1. AFGE Local 1904. Here we are 22 weeks past the “end of max telework” and the union, such as it is, still hasn’t come through on delivering the new and improved telework agreement. So, we’re still grinding along with only two days a week like pre-COVID barbarians… as if 30 months of operating nearly exclusively through telework didn’t prove that working from home works. All this is ongoing while hearing stories of other organizations tucked in next door that are offering their people four or five day a week work from home options. It’s truly a delight working for the sick man of the enterprise. I’m sure someone could make the case that there’s enough blame to go around, but since the updated and perfectly acceptable policy for supervisors was published 22 weeks ago, I’m going to continue to go ahead and put every bit of blame on Local 1904 for failing to deliver for their members (and those of us who they “represent” against our will) and for continuing to stand in the way like some bloody great, utterly misguided roadblock. No one’s interest is served by their continued intransigence. The elected “leaders” of AFGE Local 1904 should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.
2. Alumni giving. One thing I’ll say about the people who run the Frostburg State University Alumni Association and Annual Fund is they’re persistent. Phone calls, letters, and emails never stop. I’m sure they’re doing whatever it is that’s within their charter, but Jesus Christ maybe give it a five minute rest. If I were to drop dead tomorrow, the Alumni Association would be well taken care of. The broad strokes of that are already put in place. If they keep up this constant harangue for cash, though, they’re going to get cut out and the homeless dogs of Cecil County will find themselves heir to a windfall when I shuffle off. The constant pestering across every possible communications medium just isn’t a good look and I don’t want to reward or encourage it.
3. Rules. Look, I think the rules are stupid. You think the rules are stupid. Every-damned-body thinks the rules are stupid… but the thing is, if I’m being expected to abide by them while someone down the hall isn’t, well, they’re not really rules in any meaningful sense of the word. I’ve been a good boy and registered my objection through the proper channels to kept things right and proper. If that resolves the issue, great. If it doesn’t? Well, don’t expect I’ll be quietly accepting of having the rules applied to me and not to others for no discernable reason other than making people comply is awkward. I’ve been a bureaucrat way too long for that kind of fuckery to stand.
It’s been an unexpectedly decent week. Usually by the time Thursday night rolls around, I’ve got a veritable laundry list of topics to distill down into the final three. This week it’s just two and I feel like I owe you the honesty of that instead of just manufacturing a third item just to preserve the purity of my weekly format.
1. AFGE Local 1904. Here we are 19 weeks past the “end of max telework” and the union, such as it is, still hasn’t come through on delivering the new and improved telework agreement. So, we’re still grinding along with only two days a week like pre-COVID barbarians… as if 30 months of operating nearly exclusively through telework didn’t prove that working from home works. All this is ongoing while hearing stories of other organizations tucked in next door that are offering their people four or five day a week work from home options. It’s truly a delight working for the sick man of the enterprise. I’m sure someone could make the case that there’s enough blame to go around, but since the updated and perfectly acceptable policy for supervisors was published 19 weeks ago, I’m going to continue to go ahead and put every bit of blame on Local 1904 for failing to deliver for their members (and those of us who they “represent” against our will) for not getting this shit done. No one’s interest is served by their continued intransigence and the elected “leaders” of 1904 should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.
2. People first. There was a work-related town hall type meeting held this afternoon. One of the minor gods in our firmament was scheduled to deliver remarks. It happens all the time. Business as usual. Or it would have been, right up until the point where an email got circulated reminding us that it was an in-person event and our attendance in person was “expected.” Never mind the millions we’ve spent on laying on remote communication and meeting capabilities. Never mind the absurdity of packing in as many as 750 people asshole to elbow so they can share whatever sickness one or two of them may be carrying around. Never mind the sheer convenience of participating remotely so one could both listen in to gain the information and continue to do other things in the background. The important part of the day was putting asses in seats so the venue looked full. I’ve been directed to be seat filler for events since my very first week working for this vast bureaucracy way back in 2003. I can’t begin to tell you how many town halls or other large group format meetings I’ve attended over the last twenty years. The number would be staggering. You might be tempted to think three plague years would have changed that… and you’d be wrong. Today was just another day of appearance being far more important than reality. Thank sweet merciful Zeus that Thursday is one of my regular telework days. Otherwise, I’d have been sorely tempted to violate one of my basic tenants of professional life: Go along to get along whenever you possibly can. It’s best I wasn’t there in person to ask how that whole “People First” thing is working out. I was, at least, comforted by seeing large swaths of open seating in the room when the live feed started, despite the AV team’s impressively quick efforts to crop that view off the screen. My colleagues, it seems, also elected to vote with their feet. Good on them.
