Numbers tell the tale of the #OPMbreach

June 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Some big stories become defined by the people and the emotions connected to them. The earliest news memory burned into my gray cells occurred on November 22, 1963. Emerging from my third grade classroom, I recall the emotions of the clustering Walking home, I remember my mother in tears before our black-and-white RCA console TV, declaring to me and, I guess, heaven, “Someday there will be another Kennedy in the White House!” I’m not certain I have  direct memory of Walter Cronkite pulling off his heavy glasses, having seen the kinescopes of that moment replayed periodically through the years.

We remember other big stories for their remarkable numbers and statistics. Not that it lacks emotional content, but the Bernard Madoff crime is notable for its sheer audacity of size, expressible in lurid statistics: 11 federal felonies, $65 billion in fraudulently stated gains, 150 years in the slammer. Who knows, the word “Madoff” could well replace the word “Ponzi” in the vernacular reference to really big frauds against innocent individuals.

OPM’s data breach, which has spawned its own hashtag — the new form of vernacular among what might kindly be called the vulgate — is a numbers story, leavened by the justifiable frustration and anger of the employees involved. Mike Causey likens this story to The Blob (one of my all-time favorite movies). Here the horror is underscored by numbers:

  • 4.2 million feds and retirees affected
  • 14 million more in another breach that claimed data from SF-86 forms
  • 18 million Social Security Numbers may have been purloined, according to testimony from OPM Administrator Katherine Archuleta.
  • Two hour waits to reach someone on the telephone at contractor CSID
  • 36 hours between OPM hanging out the notice of the credit monitoring services requirement and awarding a contract.
  • $21 million for the credit monitoring services so far.
  • 15 points in the plan OPM came up with for fixing its cybersecurity vulnerabilities
  • 1 direct report cybersecurity advisor working for Archuleta

This is one of those drip-drip stories in which details come out serially, although not all that clearly. From one of the congressional hearings we got a sense of how much more money OPM thinks it will need. In a kind of symmetry, Archuleta says OPM may need still another $21 million in 2016 to button up its systems. The agency has asked for a total of $32 million more for 2016, but is also saying the total cost of the breach could be as hight as $80 million. That figure won’t buy a wing assembly for an F-35, but it’s a significant figure against OPM’s roughly $400 million spending authority.

In business, bad results tend to bring on one of two outcomes. Either your budget gets cut. Or the money becomes available to fix the problem, but you don’t get to spend it because you’re gone.

So where are all the numbers and this story headed? It’s not over yet. We still don’t know the full extent of how many names, Social Security numbers and SF-86 forms were taken. When that many people are affected, it’s hard to make it disappear. We still have yet to learn the motivation of the data thieves, which means millions will be holding their breath for a long time.

As an unseen benefit, every other agency is scrambling to make sure it’s not the next OPM. One departmental CIO told me as much just the other day. Software vendors will have Christmas in the summer as agencies get serious about two-factor authentication, continuous diagnostics and mitigation and the tools that go with them. Homeland Security is scrambling to get Einstein 3A into place. So, some silver linings.

No TV news anchor pulled off his glasses and put them on again to mask emotional turmoil over the OPM breach. But at least the lessons learned, as the government likes to say, will stick this time.

OPM left a sizzling burger on the counter. The dog ate it. Who do you blame?

June 16, 2015 1 comment

Dog trainers like to say there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. I know. We have a now-elderly greyhound. She rules the roost, mostly. But because of her mild personality, she’s never out of control, never pulls on the leash, and has never so much as made a growl at anyone. Mostly she saunters into the middle of the room and lays on her back, her tummy available for anyone who cares to rub it.

But leave a hamburger on the counter, a cold drink on a side table, or an unattended dinner plate of food, and oh boy. Don’t turn your back. She’ll pretty much have it devoured before you can turn around and say, “No!” One time the extended family retired to the living room and family room after Thanksgiving dinner. After putting away some dishes I went into the dining room to pull the tablecloth. There was Lizzie, atop of the dining room table, licking up crumbs and tidbits.

Unlike China, which denies everything when it is caught stealing data, a dog caught stealing food looks at you and says through her eyes, “What did I do? You left it there.”

Dog on table

A young Lizzie cleaning up after Thanksgiving.

This is what I thought of when reading comments former CIA Director Michael Hayden made to a Wall Street Journal conference regarding the awful database breach. The U.S. personnel records were “a legitimate foreign intelligence target,” Hayden said. He added that our intelligence apparatus would do the same thing if it had half a chance. Hayden said he wouldn’t have thought twice about grabbing any Chinese government database the CIA could.

