On government employment

“Foseti”, the Friscian god of Justice, Peace and Truth is a US bureaucrat who deploys his copious spare time to write an often stimulating blog. We especially enjoyed his recent Q&A “On government employment“. Here are a few excerpts:

(…) 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.

(…) 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.

(…) 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.

Read the whole thing »

BTW, the Foseti essay has provoked a good bit of sharp commentary, such as this.