Confessions of the Deep State — Part One: A (Kind Of) Productive Federal Workforce
Dear reader, much as it may shock you to learn this, your humble author works for the US Federal Government. So if you’re looking for someone to give you the inside skinny on what happens behind the labyrinthine corridors of DC, congratulations! I can do that. And with all this talk of the Deep State coming out of certain media outlets these days, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “What is the evil Deep State doing to oppose our wonderful and perfect leader, President Trump?!”
Well, I am happy to answer that question. Here you go: While there are many conspiracy theories that no doubt have some basis in fact (spoiler: anything you hear about the fossil fuel industry is probably true), the Deep State does not exist. There is no vast, far-reaching conspiracy among federal employees to deliberately oppose or degrade Mr. Trump’s policies. Sorry.
No, I’m afraid that the vast majority of the federal workforce are just people like you, with capabilities similar to yours, and ambitions that reach not much further than claiming the next paycheck and then handing it over to the outrageously pricey DC housing market. Do we like President Trump? Hell no. The man’s a dangerous moron, as anyone who knows anything about how actual federal policies work will happily tell you at some length. Are there bunches and bunches of incidents of federal employees bucking the new administration? There sure are. But there’s no conspiracy; some people just really don’t like that a dissociated billionaire with the vocabulary of a 5th grader, who commonly caters to the lowest common denominator of American society, is callously upending decades of good work.
So I hear you asking “Is this a click-bait article then?” YES! It totally is! Kind of. See, I lured you in with a promise of Deep State secrets, and instead I’m just going to tell you about the real problems of government service, which I think still totally counts. But this is your chance to jump ship. Go on. There’s an article like two clicks away about kittens or something. I’ll wait.
Dear reader, if you’re still there, strap in, because some of this is going to make you mad (if you’re at all serious about the whole “citizen” thing) and some of this is going to frustrate you (if you’re at all serious about the whole “working government” thing), and it’s all totally true, to the limits of yr. hmbl. author’s personal experience.
Today we’re talking about why the federal government has productivity problems in its workforce.
I know, that’s so exciting!!! Well OK, no, it’s not, but it actually is important and I swear to God someone should teach a high school class called “Some of the Most Important Stuff in Life is Kind of Boring.” This is one of those things. It’s not sexy, but it does represent billions of dollars, so maybe pay attention.
It is not a secret that the federal workforce isn’t the most productive group of people on the planet. But the liberal media tends to ignore this, and the conservative media tends to froth at the mouth and demonize the whole lot of us without bothering to understand the issues. Trouble is, there are real, serious, systemic problems in the federal system that contribute to inefficiencies and productivity problems. Here are some of them!
- It’s really hard to fire people
- There are few incentives
- It’s easy to get pigeonholed
- The Peter Principle is hard at work
- The hiring process is just… awful
Not all of these are specific to government, but every government agency has to deal with them. So here we go. Here are some no-holds-barred confessions of a Federal Worker.
It’s Stupidly Hard to Fire Awful People
PROBLEM: You know that one guy in your office who was dumb enough to wander into a meeting with the VP like forty minutes late, fart in the corner, calmly state that he missed his performance targets, and then find himself fired the next day? You may not ever have encountered that guy in person, because he was probably fired well before your time and has worked his way into your job’s office mythology as the Dumbest Idiot Anyone Has Ever Seen.
In the government that guy still has a job, because it takes too many care calories to fire his dumb ass. You see, the government did a very good thing a while back, and unfortunately they took it a little too far. At some point in the past, someone in federal HR realized (or more likely was forced to admit at the point of a union lawyer’s brief) that under-performing employees are often just in the wrong job for their skill set, or experiencing the wrong kind of management, or having problems at home or something. As a result, poor performance ratings in the government trigger remediation activities, where your boss sits down with you and tries to work out exactly why you’re not doing your job and what can be done to get you back on the straight and level path.
That’s actually a good thing on its own. Some people get turned around. BUT. There’s also a mandatory period of remediation activity (usually six months to year) during which your manager cannot fire you, because the system is waiting to see if the remedial correction works. If it doesn’t, that triggers another period of remedial counseling before an employee can be terminated for cause. Think about what that means from a manager’s point of view: a boss has to wait for a minimum of a year to even get to the point where they can start thinking about actually firing an employee.
