The high cost of mistreating the federal civil service

A lesson to learn from

Sometimes the forced brevity of Twitter has very good results. Harold Pollack (@haroldpollack, for those of you keeping score at home) put up a Tweet a few days ago that expresses an important and under-appreciated truth in 140 characters:

Next time federal gov fails to execute something important w/technical proficiency, I hope we remember nickel+diming employee benefits+pay.

The federal civil service is, by and large, both honest and competent. That makes a bigger difference to the quality of life in this country than anyone who hasn’t been close to the process could possibly grasp. (Yes, there’s always inefficiency and bad decision-making that goes with bureaucracy, whether public or private. But when the people involved are dumb or crooked or just seriously bored, really, really terrible things happen. Ask anyone who has to do business with, for example, Louisiana state government or the city government of Providence.)

But that honesty and competence are largely a legacy of the era that started with the New Deal and ended with Watergate. Pay, benefits, and working conditions at the top of the civil service simply haven’t kept pace with private-sector pay, or with the cost of living in lobbyist-dominated Washington, D.C. A GS-15, Step 10 – someone with at least 20 years of service and substantial responsiblity – makes less than a first-year associate, fresh out of law school, at a top law firm, or a fresh MBA at a top consulting firm. (Further up the chain, any law or economics professor who would be seriously considered for a judgeship or cabinet post would have to take a substantial pay cut to accept it.)

Worse, LBJ was perhaps the last President who understood, deep in his bones, that one of the President’s key jobs is to be the leader of the career civil servants, and that when the political leadership reaches treats the career folks as partners rather than peasants great things can happen. Starting with Nixon (with GHWB as a partial exception) we’ve had Presidents who distrusted – sometimes actively hated – the people who actually do the work, and were happy to go along with faux-populist efforts to make their lives worse, in ways great and small. Pay has been cut in real-dollar terms; the once-generous federal pension system has been dismantled; offices have gotten smaller; and travel has been made as difficult and uncomfortable as possible. The “muffingate” rules about food and drink at meetings and conferences just added insult to injury.

The latest budget deal once again sticks it to federal workers: another pay freeze, plus increased pension contributions. And as far as I can tell, neither the President nor anyone around him has even said “I’m sorry about this” to the people getting the shaft.

Not only does this mean decreasing technical competence, as Harold notes. It also means that the banks, the pharmaceutical companies, the energy companies, the telecos, and all the polluting industries can easily run rings around the folks trying to regulate them.

Of course I can understand why the Tea Party crowd and the plutocrats hate civil servants. But the failure of Democratic Presidents and legislators to stand up for them is almost inexplicable except in terms of political cowardice. (Part of the problem is that Congress doesn’t want either to raise its own pay or to let civil servants earn more than Solons.) And unfortunately, too many progressives outside of government, especially those struggling in ill-paid journalistic or academic or social-serivce venues, can’t find any sympathy with bureaucrats who are paid better than they are. But the cost of all this in terms of the capacity of the federal government to make progressive policy work is enormous. You’d hope that might serve as an object lesson, but so far I don’t see much evidence that anyone except Harold is drawing the right conclusion.



Healthgov.snfu? No.

The numbers show that is working.

The HHS has released its first detailed statistical report on ACA online applications processed in the first month (October 1 – November 2).
Their summary:ACA marketplace
The split of the 846,184 completed applications between states running their own marketplaces and those relying on is 326,623 (39%) to 519,561 (61%). Some of the other eligibility indicators have similar ratios. However, of the 106,185 individuals who have selected a marketplace plan, it’s 79,391 (75%) to 26,794 (25%). This no doubt reflects the much worse start of the federal site.

The tables exclude all those who have tried to make an application and failed to complete it because of software or administrative snafus. If you read the despairing comments on the hhs blog – a sounding board for the lost without any responses – some unfortunate citizens have been trying since October 1. The best advice seems to be to abandon a jammed application and try again: with paranoid care, a new email address and a virgin browser. On the other side, the report does not include the first fortnight in November, when by all accounts the federal website was working much better than in October. is still far from Amazon’s smoothness, as Zients’ team readily admits. The claim that it’s an irremediably broken system is b/s. Healthgov has determined 886,015 Americans as eligible for a marketplace insurance plan or Medicaid. A broken system, as opposed to an unacceptably buggy, unfriendly, maddening one, could not possibly have done this.

