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.
I’m a bad speller. I have always been a bad speller. My mother would be happy to regale you with stories from elementary school to illustrate that my spelling was, is, and forever after will always be just miserable. I love words, it’s just that I’m not always so good with putting their bits into exactly the right order. I like to imagine it’s an issue of my brain working faster than my fingers, but that sounds like a pretty dull excuse.
The magic of word processing should, in theory, have helped me with this little spelling issue of mine. It surely couldn’t have exacerbated the problem. Of course, it can and often does.
Take last night for instance, when I thought I was posting the last and final revision here on the blog. What ended up there instead was the un-spellchecked version that is run through with errors that even I should have been able to see unaided by 21st century computing. I didn’t see them though, so there they were, hanging there posted for 24 hours for the world to see… at least they were hanging there until I noticed a glaring error and looked a bit closer.
It’s fixed now. At least I’m pretty sure it’s fixed. Spellcheck is telling me that everything is fine. That should probably make me deeply suspicious, though.
I had another interview this afternoon. Different job. Different organization. Still in roughly the same geographic area I’m in now. It seemed to go well enough, though I may be a spectacularly bad judge of that sort of thing. I generally count not tripping myself on the way in the door as a personal victory.
What I’ve found in interviewing for positions in the local area is that you tend to run into some of the same people. Repeatedly. In both recent occasions, I’ve known at least one of the other people interviewing for the position. Some people would find that awkward. Maybe I should be one of them, but I’m not. One of the helpful skills I’ve developed over the last decade and a half is that I just don’t take any of this stuff personally. And for the most part it really, truly isn’t personal – because the bureaucracy just doesn’t have the time or inclination to care about you the individual. That may sound negative, but with hundreds of thousands of moving widgets it’s generally just a function of trying to find the one that appears like it would mesh best with the other cogs that are already in motion and then cramming it into the available opening.
Look, I’d rather get offered one or both of these jobs than not. I mean I wouldn’t have bothered putting on a tie if I wasn’t at least interested. What I’m not doing is giving these decisions a lot of life or death credibility no matter which way they break. I’d like the chance to do some different work and if neither one of these pans out it seems like I’ve at least cracked the code on getting my resume in front of the people making decisions. Having sent out hundreds of resumes in my time with Uncle, I’m secure in saying that’s easily 95% of the battle.
The other 5% is about selling yourself like a used car. If you’re feeling a little dirty when you’re done, you’ve probably done it right. Talk about life skills no one ever bothers to teach you.
1. Non-final decisions. Should I ever find myself deified and empowered to pass judgement from high atop Olympus, the cardinal sin that would earn my condemnation would be indecisiveness. If you’ve got the charter to lead, then by God, lead. Make a decision. Do something. Or just keep deferring any kind of actual decision until the diminishing number of hours available in which to act precludes all but one possible course of action.
2. Partisan politics. When Party A goes to the wall screaming about what Party B is doing, I mostly tune it out. I know my mind and no amount of rending of Congressional garments for the cameras will change that. When Party A spends the day screaming about something that Party B is doing and it’s exactly the kind of procedural jackassery Party A did when they were in the majority, well lord, I don’t know why anyone would ever think we could have a functioning legislative branch. I’m sick to death of politicians and people in general who only find something objectionable when it’s done by someone else, but perfectly fine when they do it.
3. Lack of marketable skills. My particular skill set is pretty closely tailored to work on the inside. There just is’t a lot of call for someone who can slam together a 150 slide powerpoint briefing, plan a party for 55 of your closest friends without breaking federal law, or estimate how much ice or water you might need after a hurricane (and know how to order and ship it). I’ve been on the inside so long now I wouldn’t even know how to apply for a gig outside. Of course there’s too much now tied up in retirement and benefits to really consider a wholesale change – especially when the jobs that sound even remotely interesting would lead directly from professional bliss to personal bankruptcy. I’m feeling just a little bit trapped and that makes me fantastically edgy.