“This is not ‘shame on China.’ This is ‘shame on us’ for not protecting that kind of information,” Hayden said.

OPM left a juicy, sizzling hamburger on the counter. The dog snatched it.

Perhaps the U.S. government does do the same thing to rival nations. We don’t know for sure. Let’s hope so, because at the least it would leave things in a rough state of Spy vs Spy equilibrium. Because it is justifiably embarrassed, and because it can’t really do anything about Chinese cyber behavior, the accusations from the administration have been mild and sporadic.

Unfortunately, I see no other recourse other than for OPM Director Katherine Archuleta to resign. I don’t say this with any satisfaction. Not that she was personally responsible for the breach. Not that she’s a bad person. But the warnings were there, she had the knowledge that the hacked systems were behind on their FISMA certifications, and of the string of attacks going back a year. It all happened on her watch and it potentially harmed enough people to fill New York City, Chicago, Baltimore and Dallas. It’s not that she was personally malfeasant, it’s just goes with the territory. Had a rocket landed on the OPM building, that would have been one thing. But an egregious organizational performance lapse of this scale claims the person ultimately responsible.

Recall what happened back in 2012 at the General Services Administration. A conference 18 months earlier on which regional officials spent indiscreetly and contracted criminally came to light. Administrator Martha Johnson resigned before the reason why became known. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki toughed it out for a while, but ultimately had to step down after the drip-drip-drip of bad news from the patient scheduling scandal of last year.

OPM, as Francis Rose points out, has lost its credibility. Now it needs new leadership to restore it.

Fails happen. It’s how agencies react that matters

June 9, 2015 1 comment

An old, familiar shibboleth came up again this week. “Washington is a city of second chances.” That’s what a Washington Post article said about a popular millennial writer who was fired from a popular web site for plagiarism. He popped up at another web site a year later, where he’s boosting its traffic. Dennis Hastert, the former House speaker now enmeshed in a really bad scandal, probably is too old to have a second chance.

Organizations can have second chances, often because they have the wherewithal to buy their way back. I remember the Ford Pinto gas tank scandal (1977), the time Lockheed nearly went bankrupt (1971) save for a federally-backed loan, and the Tylenol poisoning scare (1982), which was a problem not of the company’s making. Today, Ford, Lockheed-Martin and Johnson and Johnson prosper quite nicely.

Can federal agencies have a second chance, I’ve been wondering? Technically no, since they can’t go out of business unless Congress decrees it, which it never does. So when they goof up, there might be temporary hell to pay, but not the threat of going out of business. In fact, serious failures are often rewarded with big budget increases, as in the case of the Veterans Affairs Department. Congress can readily replace money. Reputation and perceived legitimacy — harder to recover.

Yet agencies are obligated to react when things go wrong. Recently two examples occurred I point out as case studies of the right way to react and retain the confidence of the public.

A whistleblower, still anonymous, complained to the FDA about poor practices and fungus contamination at the National Institutes of Health. Specifically, in the Pharmaceutical Development Section of NIH’s Clinical Center. This is where doctors and technicians whip up experimental drug for small groups of patients. Two vials of albumen, a medium for injecting drugs into patients, were found to have the fungus. Patients had been given injections from different vials in the same batch. The FDA investigated the lab, and the NIH suspended sterile production. It won’t resume until at least June 19th.

The NIH went public with the episode, including a mea culpa from the director, Dr. Francis Collins. When I spotted the release, I asked for an interview the next morning with Collins. NIH public affairs people — they are among the best in the government — got me the principal deputy director, Dr. Lawrence Tabak. He said the NIH welcomed the highly irregular incursion by another federal agency. We don’t know what personnel changes will happen with the troubled section, but the speed and forthrightness of the NIH response seemed refreshing and, well, grown up.

Another agency, the relatively small National Highway Transportation Safety Administration published last week the results of a study of how it can function more effectively. The agency launched the review in response to how sluggishly it responded to the General Motors fiasco of the malignant ignition switches and non-deploying airbags. The defects caused at least 100 deaths when people’s cars turned off at highway speeds. This last year’s incident is still in the news, overshadowed though it may be by the explosive Takata airbag situation that’s affected millions and millions of cars by many makers.

