On government employment

A while back I agreed to answer reader questions about working for government. Before I get to the questions, I’ll provide a bit of background on how I see government.

Background

The most fascinating thing about working for the government for the last 6 or 7 years has been learning how government really works. Almost no one has any idea how government actually functions.

We spend inordinate amounts of time and money determining who will occupy short-term elected positions in government. Once there, people make a living thinking about what these politicians should be doing. On the other hand, we spend almost no time thinking about who will permanently occupy the bureaucratic positions that are actually responsible for implementing governance.

The vast majority of the employees of the government, like me, are unelected and – for all intents and purposes – cannot be fired. Focusing on the 0.0001% of government employees that get elected (obviously!) misses the remaining 99.9999%. Virtually everyone thinks that its possible to "change" government while maintaining 99.9999% of its employees. This belief is obviously retarded.

I should also note that people are not used to thinking about working environments in which employees cannot be fired. This situation changes the employment dynamic in many ways. Outside of the government, a "boss" is in charge. However, once the power to fire employees is removed, how is it possible for a boss to really be in charge? In a sense, this creates a situation in which the employees are – in reality – in charge.

When we are taught how laws are made, we’re told something like: someone writes a bill, both houses of Congress vote on the bill, if it passes it’s signed by the President and then it’s law at which point it might be interpreted by the courts.

This is correct as far as it goes. However, have you ever asked yourself who that "someone" is who’s writing the bills? Seems like a powerful position, no? That someone is generally unelected and cannot be fired.

The common story also doesn’t go far enough. Regulations are now, by any serious metric, more important than laws. Regulations are written and implemented by agencies, often with little or no judicial oversight. Modern laws aren’t even really laws anymore, they’re just lists of regulations that Congress hopes agencies will implement.

In ancient Rome, the Senate governed until Julius Caesar took power. However, emperors kept the Senate around for a few hundred more years (at least until Diocletian). Are you so sure that the system of government that you believe in hasn’t already been overthrown? Are you like a Roman in the 200s AD who believes in the power of the Senate to appoint an emperor?

Finally, I should note that Mencius Moldbug is the only writer I’ve found so far who seems to understand and write about how the giant behemoth we call "government" actually functions. I’ve seen how government works on a day-to-day basis, but sometimes one needs some assistance to see what’s before one’s eyes.

Questions

Hmm, what (in general) do you do; what credentials are needed to get the job, what skills are needed to actually do the job, what are the relevant private-sector alternatives?

In general, I work for a financial agency and I write regulations governing various aspects of banking and finance. I needed a B.A. in economics "or related field" to get the job. I started doing the job at a lower-level with no financial experience. For all intents and purposes, I started straight out of college.

Since working for the government, I’ve had a couple of private sector job offers from consulting firms and banks. The former would hire me to help banks to implement the rules I’ve been writing and the latter would hire me to do risk management or compliance work.

Is it work you could ever find fulfillment in, or is this purely a pecuniary bread-on-the-table decision ?

At a less philosophical level, it’s easy to find the work fulfilling. It’s relevant and it gets lots of attention from interested parties. When your work shows up in newspapers, on TV, etc. it’s easy to get excited about your work.

At a more philosophical level, not too many people have a passion for making rules.

Have you or could you envisage ever being asked or required to do something that would conflict with your principles ?

Not directly. Regulations are the product of lots of compromising within competing sections of the government. By the time they’re published there are no principles left.

On a scale of “better than I hoped” to “worse than I imagined” exactly how bad is the bureaucracy — from the other side?

In some ways it’s better than I hoped. For example, there are lots of very intelligent and hard-working bureaucrats. A career with the government is the only remaining way to achieve a stable middle to upper-middle class existence in the US. Lots of bureaucrats are happy to trade hard work for great benefits.

In other ways, it’s worse than I imagined. For example, it’s one thing "to know" that bureaucrats can’t be fired. It’s a totally different thing to really understand what this means in a work environment. The change in dynamic in the workplace is incredible. I have colleagues who do no work at all for weeks at a time and everyone knows it.

Any tips for those of us who have to deal with government bureaucracy? Any tips for avoiding dealing with bureaucracy?

Not really. If you’re dealing with a government agency, figure out what motivates the agency. This is usually easy to figure out, since they are generally motivated by acquiring additional funding. Figure out how they’re funded and you’ll figure out what motivates them.

This is more a workings of rather than a working at question, but how does a Department like Education defend itself against its would-be abolishers? Can you imagine a way government could actually be rolled back short of bankruptcy?

I don’t think the threat to abolish the DOE is serious – they don’t bother to defend themselves since their funding just keeps going up.

Democracies don’t roll back government. Short of bankruptcy then, the only way to roll back the size of government is to move away from democracy.

I am curious what agency you work for, too. Are you in contact with the people in power in it? Do they perceive its work as being essential or beneficial, or is that a peripheral question? Is there a preponderance of Dems there?

I’d rather not give a specific agency, but it’s a financial agency. I’ve met the heads of most of the financial agencies and I see the head of my own agency regularly.

Generally, the people in power are a couple levels removed from the very top. They take their work seriously – a few of the older ones still believe in the "public service as sacrifice" thing too. They don’t have to declare their party affiliation at that level. But, I think the financial agencies are somewhat unique in that they have fewer Democrats at this level than other types of agencies. However, most are still Democrats and the Republicans are of a certain type . . .

Are your coworkers at all cynical? Are they cynical about other agencies or divisions, but not their own? Do you ever share your cynicism with them, and, if so, how do they respond?

No. Here’s the thing. I’m suggesting that the bureaucracy runs the show. You might take that to be a bad thing. But, it’s important to remember that it’s far superior to the alternative. We would really be screwed if Congress was actually running the show. In this sense, one can agree with me that the bureaucracy is in charge and be very happy (not cynical) about the status quo.

