Focus is a funny thing. I say that because for most of the day today seven minutes seemed like just about the maximum amount of time I was able to focus on any one thing before my eyes started going twitchy. By ten minutes, I’d be working on a dull ache in the back of my head. Past fifteen and the ache would be running down my back and I’d find my shoulders somewhere up around my ears. Good times.
Honestly it reminds me of nothing so much as the one time, many years ago, when I had inflicted a mild concussion on myself by falling over and bouncing my head off the driveway. I’m just assuming it’s all some kind of reptilian brain trauma response running in the deep layers of the human operating system. I’m sure the brain is a remarkable organ, but sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass.
It’s well that no one came along asking me to do something that required any level of academic rigor, because I’m not at all sure I could have managed it even under duress. Getting out a few unremarkable emails and sitting through a thoroughly a probably necessary, but thoroughly uninteresting meeting seemed to be just about the limit of my mental prowess today. I’m sure I won’t win any prizes for the off the cuff word salad I spit out during that last meeting of the day, but I’m putting it squarely in the pile of things I’m choosing not to care about.
Even under those conditions, today felt like putting a lot of undue strain on the engines.
A few days ago, I was requested and required to provide an update on the current status of the annual spring event that I find both loathsome and obnoxious. Historically these sessions have always been fraught with danger. Gotcha questions, deep diving irrelevant details, adding requirements to no real advantage, and generally just busting my balls was the order of the day.
Not so this time around. We passed on the relevant information. Provided a broad overview of progress, the expected way ahead, and our proposed timeline and milestones. There were several clarifying questions and then approval to proceed as planned.
I walked into the room planning on needing every bit of bureaucratic arms and armor I could carry along. Not a bit of it was called for. In fact, the whole thing felt so unnatural that I’ve spent the last 48 hours expecting the other shoe to come hurtling out of the sky and land directly on my head.
This dog and pony show is still the bane of my existence, but it’s nice to be dealing with someone who doesn’t seem determined to make the slog harder than it needs to be “just because.” Is it possible that I’ve encountered a rare supporter in trying to stave off unnecessary chaos?
I was not expecting that to happen right square in the middle of the week, but here we are. It’s a brave new world.
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.
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.
1. Virtually in person. Monday was one of those days where I was in the office fulfilling the (in my opinion) questionable requirement that our little team must always have a warm body in the building. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the whole enterprise would collapse should we all simultaneously be doing the work from anywhere other than our assigned badly lit, gray-toned workstations. The only meeting I had that day involved seven or eight people… half of whom were also physically in the office. It’s awfully telling that despite so many people being on site, the whole meeting was held over Teams with everyone participating from their desk. If we’re all going to be meeting virtually from our own section of cubicle hell, I’d really love a non-corporate speak explanation of why there’s even a push to have more and more people in the office? You’ll never convince me it doesn’t defy logic and plain common sense.
2. Pulling rank. This week, as I may have mentioned, was the yearly spectacle where I attempt to stage manage / executive produce a three-day series of presentations. This year there were 9 organizations and 21 separate presentations across three days. This event rated permanent support from me, three guys who managed the IT infrastructure from soup to nuts, and a handful of rotating support personnel from each of the participating organizations that fell in for their portion of the event and then buggered off. By way of contrast, there was another event on Tuesday morning. This one lasted 90 minutes. It rated support from a staff director, six subject matter experts, three guys to manage IT, and another half dozen aides, support staff, and various strap hangers. If it sounds like I’m in any way angry and a little bitter, I like to think it’s justified hostility and just one of the many reasons why I hate the last week of April.
3. Choices. At the princely cost of $4.25 per gallon, I filled up the truck this morning from about a quarter tank and spent $77.60. I didn’t jump online to “Thank Brandon” or scream “Orange Man Bad” because I know the American president has next to no direct control over setting global commodity prices. I paid my bill without much comment, because paying his way in this endlessly beshitted world is a man’s job. Well, that and because no one twisted my arm 12 years ago in west Tennessee when I bought a big V8 powered pickup truck knowing full well that on its best day, I might get a little more than 16 miles per gallon. Brandon didn’t do that. I did… and so did everyone else who opted for size and power over efficiency. Want to find someone to blame? Take a hard look in the mirror.
Day one of my Very Important Event is in the books. Nothing seemed to slide completely off the rails… although I couldn’t connect to the network there for a few hours so I honestly have no idea how well anything outside the room I was sitting in really went. That it went at all is pretty much a giant assumption on my part. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow if there are a shit ton of angry emails in my inbox or 1001 complaints that someone could use their eyes to find the right link. That’s a tomorrow problem, of course.
For tonight, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to think. I don’t want to cook. I want to sit here in this mostly dark room nursing another gin and tonic and scratching the dog’s ears while the cat sheds on me. Anything else feels like it requires way more brainpower than I want to allocate… so I’m not going to.