I used to work with a woman who was just… awful. Let’s call her Jill. She was late for every meeting, and in government there are a lot of meetings (to manage all the contractors). She was nominally in charge of a multi-million-dollar contract, but in reality she just let her contractors run things.
Performance metrics and work accountability were foreign concepts to Jill. In fact her only concession to work was knowing just enough about her projects to kind-of-halfway sound like she knew what she was talking about when reporting to management. As her boss became aware of this, he initially went down the remediation path. But in the meantime her project was hemorrhaging money and productive hours, and the stakeholders were starting to get snarky. And this woman would raise hell if it even slightly looked like he was moving her to new duties.
So he put up with it for six months. Remember — multi-million-dollar contract. For six months. You do the math on what that means in terms of deliverables achieved. To the credit of her contractors, they didn’t do too much in the way of swapping out experienced people for college kids and charging us double, and they kept her projects moving forward, but they were doing the minimum. But at the end of six months, the boss was still looking at another year and a half of Jill before he could get rid of her.
So he did what any sane manager would do: he pulled her off the project, put her on menial work, and did his absolute best to make her work life a living hell. Then he waited for her to start applying to other jobs. Naturally, she applied to jobs within the same agency first. When the boss heard she was being considered for another position, he contacted the hiring manager and heavily endorsed Jill. The other team picked her up. She was no longer that boss’s problem — but she was STILL IN GOVERNMENT. And now she’s happily screwing up at a new position.
This happens all the time. It’s the logical result of managers making the most of a bad situation and following the eternal maxim “look out for #1.” So these toxic employees just get shuffled around agencies for their whole careers, doing scut work and occupying slots in the org chart.
In another case, I knew a woman who was teleworking three days a week. She was a web programmer or something, and didn’t really need to come into the office. Let’s call her Jane. There was a shuffle in management, and her line manager was reassigned. At the same time, HR was redrawing the org charts for the department, and somehow they left her off (this has ripple effects when your org charts are automated and tied into the departmental Outlook directory and SharePoint systems — effectively she dropped off the grid). A new manager came in an never realized Jane was on her team.
So at some point Jane realized that (a) no one was giving her directions and (b) she was still getting paid. Rather than raising this with someone in the office, she decided to just stay home. For about three months. Because she was an asshole, that’s why. Eventually HR did an audit and realized she was hanging out in limbo, and alerted her new manager, who promptly threw a fit. But again, this just went to remediation — because technically the fault lay somewhere between the manager and HR; Jane could always claim that she was just doing what she was told (i.e. nothing). End result: Jane came back to work after her 3 month staycation and just went back to her job like nothing had happened.
Now, with all this going on you might be wondering, “How the hell does the US government get anything done?!” Well, the answer is that these toxic people slow things down. But the majority of the workforce is decently productive, not sociopaths, and reasonably committed to the ideal of working for their fellow citizens. Mixed among them are a few absolutely outstanding hero-quality people who make everything actually work. In my time in government, I have known some of the smartest, most dedicated people I’ve ever met. But their contributions get awfully blunted by the toxic people who gum up the system.
SOLUTION: Decrease the remedial period to a single, three-month interval. Let’s be honest, having the remedial period is a good thing overall. It prevents managers from abusing their firing authority and gives people a chance to get their act together. But it goes on waaay too long currently, and cutting it down to a reasonable time would allow managers to check the box, allow employees to show willing, and ultimately permit government to squeeze toxic employees out of the system.
Incentives — What Incentives?
I know, I know, most people look at government work and think “You guys have it totally made. Highly secure jobs, decent pay, good benefits. What are you complaining about?”
PROBLEM: Here’s the thing. DC is stupidly expensive. It’s either the second or third most expensive city in the country (behind either New York or San Francisco), and that awesome-looking federal paycheck is just barely enough to afford a halfway decent apartment until you get to the highest pay grades. Meanwhile, federal workers are constantly exposed to contract employees, many of whom do equivalent work for half-again or double the pay. They also work ridiculously long hours and have no time off, but the grass is always greener, you know? And cash is cash.