I share my cynicism with people in government all the time. Almost all agree that agencies have immense power – and they see nothing wrong with this fact. I sometimes push back that the bureaucracy is totally unaccountable. This often gets some objection, but not in the form of a coherent argument opposing my position.

How does accountability work in the bureaucracy? To what extent do tangible results inform policy?

Accountability does not work in the bureaucracy. I can’t stress this point enough. The defining feature of the bureaucracy is lack of accountability. It’s very hard to understand the complex ways in which the total absence of accountability affects an organization.

If someone really really screws up, they will not be given any new work. That’s about the extent of accountability.

The bureaucracy changes its mind when the media and the academics change their mind. This is rare – I haven’t seen it happen yet. This also means that only tangible results that fit media narratives and academic biases inform policy.

How important is rule making? Are most important governing decisions in your department made informally or do they require a rule? How does one decide if one must make a rule and who decides?

Rule-making is the process by which modern government functions. Important decisions require rules – as do unimportant ones. If I decide a rule needs to be written, I’ll write explaining why it needs to be written and stating that if there is no rule on this topic the US financial system will soon collapse (this is only a slight exaggeration). I’ll then get the go ahead from a level or two up to start writing.

How do you spend your days at work? How much time do you spend working, etc?

Like I said above, some people work hard – evenings and weekends including – while others do nothing. With few exceptions outside of the ranks of management though, the office is generally cleared out at 5:00.

Are the regulators aware of and self-conscious about the gap in knowledge between themselves and those in the industrie(s) they regulate? Do they think there is one?

Absolutely. This makes us defer to industry. Industry gets what it wants the same way that I get the higher-ups to agree on the need to draft a new regulation – threaten the destruction of the global financial system. As regulations get more plentiful and more complex the knowledge gap gets more important, especially when regulators deal with large companies that are well-organized.

Are there any visible real-life ‘Ron Swansons’? (=TV character libertarian who runs a Parks & Rec department but wishes it would be abolished) If no, is it because they exist but keep their views to themselves, or because there really aren’t any to speak of?

Yes, there are not many and they tend to keep their beliefs to themselves. The most successful bureaucrats are the ones who understand how their agency is funded and work to increase its funding.

In water-cooler talk, is there a tacit assumption of universal agreement with ‘progressive’ goals and means?

Not as much at the financial agencies – everyone has to understand economics, after all. But still, the answer is basically "yes."

Finally, do you recommend making the jump from private industry (say, finance) to a government agency that regulates it? What would you think of a person who did so – crazy, shrewd, neutral?

I’ve seen more people come from industry to government than go the other way. Why would I leave a well-paid job from which I can’t get fired and which doesn’t require me to work that hard? It’s not hard for me to find a job that would increase my salary by 20% or so, but I’d have to work 50-100% more and I could be fired.

The biggest challenge for people who come to government from the private sector is getting used to the change of pace. Government operates much slower. There are often sizable periods of time without any pressing work to be done. This can be a tough change for some people. Without knowing more about a particular person, I’d be neutral.

Are they hiring?

Always

Thanks for the questions and if you find this interesting, leave some more in the comments.

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88 Responses to On government employment

  1. Conrad says:

    Good post – fits in with a lot of what I hear from my GS13 mother.

    As to the desirability of bureaucratic governance over democratic governance, I’ve been a Moldbug reader since way back and remember that argument. I haven’t been a doctrinaire libertarian for a while, but what honestly are the improvements? To my mind, you’ve got to compare our governance under bureaucratic government (1933 onwards) to the old republic, which was of course full of machine politics and people voting their interests and resentments. And honestly, I’m not sure what benefits we’ve gotten. There are really only two areas I think we can credit the bureaucratic system with doing some good that the old regime might not have delivered:

    – 1970s onward pollution control. One of the few good achievements of environmental bureaucracy, and I come from a coal state. Things are better. National parks in the 30s.

    – Transportation: the Eisenhower highway system.

    That’s all I can think of. What we’ve gotten worse under the media-academic-bureaucratic complex:
    – Education: in all ways worse.
    – Energy: my dad works with DOE all the time, it’s a real den of iniquity.
    – Health: Where to begin?
    – Financial: no offense, but we seem to have gone from a pretty good original system, to an ok 1913 to 1971 system, to a decent 1971 to 1999 system, to a dysfunctional current system.
    – Social policy: ruinous favored caste policies, destruction of families. Disastrous population transformation.
    – Foreign policy: are we more respected, more feared, or more loved than we were under aristocratic isolationism or demotic big-stick swaggering? Doesn’t look like it.

    I don’t see how bureaucratic governance is a value-add over oligarchic or factional democracy which we had before. But I’m open to arguments.

    • sconzey says:

      If I remember correctly Moldbug’s thesis was that bureaucratic “managed” democracy wasn’t so much “better” than the standard type, but more stable, and less likely to devolve into armed paramilitary violence.

    • KellyC says:

      And, I’m not sure I’d argue that the Eisenhower Interstate system is all that great. Basically, it facilitated an urbanization as speeds increased and distance times decreased but entire communities spread all across the map basically dried up as commerce clustered around off-ramps. Additionally, it all but ensured much greater consumption of energy for personal transportation as cars became the defacto standard for interstate travel. So, we are left with nothing to fill the gap between high speed (airplanes) and low speed (automobile) travel and no real alternatives in play. How’s that for the unforeseen consequences of top-down bureaucratic planning?

  2. Conrad says:

    I forgot to mention crime, but you’re well aware of that. We’re are Carlyleans here: it wasn’t formalist, but in the lynching period demotic violence was an anti-criminal, anti-turbulent force, while now demotic violence is a criminal, anti-property force.

  3. AC says:

    Interesting! So is there any leverage for enforcing productivity at all? (Slower promotion/raises perhaps?) If not, you could do a modified 4-Hour-Workweek type thing – arrange to work from home, minimize the obligations you take on, hire virtual assistants to do scutwork, and free up ridiculous amounts of time. Or is there an emphasis on at least warming your chair for X hours a week?