Somehow the GM ignition switch-airbag issue went on for a dozen years before the 2014 recall, and the NHTSA blames itself in part. It says it was pushed around by GM, and it lacked the technical understanding staff needed to stay on top of these issues. The NHSTA report says the agency “failed to identify and follow up on trends in its own data sources and investigations.” The upshot: The agency has produced a detailed internal improvement plan, and appointed three outside experts to guide the improvement effort, including a former astronaut.

And what of the Office of Personnel Management, from which vast amounts of personal data on current and former federal employees were stolen? The lag between discovery and disclosure is troubling. More disturbing is the frequency of similar attacks and the seeming ease with which whomever — China, some lunatic insider, maybe a combination of both — is getting into federal data bases. As Jason Miller reported this week, the government has experienced nine incidents in less than a year in which hackers attempted or succeeded in stealing personal information on government and contractor employees.

How did the agency react? OPM did the obligatory offers of credit monitoring. It worked with US-CERT and the FBI, but the US-CERT report is incomplete, and in any case isn’t available at its web site.. The agencies still don’t know how much data was taken, or else they haven’t said. The stain is still spreading. As pointed out in my interview with cyber expert Rodney Joffe of Neustar, the loss of SP-86 data exposes not only employees, but friends, neighbors, and any foreigner they’ve ever done any sort of business with. Plus travel records and passport information. That lost data could pester people for the rest of their lives.

OPM says it’s techies secured remote server access and installed new cyber tools. The White House ordered the acceleration of Einstein 3A monitoring tools, not that the current version worked so well. Lots of sturm und drang, but no clear sense that the government is doing much more than improvising against something it only dimly understands and only feebly deal with.

My hope is that when the scope of the OPM breach is known, the same unflinching, critical and public self analysis exhibited by NIH and NHTSA will occur in the federal cybersecurity apparatus.

Numbers can tell the whole story, or miss it entirely

June 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Several of the Defense Department’s top brass have said it in recent speeches. With the cash it has on hand, Apple could acquire the stock in Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics outright. I checked the numbers myself. It’s true. This week, the market cap of the four defense contractors was roughly $170 billion. Apple’s cash hoard was just shy of $200 billion. Apple’s own market capitalization is somewhere in the $772 billion range.

Almost in the same  breath, military leaders note that with a market capitalization of around $225 billion, Facebook is more valuable than the same four companies combined.

Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh III and former Defense Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn both cited them within the last few weeks because of the scale of research and development going on in consumer and commercial electronics and computer science, versus R&D investments benefitting the defense sector. Unsaid is how surprising hard-headed military leaders must find it, that something as seemingly trivial as Facebook could command such value in comparison to companies that make sophisticated hardware like Patriot Missiles or F-35 fighters or nuclear submarines. The comparisons come in the context of the DOD wanting to re-establish the technology offset that produced so much U.S. military superiority in recent decades.

Numbers startle. They provoke thought. But they only tell part of the story. Apple may be worth three quarters of a trillion dollars, but it can’t build bombers or ships or submarines. It’s entirely capable of building sensor networks and software underpinnings for weapons, but it won’t.  Numbers don’t tell what’s in a company’s DNA.  SpaceX, essentially a start-up with 3,000 employees but no public shares or even statement of revenue, snared $1 billion in private financing in January. And now it’s on the very short list of exactly two companies certified by the Air Force to launch rockets putting military satellites into space. It competes with a partnership of giants Boeing and Lockheed. Boeing built the first modern airliner — in 1933.

Few remember the mini-computer wars of the 1970s and 1980s. But like the PC business in the 90s, the minicomputer business had a large number of fierce competitors — Apollo, Digital Equipment Corp, Data General, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, IBM, Nixdorf, Prime, Wang. So fierce was the competition, it spawned the 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction account by Tracy Kidder. Soul of a New Machine chronicled the late Tom West, an engineer at Data General, as he coaxed out an inexperienced team a new 32-bit processor to compete with the mighty DEC.

Nearly all of the companies and people involved in the minicomputer wars are gone, but the title of that book persists. One reason is that so often, objects defined by numbers do take on a sort of soul or presence, because people made them. “Soul” might be a troubling word to some people, connected as it may be to something the deity conferred only on human beings. But the idea that numbers add up to more than numbers — that’s universally valid.

Over the recent Memorial Day weekend the Rolling Thunder rumbled through Washington for its annual Memorial Day observance. My wife was bicycling right by where the motorcyclists were rolling onto the course. She stopped and took a 90-second video of the endlessly varied bikes and riders chugging past. Most rode Harley-Davidson machines. We watched the video over and over. What is a motorcycle but a chassis, a pair of wheels, a V-twin engine, and tear-drop shaped gas tank? (Gold Wing riders, spare me.) Ah, but of course a Harley-Davidson or any motorcycle is more, much more, than the sum of its parts. Gear heads know the meaning of the stoke-bore ratio, horsepower, torque, and the myriad other numerically-expressed specifications that describe motors. But they don’t explain that sound.