Overtime pay is not a thing. Bonuses are not a thing. Federal workers may have to work overtime from time to time, but we don’t expect to get paid for it, which increases the sting. Instead we may, if we’re lucky, get comp time. Which expires after a while. We also sometimes get comp time instead of bonuses (there’s an office myth of a guy who once got a cash bonus — I think he was a strikebreaker during the Reagan administration or something). Comp time is great if you just want to hang out in your tiny DC apartment or stare at the roommates you have to take on to afford a house. Otherwise, what’s the point in taking time off if you don’t have the cash to do anything fun? Staycations get old after the first three days.
Similarly, award ceremonies tend to be fairly perfunctory and heavy on certificates. Certificates are nice if you want to build an I-love-me wall, but you run out of room for participation trophies pretty fast in a cubicle, and you can’t eat them. At the same time, for reasons which will be discussed elsewhere, doing a good job really doesn’t mean much for promotion prospects, so earning commendations tends to be a write-only exercise.
So yeah, the pay isn’t bad when taken out of context of the DC housing market, and the benefits are nice when you get sick. But there’s very little tangible reward for federal employees who work themselves hard, compared to the people who do the bare minimum (there used to be office parties, but GSA ruined that — thanks, asshats). A lot of feds react to this by becoming jaded and turning into the “government slugs” of myth and legend. The smart ones eventually take a turn in the contracting sector (#braindrain) or go into management. As a result, the line workers in most federal services tend to gray out — you see a lot of people who have resigned themselves to their job and have been doing the same thing for thirty years.
Incentives are critical to maintaining a productive workforce, as even the most sociopathic MBA knows at some level. Remove the incentives, and you have a group of people who are working just hard enough not get fired — which, as previously noted, isn’t really a thing in the federal workforce anyway.
SOLUTION: Remove expiration penalties for comp time, and establish actual bonus funds. Also, accept at some level that taxpayer funds are going to be used to sometimes entertain government workers. A Christmas party with an open bar can go a long way to maintaining a happy office. And a happy office is a productive office.
Pigeonholed People, or, The Problem of Dead Men’s Shoes
PROBLEM: Remember a few paragraphs ago, when I mentioned that commendations don’t help much with promotions? And also that part about a graying workforce? Guess how those come together.
If you guessed “huh, maybe people in choice spots never move on,” congratulations! You are correct. Since federal employment is effectively for life if you don’t screw up too badly, organizations rapidly run into the conundrum of Dead Men’s Shoes: the only way to get promoted within the organization is for someone else to die or retire. This has the effect of forcing all the Bright Young Things out of any given agency at some point in their careers, at least if they value their careers moving upward. This is a problem in private industry too, but the thing about a lot of government jobs is that the experience is often not transferable to other positions.
For example, I know several people who work in grants management. Their job consists of working through their agencies’ grant application systems to determine who gets federal money. Seems like they ought to be able to move around in a larger federal grants community, right? I mean, the whole point is giving out cash to J.Q. Public, right? How hard can that be? Well… very. Most agencies that deal with grants work with extremely idiosyncratic systems, laws, and procedures. So moving jobs between agencies means abandoning a huge volume of institutional knowledge that is simply not applicable anywhere but one agency.
There’s also another problem that feds have that very few private sector employees encounter: What do you do if you really believe in your job? That’s a thing. There are many federal workers who really draw a lot of value from the work they do for the American people. In many cases those people are educated, smart, motivated professionals… who are stuck in pigeonholed jobs because their agencies simply don’t have room to let them advance, and can’t create new jobs for them (more on that later).
These folks can’t advance. You end up with a lot of people who are expert in their field, and should be moving up to management to really Make Their Mark… but they can’t, because there’s no place for them to go on the org chart. This is a waste of talent and also a ready source of freshly-jaded employees. None of which helps government productivity.
SOLUTION: The government desperately needs a process to mentor and guide high-flying employees on a formal path to advancement — cross-training, exposure to other agencies, networking, etc. Prevent Bright Young Things from getting pigeonholed, expand their horizons, show them clear paths forward on a proactive basis, and keep them in government service.
