Twenty years ago today, at about 8:00 in the morning, I walked into Shoney’s in Petersburg, Virginia having no idea what to expect. Three weeks earlier, I had celebrated Christmas by walking away from my still poppin’ fresh teaching career in the middle of the school year. Between getting my old condo ready to rent, the U-Haul expense, and setting up housekeeping in a new apartment, I was lucky to scrape together enough spare change to be flush enough to order breakfast somewhere so fancy. It was a starving time – the flattest of flat broke I’ve been as an adult before or since.
With that career turning 20 today, it’s been hard not to linger on where it’s taken me – from Petersburg and Richmond, to the Columbia River gorge and The Dalles, Honolulu, DC, Memphis, and finally back home to Maryland and the shores of the Chesapeake. I’ve met some absolutely brilliant minds and more than a few complete and utter shits. A few of the former, I’m lucky to consider dear friends. The latter are unavoidable no matter how hard you try.
No matter where the geography took me, it’s always been a job – the thing I do to pay the bills and afford to do all the other stuff. That’s ruffled the feathers of the true believers whose paths I’ve crossed. It cost me a few points here and there and maybe made me more than one low key enemy… but I have very few regrets. I’ll bitch about Uncle’s batshit crazy, incredibly frustrating, and outmoded way of doing things until the day I die, but it’s been a good living and it’s given me the opportunity to build a good life with not too many compromises. That ain’t nothing.
I’m just a bit shy of 2/3 of the way through this unexpected career of mine. With 20 down and 12 to go, I do find my thoughts turning a lot more frequently to its end than I do to its beginning. It’s nice, though, this one time a year, to sit down and think about the truly bizarre series of events and decisions that led me from there to here.
After a weekend I’ve almost always got something to say. There’s almost always something ridiculous that’s happened that needs to be addressed. Almost, though, isn’t always.
This weekend there were books, and dogs, and takeout, and cooking, and weather that didn’t leave the back yard looking like a mud pit. It was just the kind of weekend that leaves me just about as content as I ever expect to find myself. It’s also the kind of weekend that just doesn’t make for good blogging.
It’s Monday now, but I’m still basking in a little of that reflected weekend glow. I won’t say I don’t have a care in the world, but for the time being there’s nothing too triggering trying to ruin the mood… aside from knowing that won’t last very long now that the working week is underway. I mean in the world of the professional bureaucrat, nothing is more detrimental to a good mood than the steady ping of emails or spreadsheets with no end. Well, maybe meetings, but those aren’t a problem until at least tomorrow.
Sigh, now that I think about it, maybe that sunny weekend disposition really has faded more quickly than I thought. If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here dwelling on meetings and how much I’d rather be hit in the face with a shovel.
After you’ve been almost twenty years a bureaucrat, you think you know all the tricks in the book. With that kind of experience, one might be forgiven for thinking they’ve seen it all before. Even so, I’ve learned an important new skill this week that is sure to improve my abilities as a professional bureaucrat going forward.
Like the very best skills in every field, this technique seems deceptively simple. All you have to do to start is say “I agree with everything you’ve just proposed.” Then follow that statement with the qualifier, “with the following changes” and proceed to list half a dozen ways in which you’re going to change the proposal you’ve just nominally agreed with.
For a moment, the poor unsuspecting fool you’re dealing with might even think they’ve gotten the approval that they need to move something forward. Only later once they’ve digested the proposed changes will they realize their proposal may have been changed root and stem.
The good news is that this approach doesn’t have to be a one-and-done. You can keep on agreeing with the thing you just changed while proposing further changes through endless iterations. It’s the bureaucratic gift that keeps on giving. If you’re confident enough, you can keep this self licking ice cream cone rolling on for days or weeks, maybe even months under the right circumstances.
A lesser man might be enraged when realizing he’s been played by such a smooth operator. Not being a lesser man, I’ll just consider it a lesson learned and a new skill I’ll very quickly adopt for my own kit bag.
1. RFID. Rolling our RFID at access points was supposed to make getting to work faster and easier while reducing the manpower required to make sure everyone showing up is actually supposed to be there. Over the last two weeks of the roll out period, seven of ten attempts to use the fancy new “no touch” pass system failed to function properly. It didn’t work and ended up being about two times slower than it would have been if I’d have used the regular access lanes. EZ Pass makes it work on the interstate at 70 miles an hour for anyone with a transponder from a dozen different states, but we can’t seem to figure it out in a limited deployment under controled circumstances at five miles per hour. To quote General Beringer in War Games, “After very careful consideration, sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”
2. Human feelings. Its been a year since I made the decision that any further treatment for Winston was really just me staving off the inevitable while making him suffer for my own benefit. I’m just now getting to a point where I can look at pictures or the occasional video of him without becoming a blubbering mess. Feel free to ignore me if my eyes still happen to get a bit misty from time to time. Sigh. Human emotions are dumb and I’d like to have mine removed, please.
