This is your government

Devin asked for some additional details on how the bureaucracy actually runs the government. I’ve been meaning to write down some thoughts on this subject for a long time.

I should start by noting that I can’t do a better job than Yes Minister. I watched the series with my wife who thought it was funny. Apparently it’s supposed to be funny, but it struck me as entirely accurate. The series was based on this guy’s memoirs. I haven’t read the memoirs, but I can’t imagine a better place to begin learning about our actual political system.

By way of background. I am a GS-14 and have been working for the government since 2003 after graduating from college. So, I’ve got almost 7 years of government work under my belt and I’m getting awfully close the best job in the world – a GS-15. In my day-to-day work, I interact with 4 or 5 government agencies other than my own. I also have friends that work for a couple other agencies. Most of my own experience is with the financial agencies though I have several friends that work at the health agencies. (These friends are actually my wife’s friends – they would disagree with my cynical take on what I’m about to say, but not with any of the particulars).

The first thing to realize about government service is that even in the most momentous election, a tiny fraction of government workers actually change jobs. A few hundred politicians and their staff and perhaps the heads of most of the agencies would lose their job after a significant electoral shift. At most, a few hundred people lose their job out of a total staff out of 1.8 million. In no other bureaucracy would anyone consider the removal of 0.01% of the bureaucracy a major change.

The second thing to realize is that during the vast majority of times, no one cares about what a particular government agency is doing. Right now, people are focused on healthcare and finance, but the interest will die down soon enough.

The third thing to realize is that the heads of agencies are – more often than not – good at politics, not running a bureaucracy. Most often, the heads of minor agencies are chosen because they were good at raising money for the President during the election. At bigger agencies, the heads might be experts, but often that is not the case even in high-profile times. This fact means that the head of the agency doesn’t really run the agency. The head is basically told what to say by permanent staffers.

The fourth thing to realize is that the vast majority of government decisions are on very specific topics which the average head of an agency knows nothing about. From a political perspective, two results are possible: 1) the head of the agency makes the right decision and no one knows or cares or 2) he makes the wrong decision and he gets fired and sent back to Oregon (or where ever). How is the head of the agency going to find out what the right answer is? Ask the bureaucracy.

Generally the bureaucracy provides two to three choices. Choice A is the choice of the bureaucracy. Much scientific sounding language about the benefits of this choice are included. A few token cons are included, generally related to burden on companies. Choice B is any other option floating around in the educated public opinion that the bureaucracy doesn’t like. This choice is called “risky” (“brave” in the words of Yes Minister). That’s generally enough to make it unacceptable to the head of an agency. Choice C (if offered) mirrors choice B.

Given these constraints, even the most effective heads of agencies often only change one or two things during their tenure. For example, a past head of one of the agencies I work with decided that he wanted to reduce the staffing of the agency. After several years of working on this, he managed to freeze hiring and offer generous buyouts to employees that were about to leave anyway. These actions temporarily reduced staff – at least until he left, now staff levels are back to where they were. The net result was that the government paid a lot of people to leave who would have left in the next few years anyway. But, he got to declare victory. The bureaucracy wins.

The day in the life of the head of an agency is very busy. He or she is shuttled from one activity to another. Generally the bureaucracy tells him or her what to say in all these situations. I get to write little statements for the head of my agency all the time. This busy schedule also serves to keep the head of the agency from actually accomplishing anything.

The fifth thing to realize is best realized by observing the recent “monumental” pieces of legislation that have passed. Where did Congressmen get 2,000 pages of laws on healthcare reform or financial reform? . . . If you answered that they slaved over a computer to write 2,000 pages, you’re wrong. They asked the bureaucracy for it. Your humble blogger wrote the first draft of an amendment in one of the recent mega-bills, for example.

The sixth thing to realize is an addendum to the fifth. If you read the recent mega-bills you’ll see a strange thing. Congress isn’t actually legislating most of the changes. In most cases, Congress lays some vague ground rules and mandates that agencies actually write the rules. Thus, the bills serve, first and foremost, to give power to the agencies.

