Eight hours under gag…

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.

The family business…

In most parts of the country maybe people don’t really think of government as a family business. Here in the greater DC-Baltimore area – and in many small towns who find their employment life’s blood tied inextricably to dams, prisons, or other federal projects, it’s just one of those facts of life. In my last job it wasn’t at all unusual to find three or more generations of a family who have worked at one location since back before we had to go liberate Europe the second time. I have my own share of family who spent time working for or who are still on the payroll of their elderly Uncle.

I don’t know why it always comes as such a surprise to me when someone in the office mentions meeting a colleague’s wife, husband, mother, father, sister, or brother in the course of flailing around trying to get something accomplished. Jobs are competed, personnel specialists live for making sure the rules are followed, and still often the “best qualified” are those who were raised from birth hearing about the Byzantine intrigues, conference room power struggles, and petty office politics the place seems to engender. We might be the single largest employer in the country, but sometimes, aside from marathon meetings, epic delusions of grandeur, and billion dollar operating budgets, it does feel like we’re running the average mom and pop shop.

But then you get out to the parking lot – which would make the biggest of big box stores blush with inadequacy – and realize, no, it’s not at all mom and pop. It’s not the family business. And you really are located somewhere deep inside the belly of the beast.

With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan…

Last week, I mentioned something on Facebook about Gilbert and Sullivan. That turned into a whole discussion, and then you end up with what we have here… and very, very badly rhymed example of what happens when your brain spends too much time churning on something that was said two weeks ago. Before I change my mind and burry this far, far out of sight, here’s, what I cam up with…

I am the very model of a modern Civil Service Slug,
I’ve information lesser men than me could barely ascertain.
I know regulations and can quote from all them quite at length,
From AR 1 dash 1 and on – this isn’t metaphorical.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters operational,
I understand OPORDERS, both the easy and fanatical,
About the latest memos I am teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many dull ass facts about the Old Man’s squirrely views.

I’m very good at email and at taking margin notes;
I know the acronyms of systems thought to be far too arcane,
In short, in matters questionable, marginal, and edible,
I am the very model of a modern Civil Service Slug.

I know our mythic history, Al Myer’s and Saint Mercury;
I’ll answer random questions and have no shame using PowerPoint,
I quote lengthy orders from the peckers in the Pentagon,
In a comic flaw of short attention span;

I can tell unfounded lies from grand plans and strategies,
I know the gasping sound of interns drug down to their knees!
Then I can make a note of stupid things that we already tried before,
And feel myself trapped in that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

I can draft a contract longhand using not a single form,
And tell you every minor fact of current civil service law.
In short, in matters questionable, marginal, and edible,
I am the very model of a modern Civil Service Slug.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “empowered” and “process flow”
When I can tell at sight a Gantt chart from a cover sheet,
When such affairs as taskers and surprises I’m more troubled at,
And when I know precisely what the bosses mean by “new format.”

When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern management,
When I know more of theory than an intern stuck at old Fort Lee–
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental banditry-
You’ll say a better Civil Service Slug has never mocked drily.

For my breadth of knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
It’s only been brought up since around two thousand three;
But still, in matters questionable, marginal, and edible,
I am the very model of a modern Civil Service Slug.


We got the official notification Friday afternoon that our large federal agency was beginning to grind its way into a greatly reduced operating status. Now when most people hear “shutdown” they might conjure up images of tumbleweeds blowing along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capital, but what the word shutdown really means when translated into government-speak is “operate with a little more than half the total federal workforce, plus a bunch of contractors who actually got their money up front.

If you ever wonder why there’s a high level of apathy in the federal workforce, it’s not necessarily the tool-like first line supervisors, or onerous pages of archaic regulation, or even the laws passed in the 1880s that don’t quite seem to apply to the digital world. It’s the fact that we ultimately work for political masters who yank the rank and file from pillar to post with their vacillations and inability to fulfill one of their few clearly identified constitutional duties and pass a basic budget. I suppose we’re just following the example of our leaders.

Of course Congress came to the rescue in the 11th hour and agreed to short term “bridge” funding in the hopes that they might actually get a budget passed this week for the last half of fiscal 2011. Why do I get the feeling that on Thursday, we’ll be right back in the same position with our distinguished representatives trying to piss all over their own feet. As it is, we’re on the clock Monday to undo all the shutdown procedures we put in place before leaving on Friday. Who says government is inefficient?

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

The lies we tell ourselves…

I’m a bit of an oddity in the ranks of the civil service; a fiscal conservative who rails against high taxation and the increased growth of government. This isn’t the first time I have realized the disconnect between thought and action that I live on a weekly basis. I’ve often thought about jumping ship to seek out greener pastures in the private sector, but the reality is even with new pay scales and pay-for-performance initiatives, the federal government is a gravy train for employees. Although similar work in the private sector comes with higher pay, companies that provide a comparable insurance, leave, and retirement package are few and far between. As an employee with nearly 5 years under my belt, I have nearly 4 weeks of annual leave each year (not including time earned by traveling during non-business hours), 10 paid holidays each year, 2 ½ weeks of sick leave per year (that rolls over each year). My health insurance runs around $100/month and the government matches the first 5% of the salary I roll into my retirement plan. Add to that the simple fact that federal employees are nearly impossible to fire as long as they are meeting very minimal standards. Why on earth would anyone leave that kind of benefits package to work for a company that can terminate them at will due to a downturn in the economy or for nearly any other reason (or for no reason at all)?

The federal budget process forces government employees to spend their entire budget by the time the books close in September. There is no reward for an office or an organization that saves money or executes its mission more cost-effectively. In fact, we must spend our entire budget or risk not receiving as much money the following year. We justify the mad dash to spend the “leftover” budget at the end of the fiscal year under the mantra “use it or lose it.” The bureaucracy couches its purchases in terms of being able to meet mission requirements and suddenly the entire office receives new 19-inch flat screen monitors. I’m no less guilty than others. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of this misguided process and cheerfully submit my end-of-year wish list each Fall. From flash drives to cell phones, laptops to desk chairs, anything is fair game in the frenzy of last minute binging.

I’ll confess that I want my new computer every three years. I want the newest cell phone. I want to knock down walls and increase the size of our inner-office empire. The question “do we need these things” never really comes up at the end of the year. The only question on the lips of employees, is “How can we spend it?”

I believe in small, but responsive government. I believe that the bureaucracy is bloated and wasteful. I also believe that the budget process used by the United States government is utterly broken. In the end, the Congress calls the tune when it appropriates the dollars. And the lie I tell myself to make it acceptable is that if I don’t spend it, someone else will.