Some Words of Advice for Federal Employees

I worked in the Justice Department (as a GS-15 in the National Institute of [formerly, Law Enforcement and Criminal] Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration) during the Nixon Administration, when John Mitchell (soon to be indicted and convicted) was Attorney General. I was asked to do a few off-the-wall things while there. So I have some words of advice for those employees of the Federal government who are currently in positions of relative authority and who will be interacting with political appointees.

Some of their directives you will be told to implement will probably be counter to the stated (and authorized) goals of the agency. Moreover, many of them will be given to you orally.

First, go back to your office and write them down. If feasible, send it in memo form to your superior asking if you have gotten the directive right. That is, put it on the record.

Second, whether you have or haven’t received a reply from your superior, make a list of issues, both pro and con, that may be affected by the proposed policy. Describe them in full context and cite the relevant legislation as necessary. Send this up the chain of command as well.

Third, you may also receive calls that are threatening or problematic. Write a memo to yourself to keep a record of it, and show it to a trusted friend as soon as possible, to establish a time line.

Fourth, do not use your office phone or computer (or cell phone while in the office) for personal reasons, as this may open you up to censure. In fact, I would suggest that you use Signal for your personal text messages (see the NYT article on its use) whenever you text, and ask your correspondents to do the same.

Others may have additional suggestions; please post them in the comments section.

Author: Mike Maltz

Michael D. Maltz is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice and of Information and Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently an adjunct professor of sociology at the Ohio State University His formal training is in electrical engineering (BEE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1959; MS & PhD Stanford University, 1961, 1963), and he spent seven years in that field. He then joined the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now National Institute of Justice), where he became a criminologist of sorts. After three years with NIJ, he spent thirty years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time he was a part-time Visiting Fellow at the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Maltz is the author of Recidivism, coauthor of Mapping Crime in Its Community Setting, and coeditor of Envisioning Criminology.

15 thoughts on “Some Words of Advice for Federal Employees”

  1. "Fourth, do not use your office phone or computer (or cell phone while in the office) for personal reasons, as this may open you up to censure. In fact, I would suggest that you use Signal for your personal text messages (see the NYT article on its use) whenever you text, and ask your correspondents to do the same."

    Outstanding advice! Or vice versa: do not use your personal device for official business. If you find that the org thinks you're supposed to take official business on your personal device (getting more and more common), invest in a second device completely dedicated to the org. Unfair I know, but your survival might depend on it. I know we're not supposed to stick the knife in our team, but if Huma Abedin had half as much sense…

    Forget the NYT though. These people are your best resource:

    It looks like a lot to know, and none of it gets you more money; quite the opposite in the short term. Again, that's unfair, but your future may very well depend on it.

  2. The importance of getting it in writing if you are being asked to do something you know is wrong cannot be overstated. In pretty much any line of work, really. As you say, it's not always feasible, of course.

  3. If you are going further in resistance, stick to the tried-and-trusted cell structure. This is difficult for the authorities to crack, and unless they strike lucky and get a member of the top cell, the damage is slow to propagate, which gives you time to reorganize. Book codes are the second best to one-time pads, which are clear evidence against you if found. Keep your conspiracy as small as possible and clearly focused. In WWII, the British agency MI9 under Airey Neave was responsible for setting up escape lines for downed Allied airmen, and nothing else: it did not work with MI6 (intelligence) or SOE (sabotage). This protected it from the heavy losses of French Resistance groups to German agencies. It wasn't immune; the Germans succeeded in introducing fake escapees and rolled up some lines, but not enough to wreck the system.
    Read up on all this. Was Harry Dexter White a traitor or a patriot? Bit of both IMHO.

    1. James, I hope it doesn't go that far! I was just talking about dealing with people who want to undermine the stated agency's actual and statutory goals.

      1. So do I. But there are very probably men and women in the national security community who are considering the likely conflicts between their loyalty to the Constitution and their loyally to a chief executive indebted to a foreign power. We cannot predict how these conflicts will become concrete and the paths each will choose. But it could get very rough. Oster and Canaris paid with their lives.

  4. OK, I'll take the obvious cheap shot:

    "Fourth, do not use your office phone or computer (or cell phone while in the office) for personal reasons, as this may open you up to censure. "

    Sheesh, where were you when HIllary was setting up her email?

    /gentle ribbing…

    1. The advice was for civil servants. Appointees are under a different set of rules, i.e. if the media don't find out, it didn't happen.