  4. B Lode says:

    Did you get in by taking one of the civil service examinations that is like a multiple choice test? I gather if you were Schedule B or something you wouldn’t have, or maybe if you got first hired a long time before or after I was looking, it may have been different.

    I took a couple of these when I lived in DC in the early 90s. I scored in the mid-80s. I could never figure out what I should do after I took the exams because whenever I asked, people would tell me the government would call me an offer me a job. Only once did I say, “Git outta here!” in a comical voice.

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kalim Kassam, peter radzio. peter radzio said: RT @kalimkassam: The view from inside the bureaucratic heart of financial regulation. "On government employment" http://bit.ly/fFdS4r #t … [...]

  6. Albert Jackson says:

    I work for USG as well and I find your comments spot on. (I’m with State). I have colleagues who work their asses off, but I also know people who skate and some, mostly of a “protected class” who do absolutely nothing. In fact, at my last post, we had a mid-level manager who came in, shut his door and read the paper and the Internet all day until 5pm. Since everyone knew that nothing could be done, we all just worked around him and his juniors were de-facto in his slot.

    On the other hand, at the same post, there were dedicated and patriotic officers who would work until 8pm and then go represent the U.S. at a dinner that started at 9pm and you’d then see them back in the office at 7am.

    So, as Foseti notes, it’s not a simple issue. The key issue, as Foseti rightfully points out, is how this changes the work dynamic. For me, coming out of the private sector, it has been an enormous challenge. I have had to resist the urge in meetings to just scream “oh, c’mon, cut the bullshit, everyone knows Ted and Lisa are useless, let’s just not copy them on emails or invite them to meetings because they’re just wasting our time,” etc.

    Of course, you can’t do that. You ESPECIALLY can’t do that if you are White and Ted is Black.

    One thing that strikes me as hugely significant for USG is the number of Blacks, especially at the lower level. They play the race card constantly and everyone knows it, but no one says or does anything. Basically, they are untouchable. But, perhaps being in a financial agency he sees less of this bullshit.

  7. robert61 says:

    Will Ron Paul’s appointment to head up the Monetary Policy Subcommittee have any effect? How does the permanent bureaucracy fend off hostile elected officials in high appointed positions?

    • Boris says:

      The same way they fended off Joe McCarthy

      • R7 says:

        Correct, but Joe McCarthy was crushed by the permanent state through the help of a monopoly news media. Ron Paul has the advantage of the Internet.

    • Recollect what happened when Congress summoned the SEC to tell them what the %#@% they had been doing with the Madoff ponzi scheme. The witnesses just refused to answer the questions. If you try that with a judge or the IRS, and you will go to jail so fast it will make your head spin. If a boss tries it with the board of a company, or you try it with your boss, instant unemployment.

  8. Bruce G Charlton says:

    The relentless growth of bureaucracy, the process being driven by state bureacracy, (specifically, bureaucracy run by committee vote) in nations run by committee vote (aka democracy) is yet another phenomenon which, given a little more time, will bring-down Western Civilization.

    http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/2010/04/cancer-of-bureaucracy.html

    The only thing that will prevent this is if something else does it first.

  9. Chuck says:

    This is a good post. This passage in particular was eye raising:

    “In some ways it’s better than I hoped. For example, there are lots of very intelligent and hard-working bureaucrats. *A career with the government is the only remaining way to achieve a stable middle to upper-middle class existence in the US.* Lots of bureaucrats are happy to trade hard work for great benefits.”

    I suspect that this is true, and, if so, that can not be a good thing.

    • Foseti says:

      That’s actually something I’ve thought quite a bit about. Nowhere else can you count on being able to make a decent income, have some semblance of job security, and not have to work so many hours that you can’t spend any time with your family.

      I agree that it’s definitely not a good thing.

      • josh says:

        Foseti,

        Thanks for the answers. Incidentally, want to know anything about teaching in a 95%+ NAM public high school?

      • Foseti says:

        I’d love to. You may also be interested in this book .

      • Chuck says:

        josh,

        i’d be interested in hearing about that as well. do you pack a 9 or do you prefer something a little more sturdy – a .45 maybe?

      • Anton Tykhyy says:

        @josh — yes please!

      • josh says:

        I don’t have a blog, due to professional considerations, but I would be willing to answer any questions and provide some additional insights in some forum. It’s hard to know where to begin, but it seems like the same folks who would be interested in Foseti’s inside baseball stuff might be interested in mine. I should say, I wouldn’t expect it to be as insightful or as well written as Foseti’s.

        Chuck,

        I do not own a gun. I was raised very SWPL and I have an irrational fear (despite the fact that my maternal side is composed of good old huntin’ boys). To be honest, I can’t remember ever actual being afraid for my safety while in school. There have been some memorable instances of violence within the school in the 3 years I have been here.

        3 of my students have been murdered while still on my roster(2 shot, one beaten). We once had a man try to hide in the school after committing felony homicide at the local Denny’s (okay, that time I was actually scared. The “lockdown” was announced with particular urgency. Luckily the police got him just outside the school. Perhaps, I should mention that we leave our doors unlocked because otherwise attendence would drop from ~50% to ~%10.).

        I also once had to pull a student off of a pregnant girl that he had thrown a chair at and was savagely beating in the back of the head in the classroom (of a middle aged female teacher) next to mine. Then the psychopath calmed down almost immediately as if nothing had happened and was calmly escorted to the principles office. After the pregnant girl got up, she started screaming and trying to run down the hall after the guy. I played basketball defense with my hands in the air so that I couldn’t be accused of assault. She tried to reason with me, “You don’t understand, I’m a ‘G’. I don’t give a f*ck.” She did not mean girl. Then she threatened that her gang would murder the kid. The really crazy thing was, that the police were not immediately called. The young man who had been punching the pregnant girl for the roughly 30 seconds between when his teacher screamed and when I could separate them was take to our school social worker. She brought him back to apologize to the teacher. He stuck out his hand and quite calmly explained that he was sorry to do that in her class, BUT the young lady had been ‘talking shit’. I believe the kid was arrested, but no jail time. He was transferred to another teacher for history and dropped out shortly thereafter. I don’t know if the pregnant girl’s gang got revenge.

