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.

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