Friday, May 8, 2015

Technology, Austerity and Government Morale

Someone who feels bad, vilified even without having done anything wrong, ignored and/or marginalized by reason of their employment is probably not going to be a happy and productive worker. But in today’s highly politicized and polarized environment, where Congressional committees focus on wrongdoers but almost never address or support those who are doing their jobs well, morale among government workers is hitting a new low. It gets worse when a legislative body slashes and burns your opesrating budget (reducing staff, money for tech upgrades and failing to take your desperate recommendations into consideration), and then castigates your department for not doing your job.
Technology also takes its toll on the jobs themselves. For example, when I was a Foreign Service brat decades ago, diplomats in the field made key decisions as to how to implement the President’s and the Secretary of State’s policy vectors in the countries to which they were posted. But with an encrypted Internet, documents able to fly back and forth in an instant, those in the field have to clear everything they do with the desk officers in Washington (or simply follow directives from such political appointees without question). The nuances of being in the field, recommendations from locally-posted Foreign Service Officers, get lost in translation. So many foreign policy missteps can be directly traced to decisions made by such political appointees against the advice of those in the field. And with the role of officers in the field diminished, morale has never been lower.
The general and growing animosity among the public towards what is often viewed as an out-of-control governmental bureaucracy is a major morale killer as well. The game playing among budget creators is now legendary. We have managed to increase the cost of government by shifting functions that were once part of government operations to vastly more expensive “contractors.” For example, guarding embassies and diplomatic personnel used to be within the purview of very competent Marines; now we see contractors who charge a multiple of the cost of such military personnel. But the personnel budgets look better because we cut staffing. That we replaced such staffing with costlier contractors is more easily buried in a big national budget.
Government agencies often go on a spending spree at the end of their fiscal year, when it looks like they are not using up their annual legislative allocation, for fear of having their budgets cut permanently, while other agencies do not have enough to operate as required. And when faced with a loss of control in their daily lives, they often substitute distorted reporting to maximize their own bonuses at the expense of operational cash. Fearing legislative inquiry at any changes, the press “not to rock the boat” becomes a sacred mandate.
Looking a recent government report, we can look at exit polls as people leave their government sinecures for some of the answers:  “Seventy percent of federal senior executives who left their positions said in response to an exit survey that no effort had been made to encourage them to stay. However, 37 percent said an increase in pay might have changed their minds, 24 percent said a performance-based or other award would have helped, and 20 percent said the same of a retention incentive payment.
“Even no-cost steps such as ‘verbal encouragement to stay based on your value to the organization’ would have encouraged a quarter, as would have ‘greater engagement from senior leadership.’ Better work-life balance and increased autonomy in decision-making were cited by nearly as many… Twenty-eight percent, though, agreed that ‘nothing would have encouraged me to stay.’” The Washington Post, May 4th.
But looking at exit surveys in recent years, one particular reason for dissatisfaction reigns supreme: “The Office of Personnel Management recently released SES Exit Survey Results, reflecting the responses of 221 senior executives, from 24 agencies, who participated in the survey from April 2013 through July 2014.
“One of the most troubling lines in the report said: ‘Work environment issues are the highest contributing factors in an executive’s decision to leave.’… The single largest factor for leaving cited by these top federal employees was the ‘political environment.’ It was blamed as a contributing factor ‘to a great extent’ or ‘to a very great extent’ by 42 percent of those surveyed. There was a three-way tie for second place, among ‘senior leadership,’ ‘organizational culture’ and a ‘desire to enjoy life without work commitments.’ The Washington Post, May 5th.
It seems that in most things government, common sense has left the building. The “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is equally missing. As Americans rail against categories of human beings – whether it is racism or perhaps what I shall call “bureaucratism” – without regards to personal qualifications or failings, we hurt ourselves. To generate the kind of commitment most government employees are prepared to give (if they don’t already), we really need to add common sense and humanity to the mix. We might just get more efficient government as a result instead of rewarding those who game the system the best.
I’m Peter Dekom, and angry politicians armed with immutable slogans appear to be more destructive to our country than the worst governmental bureaucrats they attack.

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