        Also, a recent informal pole revealed that 100% of my male (an more than half of my female) African American students have randomly punched a person in the face while walking down the street. Apparently this is mostly a middle school thing and the target is usually homeless people, although it can be anyone. My one East Asian student came in with a black eye this week after having been the victim of such an attack.

        I guess I do have some stories. But you guys already know about the violence stuff. I bet you didn’t know that the government pays to bring these students to school in Taxis. There’s a line of Yellow Cabs dropping students off outside my window right now.

      • Foseti says:

        Josh,

        If you’d like to email me some thoughts that I could post, do so at: fosetiwp@gmail.com

      • josh says:

        Please don’t cut and paste. Thanks.

      • josh says:

        I believe I will.

  10. Somebody, somewhere has the ability to say no, if only to the funding. I’m guessing where this doesn’t happen is in the Congressional bureaucracy, where a committee staff member tells the elected official he must vote for the funding or the financial/educational/transportation system or whatever will collapse. But what if the funding is, in fact, cut? Cuomo seems ready to do this in New York.

  11. Anton Tykhyy says:

    How come US government employees cannot be fired? Even in the Soviet Union party bosses had power to discipline and expel members, and this was feared among those who had to be members for ‘business’ reasons (one could not be, say, a department head at a research institute or an editor without being a party member).
    back to reading the post

    • CCCPman says:

      Read about the end of the “Spoils System” in the late 1800s. Essentially it used to be that the top public servants would be fired by the new government whenever the elected offices changed hands. This was impractical and prone to cronyism for obvious reasons, so the system was changed to the one we have now.

    • liberty says:

      Anton Tykhyy,

      My guess is, like in the Soviet Union, it depends upon the level of position you’re discussing. As you point out, Party bosses could expel members, and hence there was a way to fire top factory managers and the like – but those managers had a very difficult time firing regular workers: there were laws against it, the number of workers was set by the state and controlled through the wage fund, they would have to find a new position for any workers they wanted to lay off if they could get permission, etc., plus they would find themselves in trouble if the plan was later ramped up, so they had an incentive to keep workers even if they had no work for them at the time. (Only the Shchekino experiment tried to change this, but it was incompatible with planning).

      My guess is that many of the same factors (in less extreme form) occur in the US (e.g., laws against firing workers ‘without cause’ that make it hard to fire them at all; the number of workers and funds for wages may be controlled making it hard to eliminate unnecessary positions, etc), but that in the US, like in the Soviet Union, there are certain kinds of positions for which there are (generally other bureaucrats) who can fire the incumbent.

    • Anton Tykhyy says:

      Ah, I see. Because they essentially have due process protections, US civil servants (except political appointees and a few other classes) cannot be summarily fired as non-unionized company employees can be. I think there was something analogous in the S.U. — party disciplinary commissions to which it was possible theoretically to appeal, party by-laws etc. — but the party wielded more raw power because, the system being totalitarian, it could make anyone’s life miserable and ruin them professionally even without involving the KGB.
      I wonder what kind of thinking in a US civil servant (in extended sense) would elicit the kind of rejection reaction from the due-process authorities which, for instance, demands of real democracy elicited in the Communist Party of good ol’ USSR.

  12. eaterofshrimp says:

    This exactly describes my experience of working in government. The only difference I would add derives from my working in local government, in a department regulating land use: bureaucrats are occasionally accountable to citizens (probably only in small communities) that act like complete assholes and have the patience and resources to eventually commandeer some attention from the office. But I only saw that happen a few times and it took people with both monomaniacal focus on their pet issue as well as the resources to hire a lawyer. The employee this gets directed towards is of course not really accountable in the sense that he stands to lose his job, but the irritation that the citizen complaint can cause for others in the department will be just about the only thing that will ever conceivably make his work life stressful.

    I would also add that a major force underlying bureaucratic inertia is the instinct to cover one’s ass. This seemed to be 98% of whatever actual activity gets produced. The remainder is annoying chit chat and internet use. (I discovered and read the complete archives of Moldbug, for instance, on the clock.)

    Eventually quit, though. Couldn’t accommodate my personality to it.

  13. [...] On government employment « Foseti Regulations are now, by any serious metric, more important than laws. Regulations are written and implemented by agencies, often with little or no judicial oversight. Modern laws aren’t even really laws anymore, they’re just lists of regulations that Congress hopes agencies will implement. (tags: politics law regulation) [...]

  14. jamccain says:

    Another civil servant here…in the DoD.

    I can attest to all of this as true in my workplace. One thing which makes accountability decrease is everyone knows the timeline of a leadership change. Military/elected leaders are on a set schedule (2-4 years in a position). When a leader is nearing their move, up to a year out, people start to tune the leader out altogether. Stalling is another method to avoid doing whatever it is they want to do that you don’t want to do. New leader=new priorities and you’re back to square one.

    The federal employment systems have tried at least three major efforts to improve accountability within federal service with merit incentives…all have been defeated. Civil service is too powerful, we have unions too, to be forced to perform.

    Like AJ said, I have seen some groups take more advantage of this than others, but even I am guilty of it on some level. I think at some point human nature just says, “We make the rules here.” and you start to ignore leadership to a point. BTW, it’s exhausting with new leadership all the time.

    AC…I hear ya!!! I’m waiting for the union to approve the organizations tele-work plan, but as soon as that happens I’m going to be out of the office as much as possible. I don’t see it hurting my productivity at all. Won’t be able to hire VCs though because the IT systems are protected. If it wasn’t for that I’d be semi-retired in my early 30’s. I am actually very productive by public sector standards if anyone was wondering, seriously.

