The bureaucratic tendency…

There’s a tendency in the bureaucracy for days to run late into the afternoon and then on into the evening – as if those running the show didn’t have a home to go to and had no interest in being anywhere else. If I’m honest, by the time we’ve rolled past the usual and customary close of business, my loudest voice in my inner dialog is screaming “Why won’t they just shut the fuck up?” loudly enough to drown out most everything else. By that point, how interesting or important a topic might otherwise be is utterly irrelevant to the way my brain processes the information. It’s one of the many reasons I know I should never angle to restart my rise through the ranks. I just don’t have the interest in putting in the hours required and it’s never, ever going to be the place I’d rather be than anywhere else.

A sure and certain end of the work day is the only thing that makes some of them even tolerable. Take that away and, well, you’ve put me to sea without a compass or any way to find my North Star. It’s not lost on me that no one is looking for information or wanting to have meetings at 7am before they drag themselves in. What makes those same people think the rest of us are any more interested in staying on in the other direction is beyond me. Of course rank has it’s inevitable privileges. That truth is as old as our species, I’m sure.

Things would be different, of course, in the World According to Jeff. No meeting would last longer than 30 minutes and none would start after 4PM… because unlike others I have other shit to do and don’t live life searching for the adulation of those who dwell in offices.

Trained to within an inch of my life…

I’ve ranted and railed at length about the seemingly endless trail of mandatory training “experiences” my employer requires each and every year. Some of those trainings are online modules that literally have not changed since I started way back in 2003. I’m looking at you here Constitution Day Training. Having studied history and political science, there are very few documents written in the English language that I prize more highly than the Constitution. Clicking through a few pages of how a bill becomes a law or which powers reside in the Executive and which in the Legislative just doesn’t fill me with an augmented sense of awe and wonder. The fact that so much of this training is stale, though, misses the broader point.

Regardless of how stale or dated the training, it’s mandatory. Beyond it being mandatory, eventually I know I’m going to catch hell if all those little boxes are not check off next to my name before the clock runs out on the end of September. What everything finally translates to is I’m going to suck it up and wade through hours of pointless training not because it’s teaching me something new, but because I want to keep myself out of trouble. I’m sure that’s some kind of pedagogical construct, but it’s not one I learned about a hundred years ago when I was learning to be a teacher and design instruction. Again, however, even that misses the big point here.

The really important thing I have to say about the mind numbing volume of mandatory training is that unlike previous years where I come sliding in sideways and waving one last certificate on September 30th, I’m finished early. Very early. I’m fairly sure that the first time in my career that’s ever happened. It feels vaguely unnatural. Fortunately I know that feeling can’t possibly last long before someone slams a new “must do” training requirement into the system so we can piss away more time on activities that mostly teach you how to sleep with your eyes open.

Full days…

I’d guess that on average three weekdays out of every five could be fairly described as being “less than full.” Now I don’t mean to imply in any way that I don’t strive to give our Uncle his money’s worth every time, but there are simple laws of the bureaucracy that say it’s impossible to be busy every moment of the day. This isn’t McDonald’s and there isn’t always stainless that needs wiped down. Usually our days have an ebb and flow that ranges somewhere between comfortable and mind-numbing. It’s that one day in five that’s the wildcard. When it comes along it’s like being stuck with a whole room full of one armed paper hangers. No matter how fast you work, it’s just not going to be fast enough to account for everything coming over the side. In my experience, that’s the nature of the beast.

The real trouble with those rogue days is that they’re absolutely unpredictable. Days that for all outward appearances should be busy won’t be. Days that by rights should be dead slow will open their gaping maw and eat you alive. It would be nice, I think, if those wide-mouthed days would at least give you a fair warning. It feels like the very least the universe could do if it’s bound and determined to spend the rest of the day kicking your ass all over the room.

The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

On being defined by your junk…

As anyone who reads regularly will know by now, I’m employed by a large, mostly faceless bureaucracy. It’s an organization that seemingly runs on creating vast new (mandatory) training programs that suck up massive amounts of time without delivering much return on the investment. In my experience, it’s all just another box to be checked to satisfy some arcane requirement of law, regulation, or policy.

Coming soon to an auditorium near us is a new one hour feature focused on Mandatory Training on Big Faceless Bureaucracy Policy on Service of Transgender Persons. Look, I get that it’s the current trendy topic for those fighting the culture wars. There are whole offices in the bureaucracy dedicated to taking such things very, very seriously.

I think I’ve been clear and consistent in my message that I don’t personally care who you sleep with, what you wear, or even what restroom you use (as long as you conform to the gentleman’s agreement that urinals are a no talking zone). I don’t want to have a long, meaningful discussion about how you “self-identify.” Frankly I’m just not interested enough to spend any more than a passing moment thinking about it at all.

I was born in the late 1970s and got my raising in a small Appalachian coal town. I have no doubt that most of my foundational beliefs were built right there along the banks of George’s Creek. Saying that was a simpler time and place doesn’t do it justice. Despite those core beliefs, the ones I live by personally, I’ve never found myself one to believe that my way has to be the only way.

With that said, I’m still a little sad that I’m going to be a part of the last generation who remembers when two genders defined by your junk was enough for just about everyone. If things were still so simple, it would get me out of about 20 hours of mandatory training over the last half of my career… because at this point, minimizing the amount of time I have to spend checking boxes is kind of a career priority of mine.

On the virtue of low expectations…

I feel sure that somewhere in these pages I’ve told the story of a supervisor who worked in the same organization I did many years ago. One of her standard responses to things that were anything beyond easy to do was, “Well, don’t expect too much.” That was the better part of fifteen years ago, but I’m beginning to see the virtue of low expectations.

Today, for instance, a “hot” information requested landed on my desk around lunch time. That’s not unusual in and of itself. What gets problematic is when someone wants a complex issue distilled down and answers provided within 48 hours. As I tell anyone who will listen, I’m a facilitator, not a subject matter expert. My specialty is in putting people who need information together with the people who have the information. Doing that right takes time. It takes even more time when whatever answer they come up with needs to be approved back through four additional levels of the bureaucracy sometime within the next 36 hours.

Look, I’ll get you to the right answer. That’s what I do. It could just come sailing back through the ether with no problems. Stranger things have happened… but not often. I think the most important thing here is that you don’t expect too much. It’s the only sure way to avoid disappointment.

Hard and fast rules…

I came across this post as a stray draft a few days ago. I have no idea if I published it before or if it’s something I wrote that has been sitting in electronic purgatory for months or years. If I have posted it previously, it’s something that bears repeating. If I haven’t, it’s a post that’s deserves its moment in the sun.

In any case, here I present the following few hard and fast rules to live by that I’ve learned while serving as a cog in the vast recesses of the bureaucracy:

1. You can do it all.

2. You can’t do it all at the same time.

3. Timelines are meaningless and largely serve just to take up additional space in a PowerPoint slide deck.

4. Planning is, at best, a work of educated fiction.

5. At that moment when things seem to be working well, the wheels are about to fall off, the engine to catch fire, and the transmission explode, so don’t get cocky, kid.

6. There’s no such thing as “idiot-proof.” The world strives to always produce bigger and better idiots.

7. There’s no good work you can do that a general officer can’t undo with an offhand remark.

8. People rarely get the justice they deserve.

9. All projects can be a combination of fast, cheap, and good… but you can only have two at any given time, so choose wisely.

10. When all else fails, when you think the situation can’t possibly go any further downhill, when not even the third reorganization in eighteen months gets the results you hoped for, look out, because things can always, always get worse.