Computers, motorcycles, musical instruments, whatever your passion, are more than the sum of their parts and specifications. That’s why automobile junk yards and airplane boneyards look so sad. Or reading about a theatre or defunct church junking its pipe organ.

But what about human endeavors? They, too, are more than the sum of their parts. This came to mind recently when reading an analysis of federal inspectors general based on research at the Brookings Center for Effective Public Management. I also interviewed John Hudak, one of the study’s co-authors along with Grace Wallack. Their research quantifies the work of IGs using a return-on-investment metric. It proceeds from the postulate, correct I believe, that in general IGs return many dollars to the government for every dollar spent operating the IG office, and that this is quantifiable. The authors acknowledge that the pure dollar ROI metric is less useful in agencies where the mission isn’t primarily disbursement of money. So, for example, the IG with the highest ROI is that of the Social Security Administration, where the return is $43.60 for every dollar the office costs. The lowest financial return belongs to the Justice Department, where the IG produces a net cost. It’s ROI is about 43 cents for every dollar spent on the IG operation.

As Hudak points out in the interview, that the ROI looks weak is not a reflection on the Justice IG operation, just that the particular ROI number doesn’t really capture the essence of the office and how it goes about its work. The Justice IG shop is looking at programs mostly. The department doesn’t exist to disburse hundreds of billions of dollars, as Social Security expressly does.

No metric can really capture the essence of any object or program, or the people’s dedication to it.

Government overlooks diamonds in its own back yard

May 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Nearly a century ago, a speech called “Acres of Diamonds” ranked high on the entertainment charts. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University and the author of the essay on which it was based, delivered it 5,000 times between 1900 and 1925. Although part of the American canon of rhetoric, few nowadays know much about it. The main theme of the essay and speech is simple: Often people overlook their own back yards when seeking fortune and success. It’s an old-fashioned sounding piece, but it came to mind earlier this week during a panel discussion I moderated along with Jonathan Aberman of TandemNSI and Amplifier Ventures.

Our ostensible topic was how government program managers, R&D people and executives can more readily take advantage of the entrepreneurial and start-up technology community in the D.C. region, the federal government’s back yard. But a good deal of the discussion centered on the government’s seeming fascination with Silicon Valley. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he’ll establish a satellite office there. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also has the Silicon Valley bug. The Obama administration has recruited several appointees from the Valley, including Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, lately of Google. The White House Digital Services team is headed by another ex-Googler, Mickey Dickerson. The rest of it is heavy with people from Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the like.

With respect to DOD, maybe a little perspective is in order. Mike Daniels has been founder, executive, seller and acquirer of federal contractors for decades. He says Valley fever has swept the government before. He counts three times over the last 35 years or so. And every time federal leaders traipse out there looking for start-up diamonds, they find out how culturally different things are out there. Without judging which is superior, Daniels says he’s never heard a Valley venture capitalist or entrepreneurial say a primary reason for a new company was to help the government solve a problem. The systems integrators and technology product companies locally have often been started by former feds, including military officers. Daniels says their orientation is, of course to make money, but their frequently-stated mission is to help the government.

Tech veteran Anup Ghosh — he founded cybersecurity outfit Invincea — comes from DARPA and so has something of a federal orientation. He says federally-focused startups proceed from a different model than those in Silicon Valley. In the D.C. region, the typical model starts with government services. This lets them win some contracts, establish a revenue stream and make a profit fairly soon. It’s a bootstrap model that can lead to second-round financing. By contract, in the Valley startups tend to lead with groundbreaking products, little thought of revenue, and the agility to keep morphing until they hit on something someone wants to buy.

Ghosh argues, the services or body-shop model doesn’t scale easily because it requires a constant linear increase in the number of people to be able to do more professional services. By contrast, products, especially software, can scale exponentially without a matching overhead increase.

The bootstrap-contract model, according to former Naval R&D guy Bob Morgan, a founder of MorganFranklin Consulting, gives the D.C. startup community a boring reputation. But often, he and others note, the products they are working on are secret because they have a national security application. Or because the government is reticent, and doesn’t want contractors talking about what they are working on.

