Confessions of the Deep State — Part Five: The Importance of Individuals

These are my personal confessions of things I’ve seen, heard, and experienced as a member of the federal workforce, and along the way I try to examine some real no-kidding problems with our government. I like to think that this stands in contrast to the various levels of hyperbole you might hear from certain orange elected officials, and some other people who are not orange but are orange-aligned. And if you’ve just arrived at this series, here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. If you like what you read, go back and check ’em out.

For reference, and to get it out of the way early, there is no such thing as the “Deep State” that Trump supporters love to hate. Sorry. There, that takes care of the title and my first confession. For many reasons, some of which frankly have to do with incompetence, but mostly just because that’s not how conspiracies work, there is no bureaucracy-wide agenda to dethrone The Donald or undermine his policies (not even in the FBI). There are LOTS of individuals who are trying to resist Trump’s policy shifts, though, and in general understanding individuals is key to understanding a lot about how government works. So today I’m going to spend some time talking about the way that individuals make or break the faceless bulwarks of the federal service.

I’m going to introduce you to five people today: an empty suit, a leader, a hero, a drone, and a slug. They each have a story, and each of their stories are bound up in the way the government works and help to explain a piece of why the government works the way it does.

But to back up for just a moment, let’s get one other thing out of the way first. There’s this longstanding debate among political scientists about whether individuals or institutions* matter more. There’s a classic thought experiment to go along with this: what happens if you get in a time machine, go back in time, and kill Hitler before he has a chance to claim power? Do you avert WWII? The individual-centric side of the argument says “yes,” because so much of what the Nazis did was Hitler’s brainchild. Without Hitler you wouldn’t have had the German rearmament, the SS, or any of the other Nazi institutions. The institutionalists say “no,” because Hitler was just an expression of the boiling frustration, resentment, and embarrassment of the German state. The Nazis existed before Hitler, and would have produced another Hitler given time, because that’s what the institution was geared to do.

You see the question, right? Do individuals drive institutions, or do institutions drive individuals? Well, based on my experience, the answer of course is, “yes.” It flows both ways, to lesser or greater degrees depending on the individual and the institution in question. However, in my experience in government, things start or change because of individuals. Things continue because of institutions. This can be summarized in a simple rule:

Only individuals can make things better in the federal government. The institution never becomes better on its own.

And here we return to our characters. Let’s start with executives. Early in my career I meet an agency Chief Information Officer (the guy in charge of all the computer technology for the agency). Let’s call him Tim. Tim was an ideas guy… and not so much an implementation guy. He would regularly go to meetings, rattle off a whole string of ideas, some of them good, some of them not, and then spectacularly fail to implement most of them. He’d forget things he’d said, say different things to different groups, and generally bumble around. It got to the point that his staff wasn’t even bothering to keep track anymore; they just paid attention to the things he could remember for more than a couple of weeks, and only acted on things that he repeatedly referenced. As a result, a wide mix of bad and good ideas were implemented more or less at random, and no one quite knew what Tim wanted to do.

As a result, Tim was largely ineffective in his job — he was an empty suit. He couldn’t generate a coherent strategy, wasn’t interested in putting in the effort to change policy, and was generally held in poor regard by his staff. His job, as it happens, was to develop strategy, change policy, and be a leader. He failed, and the institution stagnated right along with him.

In due time Tim was replaced by a new guy. Let’s call him Phil. Phil understood that focus is required to make changes, and Phil was a process-focused individual. Phil identified a strategy he wanted to pursue and then worked out the things he’d need to do to accomplish that goal. Then he relayed this plan down to his staff over a series of meetings, made the appropriate contacts within the agency, and over the course of a year he got stuff done. He held his focus, stayed on target, made sure his staff was motivated, and as a result he altered the shape and functionality of his institution — he was a leader.

These are examples of federal executives, and the core takeaway is as follows: federal leaders cannot be wishy-washy ivory tower types. They have to be bare-knuckle leaders. They have to get their hands dirty. They have to have good communications with their staff. They have to have successful networks within their agencies. Otherwise inertia wins.

Let’s look at three other people — we’ll call them Jill, Deborah, and John. They have all worked in government for several years, and yes, they are real people (with different names, of course). These folks in the government are largely responsible for overseeing contract personnel and implementing their agency’s mission, and are generally “in the trenches”-style workers.

Jill is in charge of a large, complex contract. She does a lot of paperwork, works long hours when needed, and maintains good communications with her team, her boss, and her customers. She has been fighting organizational inertia for years, and has pushed through a number of process-based improvements and changes. She is constantly aware of agency politics, head-hunts new talent for her team, and has successfully defended her project’s funding for several budget cycles. And she is well-trained — she routinely attends seminars and classes to improve her skills.

Jill succeeds because she is a hero — a federal worker who is not bound by the institutional inertia, willing to commit to new ideas and new concepts, and well-informed. She’s also smart. I know, I know, all Washington bureaucrats are faceless and dull. But not Jill. She’s bright, motivated, and hard-working, and it’s people like her who make things actually work.