A hundred years ago when Henry had Model T’s sliding off the assembly line at River Rouge, the standard 8-hour work day made some kind of sense. That line ran at a steady clip for 8 hours and each person performed X task or attached Y widget. One task necessarily had to follow the other and it all needed to be synchronous.
Easily one of the most farcical things in the world is the idea that assembly line techniques should be applied to working with information. As a desk jockey, my work is annoying but synchronous. A large portion of the things I touch over the course of the day depend on input from one or more people who may a) be out of the office; b) have other competing or higher priority issues; c) need to gather additional information from one or more other people; or d) have retired on duty and don’t give a rat’s ass who needs what or when. As often as not, there’s no particular order of operations because Task A isn’t necessarily reliant on Task B being all the way done.
In spite of the work being largely asynchronous, my work day is a regularly scheduled 8.5 hours. The hours are more or less fixed. And you can count on one hand the number of days I’ve worked in the last 20 years that have included a full 8 hours of production. On my best days, an easy two or more hours is pissed away just by waiting for other people to do something or provide some information. On days that are not the absolute best, productive time might be just one or two hours with the rest being lost in the sauce.
The real ridiculous bit of this is that regardless of whether time is productive or not, the expectation is that you’re mostly at your desk for the duration. It feeds the age-old illusion that the appearance of work is far more important than the reality of being productive, in spite of any logic to the contrary.
It seems to me that once you’ve cleared the deck of the day’s required work – whether that took you three hours or eight, your day should be pretty much done; Congratulations! You’ve won at working today. Get on outta here. The notion, most often held by those of the managerial persuasion, that people with time on their hands should cast around looking to pick up work from someone else is patently ridiculous. It’s a sure path to end up not just being assigned your work, but also some of the workload for two or three of the local office slugs. Instead, by common consent, what really happens is we stay firmly ensconced at our desks providing the illusion of productivity, but being 300 posts deep in r/AmItheAsshole.
Look, people are going to abuse whatever system you put in place. We seem to be hard wired to get away with whatever we can get away with. All I’m saying is that applying 1920’s industrial management principles to an information workforce in the 2020’s might not be getting anyone the best bang for their buck… but it’s the path of least resistance, so here we are.
I had to host a meeting today. Those of you who have been following along for a while will know how I feel about meetings. In my 20 years of government service, I’d estimate that no more than five meetings I’ve attended couldn’t have been an email instead. All the information would have been conveyed and everyone would have saved big swaths of their day. Nevertheless, the powers that be demand that there be meetings, so meetings we shall have.
Today I hosted a meeting about the annual conference / boondoggle / waste of time that for reasons that defy any kind of human logic has lain on my desk for the last nine years. This meeting absolutely could have been an email. I talked about three schedule changes and a few administrative notes, asked for questions, and called a halt all within 16 minutes. It was still 16 minutes too many.
The only reason I even scheduled this meeting was because there’s another meeting next week where my senior rater’s senior rater might possibly ask when we had the last working level meeting for this project. If this happens, I can say without any purpose of evasion that yes, we met just last week on this topic and all is well.
The real work on this questionable exercise won’t start for about two months yet. Then the occasional meeting might be almost justified. For now, it’s mostly a function of keeping up appearances… and as we all know, in the belly of the bureaucracy, the appearance of productivity and accomplishment is far, far more important than actually achieving either those things.
I consider myself fortunate to not be one of those people who has an unseemly love for hearing his own voice. Like Mr. Ed before me, I try to make it a policy to never speak unless I have something to say. It mostly leaves me free to observe people’s comings and goings, their small tics and tells, and generally to spend my time trying to read the room rather than just sitting there cobbling together whatever I want to say next.
