The ship of state needs a steady course and stable crew
Four weeks of furlough and snow can put one's federal career into a new perspective.
Just as Congress and the administration agreed to suspend the lockout of non-essential
federal employees, Mother Nature struck with her record-breaking blizzard. Presumably, she
decided to remind the politicians and federal employees that she had the last word.
In any case, the pathetic conclusion to 1995 does not bode well for representative
It appears that our political leaders have abandoned the art of politics. The
government shuts down? Let's go overseas on a three-week fact-finding tour at taxpayer
expense. Let's get out of Washington before the blizzard hits.
Fueled by a restive populace, we witness legislative priorities set by the latest poll
findings. Program planning and execution become impossible as budgets rise and fall based
on the latest emotional appeal in the mass media. Budgets are allocated according to the
volume of constituent feedback.
Soon, the key players in the drafting of legislation will be the pollsters and media
Gone are the days when voters sent the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams off for
months on end, to govern with nary a public opinion survey as feedback.
According to my high school U.S. history teacher (who apparently was an eyewitness),
the key to representative democracy was that the electorate picked someone to represent
them in the legislature. Back then, representation did not mean slavish adherence to every
passing passion of the populace.
My civics textbooks claimed that representation was the use of persuasion, negotiation,
and compromise to achieve a reasonable balance between local interests and the common
good. Events and emotions could surge to and fro, but the ship of state held its course.
Public administration soon will come to reflect the tempo of modern politics. Like
business administration, it will adopt a short-term view and become obsessed with
quarterly returns to investors. Country A invades Country B, so let's spend $100 billion
more on defense.
Dozens of homeless freeze to death, so let's earmark a million or two for emergency
shelters. A nuclear plant melts down, so let's start a crash program in nuclear safety. A
new plague breaks out, so let's invest in biomedical research.
Anyone who has worked in defense, welfare, energy, environment, medicine or countless
other governmental program areas will be quick to note that success comes from steady
commitments. As welcome as a sudden infusion of resources may be, success comes from
sustained effort by experienced people. Results are hard to reach with the sudden arrival
of untrained staff. Success is even less attainable when valuable people and resources are
The major lesson of The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brook's classic work in
systems analysis, is that resources are not interchangeable. Contrary to the assumptions
of neo-classical economics, labor is not homogenous. Nor is capital something one can add
or remove like sand in a sandbox.
Brooks eloquently makes the point that the surest way to bring a project to collapse is
the sudden addition of incompatible resources to it. Inexperienced personnel must be
""brought up to speed,'' which means in practice that the project slows down,
even stops, until these new folks can get on board.
Ironically, crash projects can be helped--to a limited degree--by taking away excess
resources, reducing the time and energy spent in communication and coordination of
I am reminded of a time years ago when the Communist government of Czechoslovakia was
upset with the United States and demanded that U.S. embassy staff in Prague be reduced
dramatically in number. Cut to its essentials, the staff turned in a performance that
reportedly delighted the ambassador. The Czechs would have done better to demand the
embassy staff be doubled; the influx of new resources would have crippled the legation.
However, let's not be hasty in interpreting this parable. I'm sure the ambassador
carefully chose who would stay and who would go. Those who remained were empowered by this
implicit blessing and labored diligently to meet this crisis. Finally, there no doubt was
a lot of camaraderie as the cadre faced the challenge of a hostile host country.
Unfortunately, federal managers have few of these advantages as they face similar
demand to reduce their staffs. RIF procedures require retention of those often least
suited to the task. Those with experience in high technology tend to be junior in rank and
most vulnerable to cutbacks.
Rather than be buoyed by patriotic fervor, the morale of federal employees sinks at
hearing their life's work is unappreciated. In our case, the hostile host country is the
one we are sworn to serve. Walter R. Houser is responsible for information resources
management and policy at a major federal agency.