Inside Scoop on the Federal Government

It’s often said sunlight is the best disinfectant. I favor a thorough bleaching, but there’s no doubting the value of transparency for keeping a public body in check, especially when  it exercises as awesome a power over our lives as the federal government.

Most Americans know very little about the day-to-day operations of their government besides the obvious facts that: 1) it’s slow, 2) it’s expensive, and 3) it’s getting bigger. And how could they know? The information isn’t exactly gushing from the most transparent administration in history.

So here it is, everything you wanted to know about the inner workings of your typical federal departmental headquarters:

  1. For hiring, it’s who you know. Go to the federal hiring portal, USAJOBS.gov, and you get the distinct impression there are oodles of opportunities open for people just like you. There aren’t. Many, if not most, of these postings are promotion opportunities for existing employees or held spots for preselected candidates. Though technically “illegal” to operate this way, the law is completely toothless, and human resource departments have become skilled at keeping up appearances while maintaining plausible deniability in the event of an audit.
  2. Everyone makes over $100,000. Okay, not literally everyone, but close. You’ll hear official statistics that place the average figure somewhere high in the $70,000-80,000 range (no small haul in itself, considering median per-capita income in the U.S. was $42,693 in 2012). The figure presumably includes student interns, secretaries, census workers, and the like. But any office worker in an analyst position is implicitly guaranteed to join the six-figure-club by their second decade of service. This is because new hires are placed on a GS-9/11/12 career path, which rockets them from $50k to $75k in two years’ time on the sole condition they maintain acceptable performance ratings (there is a rumor a dead cat qualified in 2011). Then, there is the unspoken understanding of a GS-13 promotion within the next few years, which places them in a salary belt of $90k to $115k, increasing along fixed step raises annually regardless of performance.
  3. It’s nearly impossible to find anyone. Between the 2-3 days per week many employees “work” from home (and send messages straight to voicemail), flexible work hours beginning as late as 10 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon, choice of a lunch “hour” between 11am and 2pm, 4 to 8 hours of annual leave per pay period, and flexible work schedules with staggered days off, it is more than likely whomever you are trying to reach is not at their desk or otherwise available. Meetings are often postponed until everyone is in the office, which can take many days or weeks to coordinate. Phone calls and e-mails go unanswered for excruciating periods with no accountability or consequences for the MIA employees.
  4. Nobody can be fired, and they know it. Collective bargaining agreements negotiated by federal unions, combined with Constitutional due process rights to public compensation, have weaved over time a procedural tapestry so vast and complex than no manager in his right mind even attempts to remove a tenured employee (full tenure sets in after 3 years). The practical work-arounds managers use instead are transfer, starving the employee of any responsibilities or recognition, or in some cases, even promotion.
  5. Politicals exercise very limited control. The agencies largely run themselves through career managers and employees, with top leadership appointed by the White House serving as figureheads for 2-to-4-year terms with little capacity to effect significant change (see #4). Employees near retirement or at the top of their career ladders often refuse to operate on White House timetables or to meaningfully participate in initiatives they find difficult or misguided. Congress maintains oversight of federal regulatory activities on paper via the Congressional Review Act, through which it may invalidate any new agency rule it finds overly burdensome or offensive. This review power has been exercised exactly once in U.S. history. The Secretaries are away from headquarters most of the time at photo opportunities, fundraisers (on non-official time, of course), and conferences, and don’t generally get involved in the regular activities of the departments. So Sebelius really didn’t have the first clue about the botched Obamacare rollout until she read about it in the newspapers the next morning. But live by the sword and die by it; take credit for the achievements of others and you inevitably take credit for their failures as well.
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