Once I make whatever point I believe needs making, I’m perfectly happy to fade into the background as things play out to their logical or illogical conclusion.
The result of this long practice is that, to quote Jed Bartlet, “I hear things. I don’t understand most of it, but I hear it.” Hearing the things, over the course of being dragged into a multitude of meetings, having offhand conversations, and overhearing random comments in passing over the last two decades has proven to be a veritable treasure trove of information about this, that, or the other thing. The vast majority is information that may not prove useful today, but that’s available to dredge out of deep memory at the point where it may be useful.
The trouble with sitting on this vast amount of information ferreted away in dribs and drabs is that much of it was never presented for public consumption. The amount of great stuff I have to write about that’s being self-embargoed because I don’t want to burn my sources and methods is an absolute absurdity… but since using any of it overtly risks leaving me out in the cold, embargoed it shall (mostly) stay.
Maybe someday I’ll get around to writing another helpful guide – this time one on not just joining, but learning to survive decades in the bureaucracy. It’s not the worse idea I’ve ever heard.
It would be easy to sit here tonight and throw rocks at the FAA. Whether their computers were hacked, threw up a blue screen of death, or tried to run a patch at an inconvenient time, the resulting temporary collapse of air travel across the United States feels like something that should have been avoidable.
It probably only feels that way, though. Being myself a daily victim of whatever cheap as hell IT solutions our wealthy Uncle Sam contracts for, all I was really thinking as the story unfolded this morning was “there but for the grace of God go I.” The number of times I’ve had the low-bidder piece of shit equipment I’m assigned completely crap out at the most inopportune times possible is pretty much beyond counting. If I’m facing a big day where my laptop absolutely, positively has to work flawlessly, I go into it just assuming that there will be an equipment failure at some point. The only real question is when during the day it’s going to happen. My expectations are rarely disappointed.
I’m full of sympathy for the poor chowderheads at the FAA who struggled mightily this morning to unfuck their system. I’m equally full of rage at the bureaucracy and political leadership that allowed the free movement of people about this country to hang by such a precarious thread. There’s an inevitable price for, year upon year, holding everything together with bailing twine and happy thoughts.
There was a planned water outage at our building today. Now there are a number of questions one could reasonably ask about that, such as why this long planned outage was scheduled to begin at 7:30 in the morning on a Wednesday instead of some time during the last two weeks when the building was occupied by little more than a skeleton crew. Wednesday, for anyone paying attention to the ebb and flow of the workforce, is generally the day when the building is most densely occupied. Planning work to impact the maximum number of people feels like some solidly piss poor government decision making.
Additionally, cutting off the water supply to a building that’s still largely papered with signs reminding everyone to maintain social distance and to frequently wash their hands in order to help reduce the spread of viral illness, is one of those things that could be considered at least vaguely irresponsible. It doesn’t feel like being able to perform basic personal hygiene activities, such as using the restroom or washing your hands, should be something that echelons higher than reality decide we just don’t need to do for half the day or longer.
Of course, there was a simple and obvious answer to how this known and planned on situation could have been handled. Someone at a responsible level of decision making should have been able to look at a planned lack of running water, an easy to project inability for people to perform simple hygienic and sanitary activities, and make a decision that “Hey, this might be a good day to minimize the number of people in the building and let the majority work from an alternate location for the day.”
Unsurprisingly, the decision from management was that no, we were going to press on with business as usual. If there was ever a more neon flashing sign that the decision makers at echelons higher than reality have willfully opted to ignore the lessons of the last three years, I haven’t seen it… yet.
We had a once in a lifetime chance to redesign how work – especially information work – gets done in this country and we’ve blown it up in favor of falling back to the management principles and philosophies of the 1950s. It’s completely telling that when a service disruption at home prevents me from performing my job, I’m expected to schlep over to the office or take the appropriate amount of leave… but when the office is unable to provide uninterrupted water service, I’m also expected to schlep into the office and act as if that’s just a normal thing to do instead of going to a place where all the utilities are functional for the day.
