Tilting at Windmills

July/August 2011 Layer cake… The Department of Housing and Unbelievable Delays… God help the squeaky wheel

By Charles Peters

Layer cake

Much of this column will be devoted to a short course on how Washington really works, with special emphasis on truths that are not widely understood.

One of these truths emerged in a survey of government workers by Lisa Rein of the Washington Post, asking them for suggestions on how to cut fat from the budget. From an employee of the EPA, and one from the IRS, came the same answer.

EPA: “The layers of management are insane.… It takes 13 steps and five layers to get a signature from our office director.”

IRS: “Bottom line, there are way too many levels of management, too many meetings, too much duplication of effort, too many meetings about meetings.”

The IRS worker added: “We have too many [Washington] employees (many of them in higher paid brackets) and far too few in the field assisting taxpayers.”

All of this is true of mature government agencies. Career employees aspire to be chiefs, not Indians. Bureaucracies accommodate them by creating layers of authority, with secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, division directors, deputy division directors, section chiefs, deputy section chiefs, and so on. As a result, too much of an agency’s budget is consumed by the management and not enough by those who work in the field.

The Department of Housing and Unbelievable Delays

Another effect of the concentration of money and effort in Washington is that too little attention is paid to making sure that programs are effectively carried out in the field. This was recently illustrated by a long article in the Post about the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Seven hundred projects “have languished for decades or longer” because the department “does not track the pace of construction and often fails to spot defunct deals, instead trusting local agencies to police projects.”

God help the squeaky wheel

Sometimes agency heads don’t want to know what is going on down below because they fear they will be held responsible for fixing it, so they keep their fingers crossed that the bad news won’t emerge on their watch. But often the problem is that the people at the top know all too well what is going on, and are desperate to keep a lid on it. Take U.S. Air Marshal Robert MacLean, who revealed that his boss’s plan to reduce air marshal coverage on long-distance flights was to save money on hotel costs. He was fired. And consider the ordeal of Franz Gayl, described in this issue.

Thomas Drake is another public servant who lost his job for whistle-blowing, at the National Security Agency. Indeed, he has been indicted under the Espionage Act and threatened with thirty-five years in prison. His crimes: he told Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, about management failures at the NSA, including its rejection of a computer program that would have protected the privacy of American citizens, called ThinThread, in favor of a more costly program that failed to protect citizens and was less effective against terrorists.

Drake is not some nut. The program he advocated was supported by several other highly regarded employees of the agency. He has been the subject of sympathetic portrayals by 60 Minutes and the New Yorker. And he is far from alone in accusing the NSA of mismanagement. Indeed, according to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, a study commissioned by Michael Hayden, the NSA head who presided over the programs that Drake called into question, concluded that the agency was “mired in bureaucratic conflict and suffering from poor leadership.” (The government has since abandoned the espionage charge and Drake has pled guilty to the misdemeanor of “unauthorized use of a government computer.”)

When obfuscation is a virtue …

Hayden demonstrated the kind of leadership he provided at the NSA with the following memo to his staff. Responding to dissension in the ranks over the abandonment of ThinThread, he complained that “individuals, in a session with our congressional overseers, took a position in direct opposition to one that we had corporately decided to follow… . Actions contrary to our decisions will have a serious adverse effect on our efforts to transform N.S.A., and I cannot tolerate them.”

If this strikes you as just a bit defensive, I share your reaction. Let me try to explain why so many government officials agree with Hayden.

One reason is that there are secrets worth keeping. Suppose a disgruntled official had leaked—and an anything-to-become-a-star reporter had revealed— the plan to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound before the raid could take place. Of course, it is also true that “confidential” or “secret” labels are all too often used to hide facts that may be embarrassing but that the public should know.

My job in the government was to rub the collective noses of my agency’s top officials in what they were doing wrong and why our programs in the field weren’t working. The agency was the Peace Corps, the time was the first seven years in the 1960s. Our glow of good intentions made it hard for outsiders to criticize. The result was highly favorable treatment by the press, which had the effect of making it even harder for the top officials to face my news that things weren’t quite as good as they seemed, with too many volunteers being sent to nonexistent or poorly defined jobs, without adequate training in the culture or language of the people they were sent to help.

I took great pride in telling the truth within the agency, even when I knew it would make me unpopular with the senior staff. However—and this is a big however—I felt a loyalty to the agency that made me very reluctant to expose our dirty laundry to outsiders. And those included not only the media but other arms of the government, including Congress, the Government Accounting Office, and the Office of Management and Budget.

I would not lie to these people, but I would studiously avoid volunteering any unpleasant facts about the Peace Corps, for fear that it might be used to hurt the agency I loved and was proud to serve. If they were planning to visit a Peace Corps program overseas, I would suggest one of our best. If they threatened to visit a program in trouble, such as ours in Brazil was for a time, I would remind them of the terrible humidity, the boa constrictors, and every other unwelcoming fact about the Amazon basin that I could come up with. At the same time, I would praise the salubrious climate, the lovely scenery, and the stunning herds of elephant, giraffe, and zebra they would see in Kenya, which just happened to have an outstanding Peace Corps program.


