Monday, October 20, 2008

January 21st

On the day after the next President of the United States takes the oath of office, he will come face to face with a disconcerting fact: The United States Civil Service is largely broken. Whatever grand plans he may have or whatever crisis may need addressing, he will start out in a hole because the people he will need to enact his orders are demoralized, poorly led or -- simply -- not there.

Since Ronald Reagan declared our government to be our problem, the Civil Service has been on a long, downhill slide. You can’t call people a problem and expect them to be motivated. If government wasn’t already the problem, Reagan and his disciples made sure it became the problem. They told us that government didn’t work and set about making it true.

It isn’t a problem that makes the nightly news. You won’t hear either of the candidates talk about it but in passing. But it is there if you look for it. It was even in the paper last week but I bet you didn’t see it.

State of Civil Service No Cause for Celebration

”This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, but don't expect any gala celebrations.

The Coalition for Effective Change, an organization of current and retired federal managers and professionals, did hold a forum to mark the occasion yesterday, but it was hardly a festive affair.

In fact, featured speaker Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, began the day by announcing: "The state of the federal service is not good." “

It should be obvious to anyone but a first-time reader that I was part of the Civil Service. And while I think it should be obvious to my readers that the Federal Aviation Administration is a poster child for all that is wrong in Civil Service, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can take Professor Light’s.

”"I see significant morale problems, problems with ratings of leadership of agencies, the quality of appointments, staffing shortages just about everywhere on the front lines," he said in an interview after this talk.

"I'm very concerned that we are not investing in actual delivery of service."

For examples, he cited the length of time it takes to review claims for Social Security disability and veterans benefits, or problems with food safety inspections and in the air traffic control system.“

Take a few seconds to dwell on the fact that the United States Government has recently bought a large portion of the U.S. banking system. Who will oversee this investment ? Who is looking after your money ? When you consider the sheer magnitude of the job -- let alone the complexity of it (derivatives anyone ?) -- you have to wonder where the Federal Government is finding the bodies to handle the work, much less the expertise.

When it comes to air traffic control, you can’t go out and hire any expertise. What you see is what you’ve got. As I explained in The Morning After, the National Airspace System is human centered (as it should be.) You can’t go out and buy controllers, technicians and air traffic supervisors. You have to build them. And that is a slow process indeed.

If you are an air traffic controller -- especially if you are a member of NATCA -- you need to have a plan. You should have already been thinking about this. You should have been planning before I wrote The Morning After. If you haven’t, start now. I’m sure the next President will have people to take charge of policy regarding Civil Service. Unless you are very, very lucky, he won’t have an air traffic control expert on his staff.

At some point very soon, people will be quietly searching for answers to our problems. You need to have a solution. NATCA needs to have solutions. The next President will have more problems than he can handle. What he needs are solutions. If you don’t have one, you will just be another problem for which he doesn’t have time.

Don Brown
October 20, 2008

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