1. Atrophy. I’ll admit it, I’m not as good a driver as I use to be. I spent five years mastering the art of running nose-to-tail at 90 miles an hour on I-95 between DC and Baltimore. There’s not an every day call for that kind of driving in most other places. There wasn’t in West Tennessee and there certainly isn’t here in Ceciltucky. Every now and then, though, the situation presents itself where those long unused skills would prove useful. It’s only when you reach in to that old bag of tricks that you find out you’re not quite as quick at the wheel as you use to be. That’s disheartening… particularly when it leads to the inevitable question of whether it’s just a lack of practice time or if it’s a truly diminishing skill set.
2. Just Don’t Do It. Years ago I worked (indirectly) for a boss who’s philosophy was summed up by a Just Do It card that he passed around to employees at every opportunity. It read something like “If it’s ethical, legal, and you’re willing to be held accountable for it, don’t wait for permission, just do it.” It’s a pretty good rule to live by if you’re the kind of person who has any kind of reasonable judgement. I’m never going to argue that all decisions should be made at the lowest level, but I known damned well that all of them don’t need to be deferred to the highest levels, either. There’s a middle ground. More people should find it instead of deferring every decision for days and weeks in hopes that someone else will take responsibility for it.
3. The Cycle of Mediocrity. A wise old Warrant Officer once told me that “nobody does what the boss don’t check.” He was mostly right about that. In most offices the boss down’t check much – and the results are predictable. We all claim to want excellence – but in reality the objectives are usually targeted at achieving mediocrity. The rules are set up to achieve a minimum acceptable standard and performance tends towards achieving that standard. It’s what the bosses check so it’s what the people produce… and the cycle of mediocrity rolls on and on and on.
Not long ago We received the following message from our Operations office: The facility will remain closed today. By direction of the Uberboss, no one will report to work. Personnel can work from home. Please check Facebook in the morning to find out if we will be open tomorrow.
This is fine, except for two issues. The first and easiest to address is that I’m pretty sure 60% of the people in this office don’t know Facebook from Foosball. It works fine for those of us who aren’t horrified by the very thought of the internet, but for the rest, well, I guess they’ll figure it out when they show up and the lights are off.
The second issue is more telling. Feeling cheeky (imagine that), I asked simply, if “personnel can work from home” means we are authorized to telework. No, came the response from the Uberboss, it means you’re authorized to work from “an alternate workplace. We don’t telework. I don’t believe in telework.” So, yeah, we’re authorized to work from home – as long as we don’t call it telework, apparently. This would be more reassuring if it wasn’t coming from the guy who thinks you need to have paper on your desk to actually qualify as doing work.
Why on earth someone would think that an information age employee needs to be physically located in an office during pre-determined hours is simply beyond me. We don’t create physical products. Our office isn’t open to customers – We’re behind a locked door, behind a security guard, behind a fence toped with razor wire for God’s sake. It’s not like a customer is going to accidentally wander in and discover that none of the project managers were actually there. The fact is we don’t telework because then the Uberboss can’t see us and would actually have to rely on managerial skill to make sure projects were being finished well and on time. Easier to just wander by, ask why there isn’t paperwork on your desk, tell you do do something random and unrelated to your primary function, and wander off to annoy the next employee.
At least I’ll never have to wonder what it’s like living in the 19th century. From where I’m sitting it seems to be filled with a whole bunch of stupid.
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.
Given the volume of jobs I’ve applied for in the last eight months, I was under the impression that I’d come across very little that would surprise me. That was until the fine people at TSA invited me to schedule an appointment this weekend at a third party computer center to come in and take their skills assessment. Seriously, TSA? You want me to take a two-hour test just to get through to the part where an actual person reads my resume? Yeah, as interesting as that sounds, I think I’ll be taking my chances that one of my other 360 resumes out there is going to find its way onto the right desk. I wouldn’t object to the process if I were, you know, applying for an entry level job somewhere in a field office, but since I’m angling for a senior analyst slot at your headquarters, I would think that you’d be able to sus out the key information you need from the dozen or so pages of resume, undergrad and graduate transcripts, and personnel records that I sent you. So, yeah, TSA… I appreciate you getting back to me, but I don’t think your agency is the right fit for my skill sets. Thanks now.