    One point I do make is I do not believe government employees are overpaid like politicians have recently claimed. I am a GS13, but at the 14, 15 and SES levels those people top out around $150K and that’s not much cash for the level of budget and supervisory responsibility they have. The private sector equivalent could easily make double or triple what a GS15 makes if not more in some cases.

    I could go on all day about this….

    • asdf says:

      They are overpaid when you correct for the fact that their job is (a) totally secure and (b) in most cases results solely in the destruction of wealth (exhibit A being the goons at the FDA, who recently went to such extremes with the 510k process that they got called out by Stanford!).

      The correct compensation for most bureaucrats should be paid from them to us, in the original sense of the term “compemsation for damages done”.

    • Doug1 says:

      Yeah but your work and productivity levels are MUCH lower, and your job security much higher. So too are your benefits.

  15. Dan Kurt says:

    re: “There are really only two areas I think we can credit the bureaucratic system with doing some good that the old regime might not have delivered:

    – 1970s onward pollution control. One of the few good achievements of environmental bureaucracy, and I come from a coal state. Things are better. ” CONRAD

    Not true. My family is from Pittsburgh, PA and I grew up hearing of the horrendous pollution ( Air and Water ) of the region during the first half of the 20th Century with constant smogs, coal dust every where and rivers with no fish. By the 1950s when I was a boy I could fish in the Ohio and Allegheny rivers North of Pittsburgh and take up amateur astronomy because the skys were clear because the billowing smoke stacks had been cleaned by using electrostatic precipitation technology. My own family home had converted ( without government coaxing ) from polluting Coal Heat to clean Natural Gas when the gas lines came through our neighborhood just as one summer when I returned from summer camp I found that our dreaded party line phone had been replaced by a Dial phone because the telephone company had built out a more robust network in our neighborhood. The bulk of the environmental improvement in Pittsburgh predated the 1970s.

    Dan Kurt

  16. Kalim Kassam says:

    Mencius-lanche! Is there such a thing?

  17. [...] stumbled upon an interesting description of what it’s like to work as a government bureaucrat. Some people might be outraged, but a [...]

  18. [...] answers his reader’s questions (including mine) on what it’s like to work for the government. Very interesting answers, and [...]

  19. Adrian Meli says:

    Great post! Now please go fix it all…best of luck to you – Adrian Meli

  20. Brian says:

    I disagree that you cannot get fired. True, it is difficult, but the only thing holding back a boss is the fear of a lengthy lawsuit. If the boss has guts and the evidence to back it up it is very possible to fire someone. Also, every year we do appraisals. In our agency, you do not get a step increase unless you get an outstanding rating, which you have to earn. Then again, if your a lazy ass person content with as GS5 or 7 and do the bare minimum then that is your prerogative. If you want to advance, which everyone I work with does, you have to work hard and show that you go beyond your current level.

    Every agency is different though. Our agency is small and strapped for cash so we run efficiently.

  21. Genius says:

    I just heard John Derbyshire talking about this excellent post at length on his podcast “Radio Derb.” He found it from Moldbug’s link.

    Foseti, you should take some care to disguise your identity a little bit besides just not using your name here.

  22. rcharbon says:

    This may be true, but it’s still crap. My experience as a government contractor matches what’s posted here. But then again, my experience in any large organization, government or private, matches.

    You, Foseti, should be ashamed. First, it’s easy to post something like this when it’s anonymous. Who knows if you actually work in the government or if you do, what you actually do? Maybe this is just more Tea Party propaganda.

    Second, if it’s such an awful situation, then why do you keep the job? How do you live with yourself?

    If you actually believe this stuff, take a stand. Don’t hide behind an anonymous blog post and pretend that will make a difference.

    • Foseti says:

      If telling the truth should bring shame, I hope to always live in shame.

      Did I really say it was an awful situation? I don’t think you’re really understanding what I wrote.

      • Genius says:

        @rcharbon, I can confirm that Foseti does work for a financial agency like he says, or at least someone has given him the opportunity to surf the internet (and access my blog) during business hours from one of their computers.

        Also, I think that it’d be wrong to assume that the above account is meant to be read as critical, though it’s apparent what Foseti’s thoughts about government are. He’s a formalist, not a conservative, and he’s describing how power works as an insider, not railing against it as an outsider.

  23. joe f. says:

    I think you should have put “In my experience in my agency…” before every paragraph, at least. I have seen people fired. I’ve seen people forced to retire. I’ve seen people put on performance improvement plans that were so uncomfortable they got their asses to work.

    The difference, of course, is leadership. I work within DoD and while it’s certainly not universal, many leaders are unwilling to accept less than adequate performance in support of the troops. Many have had very difficult leadership problems, and getting a lazy civilian to work is not that hard. It just takes time, attention to detail and solid leadership. The processes are all in place, people are either reluctant to use them (lack of backbone); the process of actually closely supervising someone, holding them to a standard and documenting their performance is too time-consuming/tedious/much work/whatever; or they can’t be bothered to hold everyone to the standard, including themselves, which is a necessary part of really dropping the hammer on someone.

    The DoD can also move what I call an institutional pace at times. Not a lot recently, obviously, because we’re at war. But you have to wonder if that isn’t a good thing sometimes. After all, our government was set up to govern less. Nobody wants to pay a guy to sit around for weeks not doing a lot, but on the other hand, I’ve been around guys who were always finding something to do whether something needed doing or not (usually to fluff up their evaluations), and they often caused as much trouble as they did good. You can think of it as a retainer like a lawyer, or a clerk who doesn’t work until somebody wants something, but either way, you don’t want certain kinds of people (such as regulation writers_ fiddling with things or inventing new things to do just because he’s not busy. People understand this with firemen, police and the military in addition to lawyers on retainer and store clerks.