I’d pretend to be surprised, but no one would believe me.
One of the tasks that more or less defines my job was impossible to do this week until around 10:00 this morning thanks to a bit of software that had been migrated to a new and improved flavor last week and then promptly shit the bed.
Look, I don’t personally care. If Uncle wants me to do the work, he’ll make sure the systems and software all function. I can sit around twiddling my thumbs with the best of them. I am, after all, a highly seasoned bureaucrat. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory.
The only catch is when systems are down for days on end, it tends to create a backlog and then when the boffins over in the IT office get sorted, the whole log falls directly on your head. That’s where we ended up on today – with at least three days of backlogged work in the queue plus whatever extra came in over the side before close of business.
To at least one person, every bit of it was something ranging between “important” and “urgent.” To me, of course, it’s all just something to blast through as quickly as possible while trying to get about 80% of it tucked into the right places. If I’m being perfectly honest, since I read every single item that passed through my hot little hands today, I can tell you none of it was actually important, let alone urgent. It was mostly the living embodiment of the kind of electronic ephemera the bureaucracy passes around to continue justifying its own existence. It’s the kind of morass you really want to take a bit at a time rather than in anything resembling large chunks.
It’ll get done – mostly because I don’t particularly want to deal with this particular hot mess again on Monday. It’ll get done, but I’ll piss and moan about it the entire time, because it’s just another wound we inflicted on ourselves for no discernable reason. If that doesn’t define government work, I don’t know what does.
1. Blue Falcons. From time immemorial there have been Blue Falcons. They’re the kind of people who would step over their own sainted grandmother or cheat their best friend if they thought it was a chance to get ahead. The ranks of the great green machine are thick with them to some greater or lesser degree. The worst of them, the ones who create a lot of smoke and heat but not much light, are the staff schmucks who think they’ll gain the barest marginal advantage by selling out someone down the hall over an issue that could have been remedied with an email. Being a buddy fucker isn’t a good look, friends. Even if you gain a nominal advantage temporarily, the taint will be on you till the end of your days.
2. Weekends. The problem with the weekend is whole vast swaths of the population are off at the same time. I found myself unavoidably out on Saturday afternoon to do some business with places that don’t obligingly open their doors before 7 AM. To my never-ending horror, there were people everywhere. Traffic backed up at every light. It’s goddamned nightmare fuel. Maybe I need to find a gig where I can take two sequential weekdays off instead of Saturday and Sunday… because weekends are absolutely not relaxing when I have to subject myself to the crowd.
3. There’s been a wave of “climate protests” across Europe. The most recent spate of “protestors” feature assholes damaging and destroying art across the continent who rank right alongside the Taliban scum who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas or the ISIS fucks who destroyed the Roman theater at Palmyra. At best they’re petulant little shits throwing a temper tantrum because their ideas can’t draw support on their own merits… but in my estimation they’re domestic terrorists who should be delt with as such.
So hey, what we’re going to go ahead and do is pile all of you guys back in this room with no windows or moving air so you can spread disease and shout over one another to have conversations, participate in online meetings, and make phone calls. Oh, and by the way, those nice noise cancelling headphones that you’ve been using for years and make working elbow to asshole with everyone else sitting in cubicle hell tolerable are also now contraband… but don’t worry, we’re going to replace them with piece of shit one ear call center headsets that are a-ok.
We’re also going to rip the microphones and cameras out of your laptops so you’ll need to go ahead and use external devices when you’re teleworking to get those functions. No, I’m sure that won’t be in any way a pain in the ass. They’re one step away from explaining why it’s a feature and not a bug.
One of the real perks of working here at this center of excellent excellency is that even when you can’t imagine being able to drive morale even lower, someone finds a way. If there’s a way to make working conditions even slightly more unpleasant, we’ll get after it with gusto. We’re organizationally resourceful like that. It’s the kind of “can do” attitude we like to see.
The part of this whole sorry state of affairs that I’m going to enjoy most is that six months from now someone is going to wander through the area and comment that everyone seems angsty and hostile. If they’ve got a day or two to talk it over, I’ll be happy to give them the full list of how and why… with examples and annotation.