Survey says…

Two days after calling the vast bulk of the Department of Defense workforce back from our legislatively imposed furlough in the dead of night, some unmitigated asshat at echelons above reality decided it was a good time to launch a “command climate survey.” For those who don’t speak bureaucrat, these surveys are conducted a couple of times a year and are supposedly designed to gage employees feelings about leadership, their work environment, colleagues, managers, and get a general sense of the survey-saystemperature of the organization. At the best of times I’ve always thought these surveys are of questionable value. A week after being told by my political masters that I’m nonessential, well, my immediate response was a stream of under my breath swearing and a resounding facepalm.

After six days of furlough this summer, four days of furlough last week, a sequester that means reductions in defense personnel are matter of when and not if, and a political class that’s bound and determined to undermine the long term stability of the nation, you really want to know how I feel about my job? You have absolutely got to be shitting me.

Morale? In the crapper. Opportunities for advancement? Nonexistent. Faith in our leaders? I won’t even dignify that one with a response. Work area has sufficient light? Well, at least you’ll get good marks on that one. They’ve managed to keep the electricity flowing to the building. I suppose under the circumstances, that’s a milestone achievement.

Walk around the building and you’ll learn all you need to know about the “climate.” We’re frustrated and we’re angry. We’re exhausted from being loyal pawns in some half assed urination contest… and we’re more than a little sad to see the strength of the nation being pissed away for no purpose other than the misguided self-aggrandizement of those we elected to lead.

If they’re dumb enough to asked how I feel, I’m just hostile enough these days to tell them how it is. Now they know. Now you know too.

The storm before the bigger storm…

So the intrepid leadership of the Dysfunction of Defense has magically discovered a way to reduce the total number of required furlough days for civilian personnel from eleven to six. On the surface, that sounds like a fine thing and if you’re not picky about the details and surrounding circumstances, I suppose it would be. Being the slightly jaded and cynical jerk that I am, of course, I have a slightly different take on how things are going inside that five sided funny farm on the banks of the Potomac.

As close as I can figure, reducing the number of furlough days probably has as much if not more to do with the legal requirements for the Department to close the books on the fiscal year before the clock strikes midnight on September 30th. Someone, somewhere deep in the bowels of The Building has probably realized that along with the rest of us schleps, the finance and logistics people they need to close out the fiscal year are also working 20% fewer days and not authorized overtime. In my experience, that makes completing the year end financial festivities a statistical impossibility. Woops.

Another perk of getting everyone back to the office in the next week or two is that it gets everyone into a nice routine for the inevitable shitstorm that’s going to take place at the start of FY14. My best guess is that the fiscal year about to start on October 1st will include such highly sought after features as Debt Ceiling Induced Government-wide Shutdown, Furlough: Part II, Reductions in Force, and Pay Freeze: Part 4. Hopefully I’m wrong about some or all of those predictions, but I don’t think I am.

I have the sinking feeling that this six day furlough was a dry run – the storm before the even bigger storm ahead.

What I Did on My Furlough Day (Part 4 of 11)…

Well, we’re four weeks in to DoD’s brilliant cost-saving furlough and routines are starting to develop. Saturday Part 1 (a.k.a Furlough Friday, a.k.a. Old Friday) has become the default day for running errands, going to Walmart for groceries, and beating the lawn back into submission. Basically I’m still putting in a full day’s work, it’s just work that I’m not getting paid for and use to be considered part of the weekend routine. Aside from the making of a new routine, there’s nothing significant to report. Hanging out at home, minimizing expenses where I can, and generally trying not to have an aneurism every time someone mentions a five-week Congressional recess or a multi-million dollar presidential vacation.

Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank. Give him a bank and he can rob the government… but if you elect him to office he can steal it all.

Half and half…

As part of the Magical Mystery Furlough of 2013, half the people stay home on Mondays and the other half stay home on Fridays. It’s one of those ideas that sound better in theory than it operates in practice. The logic was that inflicting the furlough on two separate days would mean that offices were open and “servicing the customer” during normal business hours. Like I said, it sounds fine in theory. I mean what customer doesn’t enjoy a good servicing, no?

What’s really happened, of course, is both Monday and Friday have become bureaucratic dead zones – the lights are on, there are a few people around, and we can officially say that Quadragonthe office is “open.” Just don’t try to get much done because odds are at least half of the people you need to talk to are scheduled out on the opposite Furlough Day. It’s hard to believe no one at echelons higher than reality saw that coming.

