Archive for March 15th, 2011

Over the last few days I read a book titled:  “A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It” written by Paul C. Light (2008©).  The book is conceived as a compare and contrast argument between the governing ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Hamilton prefers the centralized and closely controlled government based on ability, training and pay.  Jefferson prefers a decentralized, smaller and looser government based on a gentleman’s sense of duty.
The book is well written if fairly academic.  It has about three or four useful pieces of information and is otherwise fairly useless.  The most interesting bits of information are:  1) the premise that two of the founding fathers had such diametrically opposed views of how to run a Federal government;  2) an explanation of the rule of 1 to 6 for supervision;  3) a fairly good chronology of the public bashing of the Federal government (and Federal employees) over the last 40 years;  and, 4) the rough estimate of the “shadow” civil service – contracted out and grantees doing primarily government jobs.
That’s what’s good about the book.  On the other hand…
As I understand the author’s biography, he has no working knowledge of the Federal service.  He has only ever served as a senior executive at department level or a consultant to Congressional committees.  As such, he has no personal knowledge of what he’s talking about (Federal “workers”).  I’m not saying you have to have been a swimmer to explain swimming and critique modern racing, but it would raise my level of confidence in the author’s statements if he had ever “walked the walk” for even a short period of time.  This is not to say he doesn’t make some interesting points / observations, but his suggestions are largely uninformed (to be kind).  Another objection I have to the book is the heavy reliance on survey’s to “establish facts”.  Actually, all they establish are facts about opinions.  It does not make the opinions correct or based on facts.  Polling various groups of people in one of three job sectors – civil service, private companies and non-profits – and asking them vague questions about why they chose one over the other.  Give me a break…  Most people fall into any job they can get hired into and then use contacts to get other jobs for more money or experience.  I would bet fewer than 20%, know exactly what they want to do and go directly into their chosen field.  With no experience of one sector, how do you know the others are more or less “fulfilling”?
The author also complains about how difficult it is to get a Federal job and that Federal jobs have such high turnover.  For example, young people don’t understand how to apply for a Federal job and the process is overly complicated and the selection process is lengthy…  I’m sorry, I thought we were trying to hire adults.  Another example, senior positions have to complete a sixty page job application describing their past.  It has several parts which are redundant and personal.  I’m sorry, I thought we were trying to hire SENIOR executives – most of whom will have some flunky complete the forms for them, so they only have to sign on the bottom line.  I never realized life was so difficult for people at the top!  And high turnover?  Give me a break!  Try a small or medium size private business if you want to see high-turnover…
Finally, the last chapter is supposed to be an offering of solutions.  After, all the buildup, I was hoping for some insight.  Alas, the suggestions are even more inane than the purported causes of the problems (as proven in the surveys).  Here is only one example:  if the President can’t get the Senate to agree to a nominee in six months, the job should be eliminated because the agency / department was able to get by without an executive for six months.  I guess the author has never heard of temporary / developmental assignments until a job gets filled.  A hostile Senate would never fill any positions and we have ample evidence this is already happening and has been for several administrations.
All in all, an interesting, but to me, very disappointing read.

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When somebody persuades me that I am wrong, I change my mind.  What do you do?
    —    John Maynard Keynes

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