Ghosh, Morgan, Daniels all agree, the D.C. startup environment is smaller and more specialized than that of Silicon Valley, and it lacks a catchy and enduring moniker. Daniels noted the D.C. tech community tried to brand itself back in the 1990s, but whatever name it came up with quickly faded. Silicon Valley acquired its nickname around 1980, when silicon — semiconductor design and manufacturing, as opposed to software — powered the torrid growth of the place. Plus, its name came externally and spontaneously, not from an ad agency. Throughout the world, D.C. is inseparable from the federal government. Those of us who live and work in and around D.C. know it’s a real place with real people and culture, but no ad agency could alter the external view of it.

The D.C. region is rich in startups and entrepreneurialism in cybersecurity, biology and genetics, robotics, and data analytics. From the discussion I heard, the consensus is that the federal government’s requirements remain a valuable source of money to fuel this growth activity. TandemNSI founder Jonathan Aberman correctly points out that Silicon Valley itself was fueled early on by military and NASA requirements for products pioneered by Fairchild Semiconductor and its many offshoots. (The original company in San Jose, not the one in Portland, Maine is typically put at the top of Silicon Valley genealogy charts.)

Silicon Valley today isn’t inclined towards selling to the federal government as a business goal. And, as local venturist Mark Walsh points out, big bets on tiny companies without revenue and serial business failure are common in the Valley .In the D.C. region, business failure and loss of investors’ money is less forgivable. Plus people who bootstrapped a company, got government contracts and have some sort of cash flow aren’t accustomed to the idea of ceding control to a V.C. More evidence of the big cultural divide.

All new companies, regardless of origin, face the same hurdles in selling to the government, the panelists agree. Ghosh says there’s nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation to prevent a company from getting a contract within five days should an urgent need arise, but typically the bureaucracy plays it safe. Often for good reason. By the same token, the purportedly 18-month minimum sales cycle for a federal agency isn’t so far off what those same companies encounter when selling to the Fortune 500.

Not fully answered the other morning were these questions:

  • Does Silicon Valley really hold the scratch to the government’s technology itch? My take, yes and no. Of course there are companies originating in the Valley that could help solve federal mission challenges. It requires a great deal of research the selectiveness. Whether the Pentagon needs a mini-Pentagon off U.S. 101 is debatable.
  • Does the government overlook the acres of diamonds in its own back yard? I don’t think so. Invincea itself is a case in point. Lots of product and services companies got their start with federal requirements, and not just items unique to the military.

In Silicon Valley, people start companies with an idea, and expect the world to join in. No one realized there was a better way to hail a taxi cab. But Uber — we’ll stretch the Valley to include San Francisco — became a valuable company,  billion dollar unicorn, in Valley parlance, without owning a single car or employing a single driver. But a mobile app will never get a human to Mars, or destroy an cutthroat enemy, or analyze a half-trilliion-dollar federal program to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. Given the size and diversity of its missions, the government needs to talk to entrepreneurs everywhere.

Fact: Federal Employees Have Property Rights To Their Jobs. So There

May 14, 2015 Leave a comment

In my line of work, I learn something new every day. I’ve been at this a long time, so it’s particularly gratifying to get some insight into something I thought I thoroughly understood.

The most recent example came in my latest, more-or-less monthly interview of Merit Systems Protection Board Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann. Susan is one of those rare people with an exquisite balance of qualities. She seems idealistic and realistic at the same time. She hews to the mission, but retains just a tincture of skepticism. She knows more than she says, a refreshing characteristic. She’s open but discrete. And she has a sense of humor.

Grundmann pointed out some things that everyone should know, but need pointing out nonetheless.

This fact startled me: Career federal (and other public) employees have a property interest in their jobs. It’s a major distinction with the private sector. It’s a long established fact. But when’s the last time you heard it stated? Grundmann points out, this property interest has been affirmed by the Supreme Court through its insistence on due process for removing federal employees or other adverse actions. It requires 30 days notice, followed by the right to an appeal hearing. If an employee does something seemingly criminal for which imprisonment could result, removal requires 7 days advanced written notice. This apparatus of due process grew in direct response to the spoils system of the 19th century.

However frustrated members of Congress or editorial writers might be by the performance of managers at the Veteran Affairs Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, or Secret Service, those employees have a constitutional property interest in their jobs and are entitled to due process. All of this apparatus doesn’t absolve supervisors from good management, because poor or malfeasant performers can and often are removed from federal employment. The property interest doesn’t translate into immutable tenure.