What we end up with is a functional work week that takes place only on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday because that’s the only time most people make it to the office nowadays. That’s not taking into account the people who are out in the normal course of using vacation days or sick time. Since no meetings were harmed in carrying out this furlough, anything that was usually scheduled on Monday or Friday now takes place on one of the other days too. That’s not even accounting for the meetings we now have to have to talk specifically about the impacts of sequestration and the furlough. Far be it for me to criticize, but let’s just say productive time is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

The lights are on. We can say we’re still open five days a week. But what’s been lost in productivity is far greater than the sum of everyone’s collective 20% reduction of hours. Maybe this whole asinine exercise will save Uncle a penny or two on the dollar, but what he’s losing in the productivity, morale, dedication, and respect of his employees will cost him a shitload more than that in the long run.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Furlough payday. Holy balls. Even when you’ve run the numbers and have a good solid sense of what’s coming, no amount of tinkering around on a spreadsheet really prepares you for Uncle Sam reaching deep into your wallet and financially raping you. Repeatedly. A week ago, I was philosophically opposed to Sequestration and the resultant furlough. With the arrival of my most recent direct deposit, I’ve transition more into a mode of going out to the shed to see if I have a pitchfork and a few torches to spare. It strikes me that if I were alive and in Boston on December 16, 1773, I would have probably been heaving boxes of tea overboard with a smile on my face. It seems that although I don’t particularly like the rabble, I do enjoy rousing them.

2. George. While I would like to thank the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for naming their offspring in honor of my Tortoise, I am utterly vexed when it comes to understanding why the good people of the United States spent half a dozen days buzzing about it. If we were the United Colonies or a member of the Commonwealth, I could understand being interested in the birth of our President_Barack_Obamafuture head of state, but since we’re citizens and not subjects, I’m at a loss. How many other 30-something couples in the UK had babies this week? How many people in your town had babies? Know how much we all care about them? Yeah. We don’t. I say Godspeed to Wills and Kate, but knowing that they had a baby and that he will sit the throne long after most people alive today have shuffled off the stage is a sufficient report. There’s no need to get our collective nickers in a twist.

3. POTUS. When I hear the president on television talking about growing middle class jobs, increasing spending on education, and generally touting his plan to improve the economy, I only have one thought these days. That thought: WTF? As the head of the executive branch, the president could take one giant step towards improving the plight of the middle class by directing his Secretary of Defense to cancel the administrative furloughs of 650,000 civilian employees. Before he has any credibility on any issue that even tangentially touches on pay, benefits, and employment, the man needs to keep the promises made to the folks already working for him. What I think I understand so far is when large corporations load up on part time employees to keep costs down, it’s evil and wrong, but when the largest agency of the federal government does it it’s a prudent cost savings measure. WTF, Mr. President? WTF?

So you were expecting a thank you?

Secretary Hagel announced this afternoon that the department was reducing it’s number of planned furlough days for civilians from 14 to 11. That’s down from the original estimate of 22 days they were talking about back in February and March. Judging from the blip of coverage I’ve seen, the media consensus is that defense civilians should be doing cartwheels and singing hosannas at the “good news.” That’s a problem for me.
Duh 2
While it’s true that 14 is better than 22 and 11 is better than 14, I’m not willing to concede the point that any number of furlough days is a “good” thing. In fact it’s bad precedent for the next 9 years of sequestration planning, it’s bad for productivity, and it’s bad for morale. I’m not going to get on the band wagon of a 5% pay cut this year (after 3 years of frozen pay) being a good thing. I’m not lending even the hint of my accepting the idea that this is anything other than a political problem being solved on the backs of a workforce that they’ve already spent three years beating like redheaded stepchildren.

The story we’re being sold is that leadership has “saved” the workforce from the worst effects of the sequester. The reality is that all you’ve done is replace one really shitty course of action with another slightly less really shitty course of action. It’s hard to imagine why I wouldn’t be falling all over myself with gratitude. I wouldn’t thank a mugger because he didn’t take all the cash in my wallet and I’m not going to thank our illustrious leaders for legally doing the same thing. If they were expecting a thank you for their half assed attempt at “leadership,” boy did they come to the wrong place.

A whole lot worse…

For eighteen months, “furlough” and “hiring freeze” are words that continually show up atop the list of search terms that drag people kicking and screaming to my little slice of the internet. Having spent an outlandish amount of time bitching and complaining about both over the last two years, I guess that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I’d love to tell you all that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that Uncle Sam’s financial woes are behind him, well, there’s really nothing out there that indicates that’s true at all. From all outward appearances, Uncle has managed to paper over the worst of the problems for the time being. While that seems like a good thing, it probably just means that he’s managed to kick the can further down the road and that when it comes time to settle the tab, it will be even worse than we thought.