3. Finding “no.” I am a professional bureaucrat. Over the better part of two decades I have learned many useful tips and tricks. One of them, most assuredly, is how to use process and procedure to slow progress on an ill advised adventure to a bare crawl. Believe me when I say that I know how to run out the clock with the best of them. Sometimes, though, a project is going to take wing no matter how ill advised or badly developed the concept. It’s such a high priority to someone that it’s going to happen. Once a special someone is committed on that course of action, what I need the master bureaucrats to do is fall their asses in line and manufacture ways to find yes instead of laying down every possible hurdle. I see what you’re doing. I know those tricks, So please, get the fuck out of here with that douchbaggery just this one time.
I’d just like to thank the folks who manage our network for pushing the patch that resulted in my computer updating at 12:54 in the afternoon on a damned Tuesday. The middle of the day is a notoriously slow time and rarely involves anyone racing the clock to complete a requirement. It absolutely wasn’t when I was setting up my computer to show pretty charts and graphs to 25 people gathered in one of the conference rooms. I mean who would have the unmitigated audacity to plan a meeting in the middle of the afternoon? Am I right?
I’m sure there’s some brillant reason the people at the Central Network Enterprise Control Center, Cafe, and Giftshop do what they do when they do it. I’m sure they’ve conducted countless studies to show why it’s utterly impossible to run updates and patches in the middle of the night when computers are more or less standing idle and could be completed with minimal interruption to the people who might, conceivably be using their machines in the middle of the goddamned work day.
After two hours and three or four reboots, I was finally able to get back to work… having once again justified the number of magazines I keep on my desk to provide something to do when my computer inevitable craps out and actual productive effort grinds to a halt. My boss was nice enough to schlep back to the office and come back with her computer so we could at least show the second most recent iteration of the material being discussed this afternoon. So it wasn’t a complete farce.
Honest to God, sometimes I wonder if we should just go ahead and contract with the Chinese to provide our tech support directly. Sure, they’d see all the information on the network, but that at least would be some kind of incentive to keep the damned bloody thing up and running and connected to as many computers as possible without random, unnecessary interruptions.
I’m old enough to remember when documents of any importance came on paper – often in multiple color coded carbon copies. For someone who has converted nearly wholesale to digital record keeping, I have an alarmingly large archive of old paper copies – old bills of sale, mortgage originations, and thousands of other 8×10 inch bits of paper that were required to build a life before everything came to us via electrons.
I recently had to take a deep dive into the furthest recesses of the paper archives – searching for something I know I’d need a copy of when the happy day comes and I go to closing on my southern Maryland condo. Yes, I know, cart before the horse and all, but I like having my ducks well-ordered.
Knowing how much has changed over the last almost twenty years, I assumed I was in for a bit of leg work – and possibly a pleading phone call to the condo association asking for a copy of the neighborhood covenants and restrictions. I mean what are the chances 22 year old Jeff held on to the copy he was given in the early spring of 2001?
Turns out I’m every bit as anal retentive as people think I am. After five moves and two decades, the old 1980’s vintage neon orange binder was tucked in between the original mortgage and the property management agreement, right where I left it back when the millennium was still shiny and new.
I was tempted to see what other oddities lurked in the depths of my filing system, but it wasn’t the moment to find myself sitting ankle deep in twenty year old paperwork. For the time being I’ll just be glad I found what I was looking for on the first attempt… but I think I’m going to add “digitize and shred” the deepest layer of the archive onto my list of things to do.
Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of my life in sworn service to our mad uncle. People say that time flies when you’re having fun, but in my experience having fun is entirely optional. Time just flies. Well, more specifically, the years seem to fly. Individual days feel like they might well last for weeks on end. It’s when they get rolled up into their individual 365-count bundles that they race away from you.
From my vantage point here as a solidly mid-career bureaucrat, I won’t pretend there haven’t been some good times. A few of them are probably only good in retrospect and with the benefit of distance from the facts, but that’s probably to be expected. Over the last 16 years I’ve been privileged to meet some of the smartest human beings I’ve ever known. I’ve also met more than a few sniveling, conniving, climbers who I’d happily shank in a dark alley if I ever got the chance – and thought I could get away clean. Not one of that bunch is worth going to prison over, though I hope I’m still around when they inevitably overreach.
About once a year someone on the outside asks if I’d recommend government work. A decade ago I’d have said yes. Government work isn’t going to make you rich, but the pay doesn’t suck, the health and retirement plans are good, and you never have to worry about your employer going out of business. It was a haven for those who value stability – a place of low risk and correspondingly modest rewards. After a decade of living through multiple hiring freezes, multiple pay freezes, and multiple government shutdowns, though, I couldn’t recommend it with a clear conscience these days.
