Monday, April 14

U.S. government no longer works the way textbooks say: The Devil and Departmentalization, Part 2

Not Your Grandmother's Federal Bureaucracy

1.  The federal government is the USA's single largest employer. At the heart of the NSA debates is an argument that the U.S. government needs secrecy to conduct its most sensitive business.  Yet the argument has been mooted by the present era.  There is no more "inside" and "outside" of U.S. government; there's a kind of superhighway running through it, a highway made up of millions of subcontractors -- non-employees, non-civil servants. Yet unlike a highway, which is designed by engineers and consciously built, this highway wasn't engineered; it just happened, as departments proliferated like rabbits and hordes of contractors made up the perennial shortfalls occasioned by the fact that there weren't enough people in the civil service to handle all the designated tasks in government.

2. Under such conditions, careful oversight of government administration became paramount. Yet the oversight could only happen in slapdash fashion in a representative democracy that supports a huge political industry.  In that milieu much of White House, Cabinet-level and congressional oversight works out to Cover Your Ass.

3.  Many aspects of government work became so technical that even if Congress doubled in size it would still be dependent on lobbyists who translate technical stuff into plain English -- translate according to what lobbyists think congressional committees need to understand about technical stuff.  So while lobbyists aren't part of government they form a second superhighway, also not planned, not engineered, running through U.S. government.

4. The consultancy issue.  Today key government agencies are dependent on consultants who know that they know more than the people they're advising.  Meanwhile, the people in government know that the consultants know more than they do -- and that they're making more in consulting fees than the annual salary the government employees receive.  This situation does not conduce to the esprit de corps in a traditional civil service (or military service).

5. The revolving door. Many people working in government, even in high positions, go back and forth between jobs in the private and public sectors.  This influences officials who know that whatever key decisions they make while in government can boost or ruin their chance for a plum job in the private sector. The traditional civil service model, which represents a lifetime career in government, wasn't designed to deal with the revolving door and how it affects decision-making.
6.  "The United States Civil service exams have since [the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978] been abolished for many positions, since statistics show that they do not accurately allow hiring of minorities according to the affirmative action guidelines."(1)

Interpreters of the reform act didn't take into account the nature of bureaucracy, which is that it runs on written directives and statements of problems. The civil service exam helps establish that the people working in government who have to communicate with each other in writing can be reasonably assured they'll understand each other.  To remove that baseline means of establishing clear channels of communication is to throw sand in the gears of government.

The Iron Law of Departmentalization and U.S. Government

The seven factors are in addition to the perennial problems in any kind of job sector, public or private: bad decisions based on human error, corruption, negligence, cronyism, poorly conceived agendas, budget shortfalls.

All this is in addition to a situation famously associated with bureaucracy known as stovepiping or silo-ing, and which can become very problematical when departments in effect weaponize information they control.

Piled on top of all this is the law I identified in the first post in this series:
[W]hen the number of departments in a government reaches the magic number, the juggernaut of departmentalization crushes everything in its path, including the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

Now what is the magic number?  From my back of the envelope calculations it's the number at which everyone gives up trying to make an accurate count of the number of departments.
(Departments would include agencies, commissions, services, etc., as well as departments within a department no matter how they're named; e.g., division, section, etc.)
From all this I'd say there's an Iron Law of Departmentalization, which simply stated is that chaos cancels out oligarchy when departments proliferate like rabbits.
 I went on to observe that the American government had reached the magic number. Here I was challenged by a colleague who asked me to name the date when I claim the magic number was reached.

The Magic Number

According to Charlotte's bookie the magic number was reached at 5:17:33 PM Eastern Time on March 4, 1972.  Make of that what you will. I haven't been able to reach my own spirit guide since Charlotte sequestered my means of communication with the Other Side.

By the way the situation has gotten out of hand, although I'm not going to report her to the police. Besides, what would I say? Hello, officer?  There's a possum living in my garage who's using Ouija boards to help a bookie's spirit set up a major bookmaking operation; get here quickly maybe you can catch them in the act.

And no I don't feel like explaining how she got hold of a second Ouija board, beyond observing that things like this can happen when one gets too chummy with wildlife. Although it seemed a good idea at the start. We're in a rut here in Washington when it comes to opinion sources -- same old think tanks, press briefings, lobbying organizations. I thought it would be helpful to get a fresh point of view, one untouched by cynicism, so why not ask a passing squirrel, possum, and raccoon what they thought about, say, the latest trade talks between China and the U.S.?  But I noticed a change in Charlotte after she began reading policy journals.  She became facile.

Just checking to make sure this discussion of bureaucracy isn't putting anyone to sleep.

The Jackson Pollock School of Foreign Policy

As early as January 2008 I identified this school as becoming the dominant one in Washington's foreign policy establishment. By 2011, when I discussed the headless horseman style of decision-making that the Jackson Pollock School had popularized, Washington was careening toward events that would result in the death of an American Ambassador in Libya.  Since then Congress has logged many hours attempting to establish which government shops were in charge of U.S. policy in Libya at the time. When last I checked the guessing game continues.
As Les Campbell, Middle East chief for the U.S. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, told the Associated Press in 2011:
Speaking as a Canadian, one of the beauties of the U.S. system is that there are many, many entry points in many centers of power, and they can have conflicting policies.
He was specifically referring to what by then was open knowledge in Washington: that some departments in the American government had been supporting Hosni Mubarak while others were promoting 'confidence-building' measures to help Egyptians get rid of Mubarak.
This is not beautiful. This is not covering bets, as the AP reporter speculated was the case. This is not policy. It's chaos, which has had very unfortunate consequences  for Egyptians.
Had Enough?

All the above is my way of telling Julian Assange and other hacktivists that if they think the biggest problem with government is lack of transparency they're still back in the 20th Century, for all their computer expertise.

The problem, at least in the United States, is that representative democracy and its two-party political system crashed into the realities of the modern era.  A casualty of the situation was the means by which American government is administered. 

That the administration is still functioning after a fashion is only because of the factors I named in the first post in this series, and because people can navigate the damnedest road conditions if they have no choice.  But when the daily grind in a federal bureaucracy amounts to navigating chaos, it's time for an overhaul of the system of government before the chaos knocks us all over the cliff.
What kind of overhaul?  The question has engaged a growing number of Americans over the span of the past decade. In the next installment, forthcoming this week, I'll make a start at examining the best-known attempts at forging a new way of governing ourselves, and a lesser-known one.

1)  From Wikipedia's article on the United States federal civil service


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