    That said, if there is work to do the burden falls on the guy accepting the pay to be a leader to make them do it.

    • icr says:

      Not a lot recently, obviously, because we’re at war.

      “Recently” being the last ten years.

      Actually, the US has been in a state of more or less permanent warfare since the days when FDR had a ten-point plan to provoke the Japanese to “fire the first” shot while he was simultaneously ordering the US Navy to cooperate with the Brits in hunting down German ships in the North Atlantic.

      Evola was quite a prophet:

      http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/4371

      (…)
      In its conclusion, Evola’s Revolt forecasts a new “dark age,” for which his preferred term is the Vedic Kali Yuga. America will assimilate the crusading impulse of Soviet communism and will begin to try to universalize its destructive pseudo-values through imperialistic aggression; the Imperium will be a short-lived calamity leading to global wreckage. When Evola speaks thusly in 1934, one listens, and dismissing him becomes difficult.
      (…)

      • joe f. says:

        Well, I joined the Army in 1975, so 2001 is fairly recent. I spent the first part of my career between the end of the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. Despite the “permanent war” you speak of, not a lot happened during that time for your average soldier.

        As for Evola (and I haven’t read TFA), nothing is easier than predicting the fall of civilization. We continue to love the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic things, but the damn world keeps getting better despite all that. I think it was Neal Stephenson (though I may be wrong) who wrote about this. Everyone looks back to a golden age and bemoans our current state and how it will inevitably lead to the Fall. But things keep getting better. Look at China. Look at India. The modern world is pushing its way in, and while it won’t be perfect, it’ll a lot better. Look at where your clothes were made and look up how the average person in those countries *really* lived 100 years ago. Being a textile worker may suck, but it sucks less.

        I think I would agree with his foreign policy, however. We need to listen to Washington about entangling alliances and mind our own knitting. The oil crisis in the ’70s should have pushed us in that direction. Instead we decided we needed to control oil, not control our need for it. I’ve lived overseas in various areas for about 18 years, and I think certain parts of our policy are like the teenage jock who finds out he’s going to lose his girl. He could woo her back, he could say fine, I love you so I’ll set you free, or he could simply look for other girls. Instead, he tries to hold on more tightly and ends up becoming a stalker.

        The thing is — much like your comment about us being in a permanent state of war — that’s how things go in the world. The world is always at war. People with power almost always try to tighten their grip instead of doing what’s smart. So your charge is essentially that we’re human. Guilty. Maybe some day we’ll get that apocalypse everyone seems to want and you can be happy. But I’m betting we’ll get a lot more of the same: crappy conditions seemingly on the brink, but steady progress for all that.

      • joe f. says:

        nothing is easier than predicting the fall of civilization. We continue to love the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic things, but the damn world keeps getting better despite all that

        Civilizations fall infrequently, governments rather more frequently. That which cannot continue, will end.

        We have had democracy based on universal franchise for about a hundred years. It is failing.

    • sconzey says:

      Dude. This comments thread is properly heroic. Really really interesting stuff.

      People understand [that sometimes we must pay someone to do nothing] with firemen, police and the military in addition to lawyers on retainer and store clerks.

      Really good point and probably true for places like the DoD and FEMA. The problems are twofold:
      1. Many of these agencies just straight up shouldn’t exist. Here in the UK we have the Potato Council and the Milk Board. There are no plausible scenarios in which the potato-crats at the Potato Council must suddenly spring into action and save the world.
      2. Even in places like FEMA and the DoD we agree that there should be times when the workload is light, and times when the workload is heavy. But does the organisation actually behave in this way? Are the people who should be active, active when they should be?

      • joe f. says:

        Is this a trick question? You used the word people, and then asked a question if things work they way they should.

        Jokes aside, the answer is generally yes where I am, but the work does not fall as uniformly as it should within the organizations. I’ve said for years that the work falls to the people who will do it. So it comes down to leadership and organizational culture, which I guess could certainly be influenced by whether or not your organization should exist. I know some people who wish the U.S. Army didn’t exist, but nobody inside it feels that way.

        And I wouldn’t write off the potato and milk guys yet. One of the problems I have with the anti-regulation, let’s-go-back-to-1776 crowd is that it is a vastly different world. You can’t drive to the source of your food in a day anymore. Or sometimes even drive there at all. And as we’re finding out, most famously with a few things coming out of China, you need to have somebody checking. OK, maybe you don’t *need* to, but I would argue you certainly want somebody checking, and I’m willing to pay for them to exist.

  24. [...] This article says nothing about education — or educating talented and gifted math students in general.  Then again, since it’s about the way government functions, it certainly pertains to education. [...]

  25. [...] and International Jews”Foseti – “My Neighborhood is Betatastic“, “On Government Employment”Johnny Dissidence – “The Foaming Tiber of American Mediocrity”Simon Grey [...]

  26. icr says:

    Not a lot recently, obviously, because we’re at war.

    “Recently” being the last ten years.

    Actually, the US has been in a state of more or less permanent warfare since the days when FDR had a ten-point plan to provoke the Japanese to “fire the first” shot while he was simultaneously ordering the US Navy to cooperate with the Brits in hunting down German ships in the North Atlantic.

    Evola was quite a prophet:

    http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/4371

    (…)
    In its conclusion, Evola’s Revolt forecasts a new “dark age,” for which his preferred term is the Vedic Kali Yuga. America will assimilate the crusading impulse of Soviet communism and will begin to try to universalize its destructive pseudo-values through imperialistic aggression; the Imperium will be a short-lived calamity leading to global wreckage. When Evola speaks thusly in 1934, one listens, and dismissing him becomes difficult.
    (…)

  27. [...] spare time to write an often stimulating blog. We especially enjoyed his recent Q&A “On government employment“. Here are a few [...]

  28. Samson says:

    A career with the government is the only remaining way to achieve a stable middle to upper-middle class existence in the US.