Hi, My Name’s Peter, and I’m Your Boss
PROBLEM: The aforementioned factors are a perfect breeding ground for the Peter Principle, i.e. employees being promoted to their level of incompetence… and then staying there.
Remember Jill from earlier? Remember how she applied for and got a position elsewhere in the agency when her boss got tired of her screw-ups? Did you think she took a horizontal move? Oh, no. She moved up. This is extremely common in the federal service. Combine this with a normal attrition rate (figure 10% annually), a tendency to promote deputies into lead spots to get around hiring problems (more on that in a moment), and the constant need for experienced personnel, and you eventually end up with a disturbing number of people in management positions who got there simply because other managers kept promoting them to get them away from actual work.
The result is that middle management in the federal government tends to be where careers go to die. The trouble is, that’s not what middle management is for. Middle management is for making sure line workers get things done, identifying and resolving process issues, and monitoring budgets. Unfortunately, you encounter a lot of managers in the federal government who are barely competent to run a lemonade stand, let alone manage billion-dollar portfolios.
This problem results in a loss of productivity from two angles: senior management often has to carry more water than they should, and employees are often forced to manage (or circumvent) their boss, which takes time in which they could have been doing their own jobs.
Again, I will stress that this does not describe every manager in the federal workforce. Senior management in the federal government tends to be composed of seriously smart, ruthless individuals who know their agencies back to front and take shit from no one (in a very polite and respectful way, of course). There are still a large number of people in middle management who do a very good job too— this is why planes don’t fall out of the sky and Medicaid bills do get paid — but toxic managers are a significant problem in the federal workforce. And yes, some of them are in charge of things that really do matter.
SOLUTION: Fix the firing problem.
Hi, This is HR, Please Hold…
PROBLEM: Government HR seems almost universally incompetent. I seriously have never encountered a single person who had unvarnished good things to say about their agency’s HR department. My positive experiences with HR have always been personal with particular individuals; institutionally, it’s been nothing but a slog. This actually breaks down into a number of sub-problems:
- Hiring is awful
- Hiring talent can be difficult
- Agency personnel numbers are capped
- External factors are constant
There are two major problems going on in the hiring process. One is that government agencies have a track record of being forced to centralizing hiring functions. This tends to result in HR for one agency doing the hiring for another agency. It sounds like a money-saving efficiency, but it actually results in decreased customer service and a lack of accountability. Think about it — if you’re an HR drone for Agency A, how much do you actually care about Agency B? They don’t pay your salary and they’re not on your org chart. Your only interaction with them is when managers from Agency B call you to angrily ask why you’re using their hiring forms as a pizza plate. Basically you do just enough work for them to get them off your back, and that’s it. This is not an effective system.
The other problem with hiring is actually with HR processes in general. Agencies tend to have a lot of trouble procuring workable HR automation; for some reason, no one seems to have developed a product that actually meets most federal requirements. As a result, a lot of HR activities are done on paper. And paper gets lost. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve known who had to redo HR paperwork several times— not because they did it wrong, but because the HR twit on the other end kept losing their packet. This radically increases the time required to bring on new personnel.
Long story short, it takes anywhere from two weeks (for an internal transfer) to nine months (for a competitive hiring process) to fill a federal employee slot. That is a perfectly enormous volume of time to leave a critical position unfilled, and you’d better believe it impacts productivity in hideous ways.
Additionally, it can be extremely difficult to hire a candidate with the qualifications you want. HR departments and hiring managers are required to judge candidates for competitive positions according to metrics that prioritize hiring people based on race, gender, and military service. Now, I’m going to say something rather controversial here, and I want to make sure, dear reader, that you don’t take this the wrong way: if you are a non-white, female, disabled military veteran, you are pretty much going to get a job in the federal government, assuming that you are even remotely qualified.