In fact, that was another standout fact in the Grundmann interview. Between 2000 and 2014, 77,000 feds were fired for performance. We don’t know how many else left ahead of being fired. But this fact belies the popular notion that a federal job is a job for life.

Grundmann was annoyed that media outlets often mischaracterize how federal civil service due process works. One national newspaper stated, but later corrected, that federal employees removed for cause stay on payroll until MSPB completes its adjudication. That’s flat wrong, Grundmann says. They’re not being paid.

Last week I wrote about fed-bashing, and how I’m skeptical that it really is a thing, to use the Buzzfeed-age vernacular. What is a thing is widespread misunderstanding of the rules for federal civil service. That’s why anyone who has an interest in federal civil service, or chooses to carry on that it should be exactly like the public sector should read the MSPB’s new report to Congress. It details the due process and, equally important, the history and court cases behind it.

Few federal employees, or anyone, probably remembers James Loudermill. His 1979 dismissal as a security guard from the Cleveland Board of Education ended up at the Supreme Court, which upheld the due-process-from-property-right principle. He might not have been the finest test case. He’d been convicted of grand larceny 10 years earlier, but lied about it on his job application. Justified as the summary firing may have seemed, ultimately he was found to have been denied due process and his property right to his job was upheld by the Burger court.

Do Feds Really Receive Regular Evil-Tongue Lashings?

May 7, 2015 1 comment

Fed-bashing might headline a lot of articles and interviews, but I question whether fed-bashing exists as a palpable phenomenon. Or whether it’s loud or prominent enough to justify hang-dog morale on the part of federal employees.

Two thousand years ago the Talmudic scholars cautioned against the “evil tongue” — disparaging of people by the spoken word. Many cultures share this orientation. When I used to teach the Dale Carnegie course, the very first human relations principle instructors were to convey to class members was, “Do not criticize, condemn or complain.” Given the level of discourse nationally, you’d think hardly anyone thinks that way. The “sticks and stones…” ditty lacks truth — words and name-calling can and do cause damage.

Like many readers, I’m addicted to the comments sections in big publications. Political stories, harshly polemic columns, and sensational reports with heavy cultural overtones often generate thousands of comments. Some of them I read with my hand close to covering my eyes, as if watching a slash-and-guts movie, so vitriolic the posts often get.

To qualify as fed bashing, I think statements or published material must meet certain criteria:

  • It originates in the mainstream, not from the fringe. Taken as a whole, fringe groups hate everything. So anti-government raves coming from Timothy McVeigh groupies or The Westboro Baptist Church don’t count. Or…
  • …it lumps every federal employee in when using particular ones, like some of the failed managers at Veterans Affairs, as if everyone at VA was bad. And…
  • … its source carries sufficient standing or prestige with ordinary people such that they might take away from the disparagement the distinct possibility that federal employees really are all bad.

Many statements that might strike the ear as fed-bashing really aren’t. A story in the Wall Street Journal the other day detailed how administrative judges at the Securities and Exchange Commission prevail in 90 percent of the cases. That leads to the legitimate concern that the rulings don’t come from an impartial judiciary but rather from agency employees judging the charges brought by friends and colleagues. I’m not issuing my own opinion here, just pointing out the arguments. So if someone were to say, as someone inevitably will, “I don’t want some bureaucrat deciding a case brought by another bureaucrat, I want a honest-to-goodness judge!” I judge that not to be fed-bashing but rather an opinion, however clumsily stated, that a powerful administration lacks sufficient oversight and is prone to conflict of interest.

Congress remains a rich source of what some construe as fed-bashing. Regular debates over federal pay and benefits can produce the feeling of being bashed. But think about this: Compensation of employees in every industry, public or private, ultimately respond to markets. In my career of close to 40 years, I’ve twice had pay cuts imposed by employers citing financial or economic conditions. Like millions of worker bees, I’ve seen changes in pension plans, 401K contribution formulae and health care benefits — rarely for the better. Lord knows the media, whatever that is, gets regularly bashed (often in the media) — and often deservedly so. I bash it myself sometimes!

My advice for federal employees who think they hear fed-bashing: Shrug if off. Out of 319 million Americans, probably 300 million only occasionally even think about the federal government. The rest have opinions falling somewhere on the scale from the John Birch Society to the  Socialist Party of America. If you work in the public sector, you operate in close quarters and at the behest of politicians and their appointees who, in many cases, signed up precisely because they thrive on conflict. So sometimes you’ll get splashed with what hits the fan. Most of the time, it’s not aimed at you. Sometimes you gotta duck.

 

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