I’ve done more than enough things I’d rather not do today as it is. These last couple of hours are mine and everything else can bugger directly off.
And so it begins. The two weeks a year when I’m forced to put on a brave face and transform into a cheerleader, a producer, a confessor, a circus roustabout, a tyrant, and a Chatty Cathy all in the name of passing along some information that could just as easily be set loose into the world by putting it on a website.
“But that misses the personal touch,” they cry. Knowing how much money you’re going to spend and how isn’t enough. We can’t do without the networking, the back slapping, the crab puffs, and little finger sandwiches. Though they’ll howl just as loudly when we go back to charging $700 a head instead of giving the information away for free online.
COVID and the Plague Era has given me a great respite in that at least the last few iterations of this great dog and pony show have been online. No vast sea of party tents, no outdoor equipment displays, no tickets, no 700 extra people jammed elbow to asshole in an auditorium to listen to presentations they could have heard just as easily from home. Next year might be back to “normal”… and that’s a threat that hangs over me like a goddamned death sentence.
This morning I was granted official permission from the gods on Olympus to begin preliminary planning for the annually reoccurring piece of this job that I hate the most. Yay.
Putting a six month long planning process that stretches across a dozen different organizations, nearly a hundred separate contacts, and relies on offering a happy, welcoming face to our partners from the private sector into the hands of a well known introvert and misanthrope feels like the height of bureaucratic folly. It’s the kind of thing I’d intuitively want to give to someone who didn’t unflinchingly use the phrases “wedding planner,” “circus roustabout,”, and “welcoming the great unwashed masses” to describe his role even to the most senior of leaders.
But here we are. This year will be my eighth as wedding planner in charge of this particular effort. Years ago the bosses promised “just one more year” and we’ll get someone else to do it. They don’t even bother with those lies now… so I guess it’s eight down and thirteen more to go… unless I manage to cock it up in some truly spectacular and unanticipated manner. I’m not one to go in for sabotage, but I’m told that accidents happen, so a boy can dream.
That happy dream notwithstanding, I’ll get it done on time and to standard, but don’t think for a moment that I’ll be enjoying any of what I must do these next six months. It’ll be a product not done for love or pride of a job well handled, but purely because I enjoy getting paid every two weeks and would like nothing to interfere with that continuing well into the future. Nothing more, nothing less.
One of my best friends from college had a simple sign in his dorm room. It said “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” On such words, whole careers are built.
1. Bureaucracy. Wednesday morning I received an email from the Office of Personnel Management. The sole purpose of that email was asking me to forward the email, a request to take a survey, to my supervisor. Yes, before anyone asks, it was a legitimate email versus some kind of elaborate and badly executed fishing expedition. Every time I start to think that maybe we have reached peak bureaucracy, Uncle goes ahead and sets the bar just a little bit higher.
2. Meetings that wouldn’t even justify being an email. The bosses called a global “all hands” meeting for our corner of the great green machine this week. There were 80 invitees in person or online. Squarely in the middle of when I’d generally be breaking for lunch. Surely, you’d think, this would be for the transmission of important information or critical organizational changes. No. It was 30 seconds of regurgitated talking points and 14 minutes of birthday cake for one of the top line managers. He’s a good enough guy and all, but if you’re ever wondering why morale has moved on from being in the shitter to being in the septic tank, I’ll present exactly this sort of asshattery as evidence.
3. Pants. I had to stop what I was doing in the middle of the day today and put on pants. Between the rain and the plummeting ambient air temperature, it was just plain uncomfortable. I’m not mentally ready to concede that the long summer is over. I’ve obviously spent too much time growing accustomed to conducting the business of the day in tee shirts and shorts. Making the transition back to actual pants feels… onerous.
I am a professional bureaucrat. Not the best pusher of paper that ever lived, but there aren’t many cases where I have trouble holding my own.
In that role, one of the things you are faced with is that while you can be an advisor – a voice of reason – you’re not in any way to confuse your position as being that of a decision maker. That function is performed by others. It’s a fact that you either accept fairly early in your career or it slowly drives you towards a special kind of madness.
I’ve come to terms with it.
I’ll give the very best advice my seven years of running certain projects can provide. It will generally be insightful and guided by the experience of having been there and tried that at some point in the past. I can tell you where the bodies are buried, why certain ideas have never worked, and the kind of feedback we’re likely to get if you follow any specific course of action. What I can’t do is force you, as the decision maker, to follow the best path. That part is wholly out of my hands – and often beyond my ability to influence.
I can only promise that I’ll always give you my fair and honest estimate of what should be done, the resources it needs, and how to avoid the foreseeable pitfalls… but don’t think for a moment that means I won’t be right there cheerfully dispensing a loud and hearty “I told you so” when the thing turns into a barely mitigated shitshow because you wanted to go your own way.
I might be a trusted professional, but don’t think for a moment I’m above gloating even when the cock up means I’m doing 5x more work than we’d have needed to if we did things the right way from the start.