    Medicine? It’s still pretty good, at least in Canada.

    Here’s a serious question, Big F; I had no idea of your employment circumstance and I’d really love an answer to this one: You argue that most of the real, relevant rule-making is done by agencies, not elected bodies. Could one view this as a good thing?

    I’m thinking of a situation in which, for example, very few people elected to office are members of Group A, but most of the citizenry are Group A. In this hypothetical, Group A seems outwardly to have little political power – unless we realize that behind the scenes, most government agencies (which make the real rules) have significant Group A representation. If you’re a Group A member in this situation, you might be inclined to be glad that agencies staffed with “your” people are calling the shots.

    Thoughts? Would you argue that it’s effectively the reverse – that it’s the agencies that are non-representative while the masses elect fairly powerless officials that they believe to be “their” people?

  29. CatoTheElder says:

    Screwing up in a highly sensitive government job get a bureaucrat promoted, not fired! It’s no wonder, then, that government screws up so consistently.

    “Promotions after Mistakes for CIA Agents”

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/02/09/national/main20031127.shtml?tag=stack

  30. Anon E Mous says:

    I found this post to be a very interesting read. Thank you for putting it up. I have several comments/questions for you and other commentators to consider/answer.
    1) You seem to put a lot of stock in the ability to fire employees and the motivational forces of secure employment. I don’t doubt that these are legitimate concerns. I wanted to ask if you thought that government employees are generally happier than private sector workers? If so, is this necessarily a bad thing?
    2) you mention the idea of industry capture. what would you suggest to guard against? As discussed in your post this usually leads to deferential rules b/c of a lack of information. Would you say this is more pronounced at the bureaucratic level than in Congress? When Congress is writing a new bill how much influence do people within the agency have in the language vs private industry?
    3) like many commentators im troubled by your assertion that elected officials wield limited power over the bureaucracy. But im not sure im fully comprehending your point. Is your argument that a) Congress/President should be more involved in the day-to-day or b) that it is kinda weird the bureaucracy is not as responsive to political change but it is better than letting political winds dictate? or c) something else entirely?
    4) piggybacking on the previous, are there some areas of the bureaucracy that are more affected by who is in power than others? for example, prioritizing goals (eg prosecuting white collar vs drug dealers)?; staffing certain offices instead of others within the agency (Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization vs Security)?
    5) again piggybacking on the previous, is it so crazy to have career people with significant institutional knowledge in place to help operate the government? they can better advise the elected folks on why some ideas might be illegal or the rationale that lead to a decision in a previous administration and why it is still correct now.

    Thanks again for the great post. (im sorry to say i have not taken the time to look at the rest of your blog but will do so now.)

  31. Observer1,000,000 says:

    I work for a private company — gov’t contractor –inside the FedGov. What you said about funding is 100 percent right. Government is like cancer: It just wants to grow and grow, mindlessly. It seems that there are no effective constraints on the governmet’s size — except economic collaps!

  32. [...] they’re the ones who are going to write the regulations. Don’t believe me? Go read something written by a government bureaucrat. What, did you actually think they work for the little guy? They don’t: not any more than [...]

  33. [...] sent over a great blog called Foseti.  The author has spent years working in government, and a recent, entertaining post answers FAQs about working in the belly of a large bureaucracy.  Before diving into the specifics, [...]

  34. [...] bureaucratic apparatus constraining the power of POTUS–that is, the administers. Foseti made this point quite well: The vast majority of the employees of the government, like me, are unelected and – [...]

  35. [...] and who mostly work as cogs in the wheel, either in the private sector, or in quite a few cases, for the very government so many of them decry as the ruination of our entire way of life. Although there are obvious [...]

  36. Free Man says:

    Someone who has worked for the government since college has no valid opinions on anything. What does ‘hard-working’ mean to a government drone?

    Government jobs are welfare.

  37. Pseudo-Anonymous Coward says:

    Could you conceive of an aggressive individual becoming President in the next couple of decades, since obviously it’s not going to be one of the current crop, who does a large power grab and also meddles severely with the bureaucracy? Do you think if that could even happen, the end result would likely be something better than what we have now?

  38. If a president was to make a power grab against the bureaucracy, it would be a huge improvement. Even the most left wing politician is far to the right of the unelected and fireproof bureaucracy.

    But remember, a power grab against the bureaucracy is going to look like, and is in fact going to be, McCarthyism times one thousand. The screams of outrage would be extraordinary, and such a grab would resemble a military coup, or denazification, or nazification.

  39. [...] Here’s a recounting at the federal level. As I’ve worked at municipal level, I can say that it’s pretty relevant at the local or county level too. “On government employment.“ [...]

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  42. Alrenous says:

    I have some questions. Yes, it really takes me this long to analyze things like this.

    Would it be better to post them here or email them to you? They’re going to run pretty long, in case that matters.

  43. Alrenous says:

    Cool.

    I’m hoping to be able to construct at least a caricature model of what happens, so I need an example. I’m thinking Romney/Obamacare with maybe a dash of SOPA.

    My main question is, what have I got wrong? The explicit questions are:
    * How does Romney come up with the plan of spreading Romneycare? Does he hear about it from a bureaucrat? I would guess that even if he does have an idea, he can’t spread it without permission, on pain of media death.
    * Is it usual that the most influential higher-ups are the highest non-elected official, or does it vary?
    * Do the higher-ups shoot down proposals as well, or do they usually accept them? Does this have to do with crafting it to be palatable to their interests?
    * What forces the compromise? Presumably other stakeholders can veto the drafts, but why does that work? Do they have a credible threat to back it up?
    * When coming up with a new thing to propose disaster about, do bureaucrats sometimes follow the lead of someone? For example, would one read Yglesias and suddenly decide he has a fine idea for a new rule proposition? Or perhaps all the leaders are themselves bureaucrats – does DC have something like an English pub, where you can go to let the in-crowd tell you what it wants done?
    * SOPA was apparently defeated by massive backlash, but I have to check – was there a powerful interest group simply using this for a smokescreen? (The bureaucracy makes mistakes sometimes, like anyone else.)
    * Who decides a budget goes up or down? How do those rules get put into place? Sorry I can’t ask a more specific question here, my understanding is very fuzzy.
    * Who needs to be told of new regs so that enforcement begins without embarrassments?
    * What needs to happen to make a jail term or property seizure legal and legitimate? Once the right to write regulations is done, can the writer simply say, “noncompliance results in seizure of regulated material,” and be confident cops will do exactly that? Perhaps they refer to more general legislation having to do with disobedience? Failure to pay fines or something?