And on the other hand we have Deborah. Deb is also a project manager. She is also in charge of a large, complex project. But Deb is not putting the effort in; she is content to go with the organization’s flow, let her contractors mostly run themselves, and keeps only the records that her organization audits her on. Deb barely talks to her customer base, and is minimally informed as to what her group actually does, but she is just informed enough to sound good in front on her boss. Deborah is not interested in fighting the organization’s inertia — she uses the products they give her, the processes they give her, the people they give her, and the budget they give her.

Deborah is a classic drone. She is stuck in her rut. She is not inventive or particularly interested in her job. She embodies the faceless Washington bureaucrat mentality. She’s dialed into her job just enough to not get in trouble, and she is not particularly interested in the “servant” part of public service. As a result, her group doesn’t really make things work as much as they make things continue. Deb is an agent of inertia, whether she realizes it or not.

And last, John. John doesn’t give a fuck. John has realized that federal hiring laws basically make it impossible to fire him as long as he says just inside the margins, and is now milking the system. John doesn’t show up to meetings, is always late with assignments, and has been moved off of any projects worth note because he can no longer be trusted to manage contractors. He can barely work his email, isn’t at his desk for most of the day, and is basically a black hole into which work falls and never returns. It’s possible he has dementia, or may simply be just that tuned out of anything approaching interest in his job. John’s been shuffled from one group to the next for five years now, and every manager who encounters him immediately starts looking for a way to fob him off on some other poor sucker. In the meantime he’s occupying an employee slot (a big deal, since agencies have personnel limits), a desk, and resources.

John is a slug. He’s everything wrong with the federal service, and he just. doesn’t. care. If you confronted him about it, he’d be sure to have a rationalization. Maybe he’s a veteran, and his PTSD won’t let him work**. Maybe he will act surprised that you’re not on the gravy train too. Maybe he’ll just laugh at you and ignore you. Or maybe he’ll get offended. But he will never, ever, take responsibility for his actions. He’s here to watch YouTube and get paid; making the United States run is no longer in his worldview, if it ever was.

Right now, the leaders give the government purpose, and the heroes make the government work. Between the two of them they are responsible for most of the innovation, efficiency, and modernization that makes it into the federal government. The empty suits, drones, and slugs let the institutions chug along and/or get worse. When you hear about something going particularly well in a government agency, it is almost certainly because a leader or a hero got involved. When you hear about a file that got lost for twelve years, or a VA facility mistreating its patients, or a contract that was grossly mishandled, or a $500 toilet seat… well, at that point you’re probably looking at a Deborah or a John situation.

So how does this all play out? Contrary to popular belief, the government is very interested in the individuals it hires. Hiring managers want leaders and heroes. They can make do with drones and empty suits — the institution can chug along despite them. And they try their best to avoid or get rid of slugs. At the moment, if I had to put round numbers to it, I’d guess that government agencies are probably 40% leaders and heroes, 50% empty suits and drones, and 10% slugs. If that sounds bad… well, look around your own workplace and tally up the marks for your business. Honestly, I don’t think it does too bad.

This has implications for larger areas. A LOT of federal policy is focused on risk avoidance or risk mitigation. Some of this policy is trying to address the wrong thing — laboring institutions with policies designing to tackle individual problems. One clear area where this is the case is in contract management. There are all kinds of policies on contracts, almost none of which are really effective. This is because contract management is an individual art, and all the documentation and red tape in the world won’t change that.

If there’s one takeaway, one problem that could be solved by focusing more on the individual and less on the institution, I think that it’s in this area. The next time you see a big government screw-up on TV, my advice is to follow up on it some time later. My guess is that you’ll find an attempt at an institutional solution to an individual problem.*** My key piece of advice in this area, to lawmakers and managers both is this: solve your problem at the source. Don’t blow a problem out of proportion. Solving a problem with an individual doesn’t always have to be an institutional affair, and creating an institutional solution may just be paving the way for more problems down the road.

As in most other jobs, the quality of a workplace environment in the government is wholly dependent on who you work with. I’ve been in several different environments, and I can honestly say that working in the federal government has put me in close proximity to some of the smartest, most driven people I’ve ever met. It’s also introduced me to some of the most frustrating slugs I’ve ever seen. But it’s important to remember, any time you deal with the government, that despite all that pop culture tries to tell you (and everything FOX News implies on a daily basis), governments are made of individuals. They have faces, names, personalities, quirks, and even competencies. And we in the federal service take that thought very, very seriously — because we know we’re stuck with the people we bring in.

*“Institution” in this sense means a structure or mechanism that enforces a particular order. In this case, a government agency that enforces or implements law and has its own internal processes and politics.

**I know many veterans have real PTSD. John does not. He’s just willing to tell you that he does.

***This isn’t to say that there are no institutional problems. Most true disasters are cascades — one thing causing a problem, which causes another problem, which causes a really bad problem, which causes a disaster. But a lot of government funding and cost management issues are individual in scope, when you get right down to it.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.