Uncle is no longer a stable employer – pay and benefits are just another political football at risk every year. If you’re going to live with that much uncertainty, you might as well go work in the private sector where you might have a chance at making some real money for assuming the risk that your company or contract won’t be there a year from now. I won’t go so far as saying that both options are equal – but the assessment of whether public service or the private sector is a better place to have a career feels like more of a dice roll now that it has in the last 16 years.
In a few months I’ll climb over the halfway point on the long road to whatever retirement might look like in or about 2035. That feels like a far more important milestone than yesterday’s just passing another year on the job. Who knows, maybe my mood will even improve. Probably not, but it would be a neat trick if it did.
As an employee of the Executive branch, I’m covered by what’s commonly known as the Hatch Act of 1939, otherwise known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, or Public Law 76-252. The intent of the Hatch Act is fairly straightforward, even if the means and methods by which it is enforced are somewhat murky. The act, essentially, says that as a federal employee, I cannot seek election to a partisan office for the duration of my employment and more importantly that I can’t use my official position or government time and equipment for purposes of campaigning, fundraising, promoting, or engaging in political activity while I’m “on the clock.”
Old Man Hatch had a pretty good idea about establishing and keeping the core of the civil service reasonably non-partisan as we transact the day to day business of government. Personally, I’ve I’ve never seen an employee willfully undermining the executive branch while on the clock in my tenure serving under both Republicans and Democrats, but I don’t know if that’s because of the Hatch Act or because we started killing off the spoils system in 1883 with the Pendelton Act. Of course how “non-partisan” the bureaucracy is when it comes to which parties and candidates it supports in our spare time is wide open for debate.
The Office of Special Counsel, supreme adjudicator of all things Hatch Act, has a number of laundry lists filled with what various types of executive branch employee may or may not do. What most of them boil down to is “don’t advocate for a particular candidate or party on government time.” It seems like a reasonable rule. It’s why you find me posting at all during the typical weekday it’s a funny, funny meme or a news article. I try very hard to live within Hatch’s spirit and intent as well as within its letter.
I do, however, want the record to show that being Hatched makes sitting quietly on social media on days like today a monumental exercise in self restraint. Something for which I don’t think we get nearly enough credit every other November.
In a lot of ways my little part of Sam’s wide-ranging operation is one of the last true bastions of the command and control business model. High atop Olympus, decisions are made and the filter down through the organization like water through so many layers of sedimentary rock. Just like our notional water finding its way to the aquifer, along the way, the decision is filtered through each layer – it picks up things from one, the next strips something away, and by the time it drips down through the lower rock strata sometimes it’s barely recognizable as the thing that started the journey back on Olympus.
That’s a long way of saying that things don’t generally happen fast where I live. Slow and ponderous is the nature of the bureaucratic beast. That’s why it’s not surprising that it’s long been one of the great holdouts to working remotely. Anyone who can’t be seen at their desk, hoeing their row down on the cube farm, is suspect at best. That attitude is slowly changing among some of the first tier supervisors – usually though whose advance through the ranks started fairly recently.
Eventually though, if the anyone is paying attention and you’re more than a halfassed employee, they’ll start to realize that you really can get the work done despite your location far away from the hive. The down side of that is when it happens, the home office starts feeling less home and more office. On balance, though, wading through the daily mess in fuzzy slippers, in the company of your favorite members of the animal kingdom, and with a really stellar commute help offset that trouble reasonably well… in fact I’ll remain forever perplexed that the highly relaxed dress code and proximity to snoring dogs don’t make this the most sought after work arrangement known to man.
1. The two weeks of Christmas. I was sitting in a meeting this week where the great and the good were calling for all manner of things to happen in the next two weeks. It’s cute when they’re optimistic like that. Experience tells me that even the most dedicated senior leader is going to find it hard to get jack-all done when 75% of his or her workforce is sitting snug in their homes or on the road for the week before and after Christmas. It’s good to be ambitious. It’s good to have goals. It’s also important to know your limitations, especially when you’re working with a skeleton crew just barely large enough to keep the lights on. Reason 7,471 I have no interest in bossing ever again.
2. Not knowing when to STFU. There is a time and a place for raising new topics or for asking every question. When the guy sitting at the head of the table is trying to close things out and the meeting has already run twenty minutes past its scheduled ending, though, is neither the time nor the place. That’s when you should have been a bureaucrat long enough to know that it’s time to sit there and shut the fuck up.
3. Emergency slide flipping. If there’s anything worse than being stuck in your own meeting, it’s being unceremoniously suck into someone else’s meeting because their computer crapped out and getting it fixed takes days. Look, a) It’s not my program; b) I actually have my own work to do; and c) If we keep finding work arounds to the shit tech support we get it will never have a reason to improve. Being a slide clicker on your own material is bad enough, but the number of times I’ve been yanked away from whatever it was I was doing to flip slides for someone else is astounding. It’s like no one in this place has heard of opportunity cost or return on investment. There are days when I’m entirely convinced I’m the best paid clerk/typist in the whole damned country.