  5. Documentation is a powerful thing.

    A little over twenty-five years ago when I was working for an avionics manufacturer, an upper-mid-level manager brought me a newly-built test panel needed to align a prototype autopilot which was undergoing certification. Flight tests were scheduled; the autopilot test panel had to ship immediately and the last scheduled carrier pickup of the day was due in forty minutes. The test panel needed a calibration certificate and then taken immediately to shipping. I got up to get the calibration procedure and the boss-man said "What are you doing? You don't understand! Give this panel a calibration cert and take it to shipping. Now!". I told him my signature only gets on that cert after I have done the work it certifies has been done, and that I could do the work and get it to shipping in time. He pounded on my bench and screamed threats of firing me for insubordination. With everyone in the lab watching, I calmly asked him to give me that order in writing. He fumed away to my manager's office to scream at him while I calibrated the test panel. The test panel was a modified standard design, and it turns out the standard altitude slew rates were quite a ways off-spec for the intended aircraft — a critical parameter that must be matched to the aircraft's flight characteristics. I adjusted and certified the test panel and got it to shipping in time, then calmly walked into my manager's office (poor guy, but such is the lot of the corporate middle manager) and told him that if anything like that ever happened again I would immediately report it to the FAA.

    Needless to say, the boss's boss had it in for me after that. My head on the chopping block the whole time, it took this notoriously powerful and much-feared man five years and a layoff to separate me from my employment there. In the meantime he tasked me with designing and programming an automated station to perform calibrations. Yup, I built and programmed the robot that took my job — over twenty years ago! In doing so, I developed valuable skills for which other companies were willing to pay substantially more than I was making there. Win-win!

    Years later when I was working at an independent lab we hired a guy who had long worked for this previous employer at another site, who told me he had heard of me standing up to this manager and sorely wished he had done the same. Years before he had been told to do the same thing and did as he was told out of fear of losing his job. The slew rates were unmatched to the aircraft, causing it to porpoise during flight test. The test pilot expected it to settle out and waited too long for it. A wing broke off and the plane crashed, killing the test pilot. I recalled that this had occurred shortly after I had been hired there and that there was much concern about the outcome of the FAA investigation. It was ruled pilot error for not disengaging the malfunctioning autopilot, which isn't technically wrong, but the problem that led to that pilot error could have been avoided had the proper and legally required protocols been followed (I doubt the FAA ever learned of the breach). I could see the pain and guilt in his face as he told me how he had agonized for years over the outcome of his decision to follow bad orders. I've never been happier for having done the right thing as I was on that day.

      1. Indeed. One thing this life lesson drove home for me was how much depends upon integrity everywhere throughout a supply chain. One failed link and a pilot crashes and burns, or lead leeches out of pipes into the local water supply, or a chemical plant explosion levels a town, or an offshore oil well breaks and pollutes an entire gulf. Such failures aren't always so catastrophic, but they seldom lead to desirable outcomes. You never want to be the weak link whose integrity fails when others are depending on it, and if you're doing a job — pretty much any job — others are depending on it.

  6. Maintain a contemporaneous, written log on a ruled ledger with a sewn binding. Removal of any page will show. Government employees typically use FSS 7530-00-222-3525 (letter size) or 7530-00-222-3521 (1/2 letter size). Cabinet Secretaries to GS-1s have used this approach.

    Enter every meeting, call, and significant email on successive lines; leaving no spaces. Fill in any space on the right with a slash; so nothing can be added.

    Note the date, time, attendees, subject, and conclusions. Absent minutes, no one else will remember what happened a day later. Your record is dispositive.

    It can keep you out of prison when a hostile Committee investigates "what Sununu knew and when Sununu knew it."

  7. If we were as tough and smart as we think we are, we would already have brainwashed Trump's incoming cabinet to the effect that they were all Joe Kennedy reining in Wall Street, Nixon-to-China-ing-in the reprobates they made their money along side of all these years.

    It's a bit scary how little we are asserting our authority over them, how much we are assuming they can carry out the wickedness we attribute to them.

    The good news is, they're not all that competent. Most of them got rich in single niches, "grinding it out," in the late Ray Kroc's good phrase. Trump is probably the closest thing to a broad-gauge intelligence in the whole bunch, and his breadth of vision only extends to the wide array of weaknesses he is able to spot in his victims.

    If these guys were as capable as they are sharp, America would be in real trouble. As it is we're only going to suffer the damage done by of a lot of energetic fools.

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