voices. Overall we have become a population who generally sit by ourselves even in crowds staring at an iPhone Android or Galaxy completely oblivious to the fact that “we the people” includes us all.
All of this continues while our country experiences multiple progressions and recessions. We have recently experienced the demise of Glass–Steagall and attempts like Dodd-Frank to readdress the reckless behavior that deregulation brought to the economy.  Can Americans doing multiple minimum wage jobs, impossibly deep in student loan debt truly understand the potential for a better world?  The baby boomers can try to remind us about societal improvements. Doesn’t it fall a bit flat for Generation Xers and Millennials as we and our parents losing ground economically, socially and psychologically? Of Detroit succeeds and is soon followed by Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia? If they eliminate pensions for people who worked for many years right as they are defenseless in old age, why should any American believe that they will be thrown under a similar bus when they become physically vulnerable? While we’re at it, what about all the recent talk of trying to treat soldiers better than our returning veterans from Viet Nam? How do we anticipate that while underfunding the VA with limited prospects for them to get gainfully employed? 
When we look at the ease of our populations’ distraction and polarization of goals we need to stay focused on which goals are common enough to attempt to bring about. What are our priorities: government size? Reducing national debt or opposing tax increases? The Tea Party began with one message that, and became a party tool. While it doesn’t reduce the validity of their opinions, it certainly undermines the philosophical goals and hands them over to a government that simply wants to keep their own jobs.  Similarly, Occupy Wall Street tried to address social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government. That is, until they moved off the basic message of “We are the 99%” and became fragmented into every philosophical angle possible from gay rights to anti war to where they made Woodstock seem much more focused. 
How to address the multiple American populations is complicated. At the 50th Anniversary Clinton and President Obama basically said so. Perhaps it is possible for us to get together and re-attempt the drive to changes that are just as needed now as they were in 1963. But with rampant fragmentation, millions of separate voices can’t or won’t hear one-another although they do have multiple common goals and needs.  Remember, all of the demographic sections who marched in 1963 did not get along with one another, (and their kids and grandkids don't get along now).  On the other hand, if we can actually get past the feelings of anger, abandonment, isolation and segmentation, perhaps even we can realize the common goals we do have. At the end of the day, of course Americans will re-attempt to reach the societal goals projected in both 1963 and 2013, and if they can stay focused (and to some extent united), freedom may actually be allowed to ring.