    Someone like you asked one of the higher-up bureaucrats to start writing the X-care document, citing the collapse of the nation’s health. The proposal gets green-lit and they go ahead with the writing.

    (Not trying to get the timeline exactly right, just pinning something down for the example.)

    The drafts are passed around to other, similar agencies, who threaten to veto if their amendments are not included. (Self-serving, naturally, using present leverage to increase future leverage.) Negotiation ensues. It starts with the original writer but soon other in-agency allies get involved, eventually drawing in a massive crowd of cooks from all over the place.

    Once it looks like negotiations are going to be successful, congresscritters are brought in. They may also have heard about it through the grapevine, but at this point it starts to get official. The set phrase “the new legislation” by journalists refers to congresscritters or equivalents getting behind this papers, which already has bureaucratic momentum.

    Is this typically how it gets to Romney in the first place? He reads the brief detailing why it is important – most likely written by someone with at least 10 IQ points on him – and is convinced. He ‘steals’ the credit w.r.t the public, which the original writer sees as meat-shielding. Maybe he even forgets what influenced him originally, and genuinely thinks it is his own idea.

    Voters, while extremely marginalized, have not entirely been discounted. The meat-shields complain to the bureaucrats that they can’t shield from that much fire, and the bureaucrat has no choice but to either take accountability or let the issue slide for the moment.

    However, if the meat-shields don’t run out of meat, eventually negotiations end. If successful, congress votes. If they vote wrong, it gets sent back until they do it right – but this is rarely necessary, as congresscritters are extremely predictable in their voting.

    I understand that at this point, the document still won’t be entirely done – it will grant the right to write regulations to particular agencies, who will assign it to particular people. These people are restricted by what their bosses will sign, which is in turn restricted by what will increase their budget.

    Can I get a couple examples of how budgets get increased or decreased?

    Finally, enforcement ensues. A memo is sent to…who? I would guess cop shops are more or less told only in extreme examples, and then only, “Subject or corporation A has violated rule N which you can find in Act X. Arrest them.” Because Act X can be easily verified to exist, cops know it is extremely likely to exist without having to check, and poor subject A gets arrested.

    So is it sent to regulatory bodies, who then inform the corporations who have been forced to subscribe to them? I would guess compliance is spotty at first and regulators are magnanimous. At first. As long as the corporations doesn’t vote republican.

    In the case of non-compliance, they pass down fines, and then if the fines aren’t paid, they escalate to criminal charges and seizing of goods.

    So, myth of the regulation. How it goes from gleam in someone’s eye to someone else behind bars, minus cluttering details.
    Or so I understand thus far.

    • Foseti says:

      * Like most big policy ideas, I believe Romneycare originated at a think tank. Someone in academia is usually the source of new policy ideas. Probably the next biggest originator of large scale policy ideas is the industry being regulated – note that to get their ideas supported, they have to conduct academic-style studies.

      * Generally the most powerful person at an agency is a non-elected official, but it can very. The power struggles are quite entertaining.

      * Proposals get shot down all the time. Bureaucrats best weapon is time. The idea for Romneycare has been around for a long time. If bureaucrats like an idea, all we really have to do is wait. Eventually it’ll happen.

      * In my experiene most compromise is driven by other bureaucrats. The FDA may want a certain healthcare regulation while Medicare and Medicaid want something different.

      * Bureaucrats love to defer to “science.” Do an official looking study, and you’re set. The media has a role to play as well. A well-publicized study is a sure thing.

      * SOPA was defeated, but the idea hasn’t gone away. Be patient.

      * For lots of agencies, budgets are set by Congress. Many other agencies are funded through fees, etc they charge. The latter agencies are better places to work. The former agencies spend about 1/3 of their time preparing materials to put before Congress to argue for more money. I can’t think of an agency having its funding reduced.

      * Regulations must be proposed according to law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Administrative_Procedure_Act

      * Depends on the agency and the regulation. In general, courts have been relatively deferential to agencies, which generally enforce their own regulations. The EPA, for example, writes environmental regulations and enforces them. If you don’t like their decision, you have to go to court.

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  45. [...] Foseti with an oldie, but goodie on government employment. [...]

  46. Aw, this was a very good post. Taking the time and
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  47. […] immigration reform” could theoretically take many forms. In the reality of modern USG (or here, if you prefer something not from me), it can mean only one […]

  48. […] the Flak Catchers – Tom Wolfe Public Choice: An Introduction – Iain McLean On Government Employment – Foseti (blog post) Yes, Minister – TV […]

  49. Alrenous says:

    It follows that the most powerful people in America today are science journal editors.

    So, MS Paint Adventures, famous for Homestuck. The guy wrote a story based on reader suggestions, but after not many strips, he was getting 1000 suggestions and it always included whatever he felt like doing, so it was a non-restriction.

    America produces the most scientific papers per capita.

    Combine the Homestuck principle with the fact that bureaucrats do what science says, and it reduces to bureaucrats do what journal editors say, as ranked by prestige.

    I plan to post this elsewhere once I’ve given you a chance to tell me I’m wrong.

  50. […] created the mess we have now: bureaucracy, that post-democratic system of government “in which most of the […]

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