  • Andrew Clarke on July 11, 2011 12:15 PM:

    Dear Mr. Peters,

    I am most disappointed by your now regular maligning of teachers’ unions in recent editions of ‘Tilting At Windmills’. You generally decry a lack of effective (and nondescript) “reform” to “improve education”, with teacher unions identified as a primary culprit, while giving outsiders like Bill Gates a free pass (someone who without name recognition or immense wealth would be dismissed for lack of experience and insight in education). You also regularly cite your perceived dysfunction at the tenure system, and its assumed outcome of “keeping bad teachers in the classroom”.

    First, if your publication wishes to catalogue and evaluate the range of challenges presently affecting pre-collegiate public education, and an associated range of viable solutions, then devote the time and research to it - preferably inclusive of those who actually spend many hours engaged with students in the classroom, from across the nation. Vapid comments that cast blame on unions are not useful. It is these very union members who are central to educating our pre-adult citizens in an increasingly toxic environment (see the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania... the list grows). Your rhetoric lends itself to no substantive solutions, and provides ammunition to the right wing ideologues who seek to destroy what’s left of organized labor in this nation. Teachers - who don’t seek the profession for wealth - should be the very last people targeted in any lamentation of shortcomings in public education. Insofar as there exist “bad” teachers, I welcome more evidentiary analysis & reporting: in what way are these teachers “bad”? How is such performance measured & evaluated? On what criteria and by whom? How often? What complicating factors make their performance subject to nuanced externalities, that may be difficult to measure or account for? Most importantly, just how many “bad teachers” are there? What proportional impact do they have on adversely holding back improved educational outcomes (relative to other variables, including ever tighter educational budgets)?

    When you speak of the nebulous and nonspecific force of “bad teachers” without context, data, or evidence, you are providing aid and comfort to the ideological enemies of public education, further doing a major disservice to all the “good” and “decent” teachers who positively impact hundreds of students throughout the school year - including, yes, your own son.

    Second, and more specifically, there seems to be a great misunderstanding of what exactly tenure is, in the field of public education. It is not something in place to “protect bad teachers”, and render them unable to be terminated. It is, rather, a system of due process, to ensure that terminations are valid and with cause, rather than potentially capricious or retaliatory. That’s one part of a union’s basic mission - protect its membership against the vagaries of a possibly adversarial administration. And due process strikes me as something all Americans are receptive toward - why not economically, as well as legally? Both involve fundamental security of person and livelihood.

    You further cite the example of “bad” teachers “absorbing too much of the education with their higher salaries, and when budget cuts are necessary, requiring that talented young instructors be fired instead of their less competent elders”. You couldn’t have gift-wrapped it better for the conservative base. Aside from the repeated point that you cite no quantitative proportionality of just how big an impact these purported “bad teachers” have in the overall discussion, your assumption is also one-sided. Consider the reciprocal argument: in a system void of tenure or seniority, how about instances of budget cuts putting pressure on school districts to terminate the more experienced, more competent, highly qualified good teachers, simply to realize budget savings? Do

  • jhand on August 03, 2011 7:35 PM:

    Although I share Mr. Peters' concern abut the ability of such large organizations as the NEA (of which I am a member), to work toward meaningful, positive change in public education, I was most impressed with Mr. Clarke's long, strong, rebuttal of an attitude that pervades the halls of Congress and the White House, as well as the chairs at the many Starbucks in D.C. Mr. Clarke's argument on evidence-free teacher bashing needs no support, but I would like to share my take on teacher tenure as it applies to Texas, a non-union state.
    Tenure in public primary and secondary education in Texas is not a sinecure. It essentially means that the teacher is no longer on probation. Probation means that you can be terminated for any reason or, worse, for no reason. In this system, there is no appeal, and probation usually lasts for three years. There is no guarantee that a teacher who has passed his or her probationary period will be able to keep his or her job, but there have been state laws that guaranteed due process. This meant that, if a teacher was considered (in Mr. Peters' terms) a "bad teacher," that teacher could be offered a growth plan and eventually terminated--IF the supervisor documented the weakness or failings of the "tenured" teacher, and IF the documents convince either a superintendent, a school board, or a hearing officer. So tenure is not really anything more than a guarantee of a job as long as you are performing that job, and you can lose it for a cause--as long as the cause is documented and convincing. That's how it was in Texas.
    Our legislature has passed financing laws that leave our public schools with a multi-billion shortfall over the next two years. Anticipating layoffs, the lege also passed a laws that allow a school district to declare a financial emergency and then lay off any teacher regardless of seniority. This is called a Reduction in Force (RIF), and the new law allows school boards the right to set their own criteria for RIFs. Declaring a RIF effectively eliminates due process for "tenured" teachers. I doubt that the Teach for America crew is taking bus reservations for their recruits to move to Texas and start a lifetime career in teaching in these conditions .
    I am not so sure that "tenure" in Texas, as it has previously existed, is not all that much different from "tenure" in union states. When teachers in union states have fought and won dismissal cases, they often win because of lack of due diligence on the part of the supervisor--who either did not intervene correctly or did not correctly document the reasons for dismissal. I would leave that argument to someone more familiar with the union states than I am.
    I hope that you, Mr. Peters, can see Mr. Clarke's point, that "bad teachers" are hardly the primary --or even secondary--problem in public education. Blaming teachers will make people feel better, but won't even begin to improve education.