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