The take-away here should be that in the vast majority of cases, elections do not change who runs agencies. If they do, they do so only nominally, as the permanent employees tell the temporary employee what to think. Agencies generally work with little or no supervision. Even when agencies receive attention, the system is designed to reward them with additional power which they will generally choose to exercise at a later date when no one is paying attention.

Finally, it’s important to fully grasp the idea that employees cannot he fired. This realization leads to some obvious, but not often fully grasped, conclusions. For example, how would your relationship with your boss change if he couldn’t fire you? I suspect it would change dramatically.

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12 Responses to This is your government

  1. aretae says:

    Fabulous post. I don’t think 3 cheers is enough.

  2. jkr says:

    best thing you’ve written that i’ve read so far. really interesting stuff.

  3. Awesome! Stellar post. Thanks a bunch!

    Finally, it’s important to fully grasp the idea that employees cannot he fired.

    I was trying to tell my friend this, but he didn’t actually believe me. And my friend actually works as a Senate staffer. He believed that agency heads did have the power to fire subordinates. Is there any source you know that more fully explains the inability of the democratic government to fire subordinates? Is it actually that they have zero power to fire, or do they have to document and prove cause (which of course can be arbitrarily hard, as the civil servants can protect each other)?

    A little while ago, I was trying to imagine what someone like Ronald Reagan could have done if he actually understood the nature of federal power. What if instead of trying to go through Congress, he just issued an executive order commanding his cabinet minister to lay off all employees of the Department of Education. Would this have been illegal? Could Reagan in turn have claimed that the civil service laws were an unconstitutional restriction on executive authority? I imagine in the end it would come down to a contest of public opinion, Reagan would have really had to have his political guns lined up in order to win.

    To play devil’s advocate –

    Even in most corporations CEO’s don’t really make decisions – they get handed choices by their subordinates, and usually the subordinates will lead the CEO one way or another. For instance, in my company the CEO is not technical, so if we tell him we need to spend time rewriting feature X, he has to believe us. Or we can give him multiple choices that force him to act the right way.

    What makes it work is that we do have an incentive to make the choice we want him to pick actually be the right choice. It’s not good for us if we totally screw up a decision.

    The civil service can work the same way. The civil servants want to come up with a good decision, because they do not want a screw up and get a lot of political heat. So there ends up being a balance between accountability and not having a spoils system.

    • Satanam in computatrum says:

      Devin – I would suspect that the main difference is, at the end of the day, the CEO has to be able to show the shareholders a profit. I’m totally guessing here, though. Also – political heat generally creates an increase in the bureaucracy’s budget, with maybe a few sacrificial lambs fired, only to be quietly rehired (or contracted as a consultant) later.

  4. Buckethead says:

    I’ve never been a government worker, but i’ve been a contractor (IT) for several of the larger agencies over the last decade. What Foseti says exactly mirrors my experience. The fact that civil service employees basically have life tenure really effects how things work – most of the troubles I’ve had revolve around resolve around resolving turf battles and status pissing matches because unlike them, my livelihood depends on measurable output.

    Like the old crack about academic infighting being so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small, bureacratic infighting is depressing to watch.

    I’ve always been amazed by the traditions of lateral promotions and being ‘retired in place’ things like that are far less common in the private sector.

  5. Borepatch says:

    This is the most depressing thing I’ve read all year.

  6. […] a government employee Devin asked for some elaboration on what it means when I said that federal employees can’t be […]

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  9. […] – “This is Your Government“, “Why I Am Not a Libertarian“, “Firing a Government Employee“, […]

  10. […] I’ve talked about Yes, Minister before. So has Moldbug. […]

  11. […] evidence, Moldbug offered me this great link on how the bureaucracy actually works, and how unresponsive it is to politics: The first thing to realize about government service is […]

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