Tilting at Windmills

By Peters, Charles | The Washington Monthly, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Tilting at Windmills


Peters, Charles, The Washington Monthly


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 pro gram 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."

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. …

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