Let me clarify this a bit: there is nothing wrong with hiring practices that promote disadvantaged social groups, and there is certainly nothing wrong with ensuring that our veterans come home to a paying job. These are valid and important goals when taken individually. However, none of those qualifications necessarily result in an employee that is measurably superior to their peers in terms of work performance. There is some re-balancing needed between the goal of providing work for the purpose of correcting social problems on the one hand, and the goal of having a highly-qualified federal workforce on the other.
Also, here’s something most members of the public don’t know: federal agencies cannot just hire personnel willy-nilly. Agencies actually have a cap on the number of personnel they can recruit — and when you add that up with the other items mentioned in this essay, that exacerbates a whole bunch of problems. But the most critical effect is on the ability of a federal agency to easily scale to adopt new roles.
Let’s take an example: say you work for an agency that manages rail safety. Your normal remit is cargo freight. One day Congress decides that your mission is expanding to cover passenger rail. Now your agency has to take on a whole bunch of new roles, which require a ton of new personnel. Has Congress authorized you to hire a sufficient number of new personnel? Maybe! But probably not (you’ll be expected to quietly make up the numbers out of contract staff —at twice the price of a fed).
Now you have to hire a whole bunch of new people, suffering through the highly variable hiring timeline to bring them on board, in the full knowledge that you will get a certain number of lemons whom you will have great difficulty firing. And this will happen before you start to manage your agency’s new role. Did the role expand in that interval? Yes? Too bad! Do you learn after a year that you need more personnel? Yes? Too bad! You’re stuck with what you’ve got, and it literally takes an act of Congress to change your staffing numbers.
Functionally this means that most civilian agencies are always operating understaffed, and have zero capacity to adapt to new priorities. This is entirely intentional — it’s a method of keeping the agencies under control — but it is radically inefficient. The easiest way to make a project fail is to screw with the personnel.
Last but not least, government HR is nearly always beset by external threats from Congress or the administration. The most recent example was the Trump administration’s pointless hiring freeze. This exercise prevented agencies from hiring for nearly six months, and in many cases the freeze is still functionally in effect. Meanwhile the normal attrition rate was still running, budgets were being eaten up by ongoing projects (and the necessary contract fill-in labor), and when the freeze finally ends it will still take six months to replace the lost staff.
This one exercise will result in a year or more of inefficient operations and literally billions of dollars poured into the pockets of contracting companies at the expense of federal projects… all because someone who doesn’t understand how government works wanted to “cut the size of government.” And this kind of thing happens all. the. time. Seriously, if you want to see some major dickery going on with federal agencies, read the amendments and riders to things like the annual Farm Bill.
SOLUTIONS: Unfortunately, this is the most difficult area to resolve, if only because fixing government HR issues means getting Congress involved. In the first place, we have to acknowledge that centralizing agency hiring operations has been an unmitigated failure, and return hiring control to a local agency basis. That will increase accountability in the process, if only by providing an obvious and accessible target for hiring managers to yell at.
Secondly, the government has to be able to hire the most qualified applicants, not just those who tick the right boxes for bonus points. Simply increasing the favorability weight given to people with advanced degrees and/or rare certifications might help there.
Last but by no means least, someone has to make the argument in Congress that agencies should be staffed to an effective level, and cease reliance on contract support to the extent currently required. Unfortunately this is the least likely thing to happen of anything that’s been mentioned here; there are FAR too many entrenched interests who are well served by staff-starving federal agencies — and most of them are represented by the political party currently in power.
Dear reader, if you made it this far you are a champ. So let me wrap up with a qualifying statement. If you read all this you might justifiably get the idea that the concept of “federal government productivity” is pretty well screwed. This is kind of true; but it’s also kind of true that these problems are no worse than those faced by a multinational corporation like, say, MicroSoft. Every large bureaucratic organization develops inefficiencies over time.
The great advantage of government is that it is accountable to the public. It is possible to correct many of the problems on this list with some fairly simply reforms. Other empires before ours have accomplished this task; why should we fail here, where we have succeeded at so many other things? Things like this can actually be solved by enough people writing their Congresscritters; just the shock that someone’s paying attention might prompt them into action!
But as with all other things in a democracy, you get the government you deserve. Being a citizen means you sometimes need to check to see whether your civil servants are being productive, and if not, identify and fix the problems.