By my most recent calculation, I’ve worked under a hiring freeze of one sort or another for about a third of my career. I’m not feeling the pinch at the moment because I’m not actively looking for an eject button, but if I was options would be pretty limited. Having personally experienced the fresh hell of sending out multiple hundreds of resumes to get a handful of interviews, I don’t envy anyone looking for fresh horizons under the latest incarnation of the freeze. Even more unfortunate, I don’t see the market thawing any time soon, either.

Uncle has been warning about employee furloughs for months now. The general public reacted badly to the notion of laying off food inspectors and air traffic controllers, two very visible activities carried out by random, faceless bureaucrats. I have my doubts if there’s going to be the same outcry for defense workers. Working behind the wire, most of the public will never see or know what we do on a daily basis. As a result, us staying home for a week or a month isn’t something they see or experience firsthand. That makes us easy to ignore and therefore an excellent target of opportunity for cost reduction or avoidance.

So far, the department’s official position, at least the one that it’s opted to communicate to the workforce, seems to be ignoring the issue and hoping it goes away… at least that’s what it looks like from the inside. Predictions range from “nothing’s going to happen” to having to take the full 22-day furlough within the last 3 months of the fiscal year. Someone at echelons higher than reality probably has the smattering of a plan, but for the time being the drones are being kept well insulated from anything that resembles official information.

As we grind towards the end of fiscal year 2013, I think we’ll come through with minimal disruptions. What no one is talking about yet, and what I’m convinced is going to bight us all in the ass is that sequestration is a ten year event. Even if we ride out year one with cost savings through attrition and quietly cooking the books, we’ve still got nine years of draconian cost savings to generate…and in my mind that means things are going to get a whole lot worse in the out years before they ever start getting better.

The view from my fighting position…

I’ve been blogging here at jeffreytharp.com for almost three years now. For all my other ranting and raving, the single most searched for and commented on posts were consistently focused on the 2011 Army hiring freeze. Some version of “hiring freeze” has been in the top spot for searches that bring people to the blog. Now, I love web traffic as much as any blogger, but honestly, I hoped that was a topical area that I’d be able to leave dead and buried. The hiring freeze that trapped me two years ago is long gone, but it’s been replaced by a newer, broader, and seemingly more permanent version. That doesn’t bode well for the average person working the line in an organization that has always sung the praises of personal mobility as a means to progress to reaching bigger and better opportunities.

In a world where a one-half-of-one-percent raise is a political football, the future does not look like a particularly bright, shiny place. Throw in what looks like a cross between budgetary indecision and panic at the most senior levels of leadership, the knowledge that the worse of the cuts aren’t yet here, and that there’s now open talk of across-the-board furloughs and reductions in force for the first time in a generation, and well, you’ve got yourself a workforce that shows up every day wondering when the other shoe is going to hurtle out of the sky like a dying communications satellite.

Even if the budget situation is resolved without what feels like almost inevitable bloodletting, it’s already taken its toll. Not backfilling empty positions, piling more work on those who remain, holding salaries flat as the price of everything else increases, and repeatedly telling everyone that the worst is yet to come isn’t a recipe for getting the most out of a workforce. In this one case, my hat’s off to management for trying their best to moderate the worst of the outside forces that impact all of us… but when your fates all hang on the ability of politicians to get things done in a smart and timely manner, well, you can understand my not being particularly optimistic about what the future holds.

That’s my view from my fighting position, anyway. So let’s all cross out fingers and hope that someone proves me wrong.

Progress…

If anyone is following along at home, tonight’s update is just a brief note to say that this morning’s interview went well. That is to say as well as an interview can go when the prospect of the interviewer being able to make an offer anytime in the near future is completely unknown. Like all my other sit downs with selecting officials from across the Mid-Atlantic, this office is also subject to my nemesis the hiring freeze. That unfortunate circumstance notwithstanding, I’m comfortable that I delivered the best pitch possible… and now we’re back to the waiting game. That’s progress.

Day 75…

We are now at day 75 of the thirty-day hiring freeze. Surely we’ve attritted off some of those overhires by now, right? Seriously, we even have a budget for the rest of the fiscal year now. So, come on already Overlord of Personnel. Let’s get the hiring process thawed out.

I haven’t racked and stacked my list lately, but the total number of resumes released into the wild stands at 335. I’d estimate that about a third of those are still in the “open” category. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 are sitting on the desk of a real human being. I’ve had two interviews for positions that are “frozen” and have another one coming up later this week. I didn’t particularly want to go outside of DoD, but they’re making it very hard to show the love right about now… so Treasury, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Coast Guard, FEMA, and a host of others are being fed into the mix as of about two weeks ago.

My search grid now extends from Philadelphia down to Richmond and from the Shenandoah Valley east to Norfolk. Like Grant contemplating a similar piece of real estate, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

Such is the ferocity of my desire to catch the last train out of Crazyville.