It still of course has a long way to go. The 106,185 who have selected an insurance plan represent 1.5% of the estimated total of the eligible – a slightly better rate, as the report cattily notes, to the early take up of Romneycare in Massachusetts in 2007.

Please look at the HHS report before commenting.
Update 18 November
A different thought. One of the surprises in the website enrollment is the large proportion found eligible for Medicaid or CHIP: 396,261. ACA did expand eligibility for Medicaid (outside the neo-Confederacy), so many of these were not eligible before. But I wonder: how many may have been, but did not apply out of ignorance or fear of stigma? The great thing with universal health care (which ACA isn’t quite, but near) is that it’s a right, so there’s no shame in claiming it.

Quality Assurance Program for Teaching

What would a quality assurance program for teaching at the higher-education level look like? We don’t have one now, nor even much to build on, but perhaps there are analogous programs we could adapt or copy. I think there are, and I will suggest an approach below. Continue reading “Quality Assurance Program for Teaching”

Oh, Bears!

Time to update the amazing failing-upward saga of the UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics program, because we have hit the front page of our local paper with another humiliating roundup.  Just to review, we are talking about a $70m-per-year business that loses $10m sending athletes to compete against other schools in a couple of dozen sports where they have fun, do fairly well, and mostly graduate without a lot of handholding and tutoring.  It also sells tickets and television access to people who want to watch about 150 men play basketball and football, and rights to make the usual chotchkes and sweatshirts. There are about 850 so-called student-athletes in the care of IA; our other 20,000 students are allowed to buy tickets and watch them, but IA has nothing to do with “students being athletes” in any general sense.  (Given that the average playing time for a member of the football squad is eight minutes per year, it’s not so clear that those guys should be scored as athletes either…they do get $10,000 each for those eight minutes, so maybe they should be compared to pro stars)
Nor does IA have much to do with anything else on campus, other than absorbing a Niagara of student fees and tuition money. It was once supposed to be self-supporting, like the parking garages, but the regents – the university’s governing board – fixed that silly rule for us several years ago so the chancellor can give it money that would otherwise be wasted on labs and scholarships and other frills. It even has its own spiffy web site (with a .com, not .edu, suffix).
A few years ago, it was discovered that our art museum and our stadium were too dangerous to occupy with the BO (big one) getting organized under our feet.  The museum was temporarily propped up with some awesome steel braces, we designed a really nice new museum at a downtown corner of the campus that would benefit from foot traffic and street activity, and we set about fundraising. Continue reading “Oh, Bears!”

Volcker on policy studies

Paul Volcker on the mismatch between the academic study of policy and that of public administration.

Paul Volcker to Ezra Klein:

Those schools [of public administration] are not as strong as one would like to see them. Public administration has not been in fashion for decades. Many schools have turned to what they call policy. Everybody likes to talk about big issues of war and peace and how we take care of poor people and what we do about other social problems in the United States or elsewhere.
They do all this talking but they too seldom know how to implement what they’re talking about. I ran into a wonderful quotation from Thomas Edison. He said vision without execution is a hallucination. We have too many hallucinations and not enough execution.

Characteristically, Volcker isn’t just complaining, he’s launched – at the age of 85 – an initiative to do something about it, the Volcker Alliance.

I don’t have an axe to grind here but the RBC has a strong enough connection to schools of government and policy studies for this take to be worth discussing.

An anecdote about the elder von Moltke and the Prussian General Staff of 1870. According to Michael Howard (The Franco-Prussian War, p.62). Moltke ran the victorious campaign against France, controlling an army of 850,000 men, with a staff consisting of fourteen officers, ten draughtsmen, seven clerks, and 59 other ranks. (It wasn’t responsible for supply, run by a larger organisation under the Quartermaster-General). This tiny cadre worked because Moltke had trained all the staff officers attached to the corps in the field in his methods, so everybody was working in the same economical style. Moltke had solved the problem of strategic control of very large forces that had bedevilled Napoleon with the Grande Armée, a very blunt and unwieldy instrument compared to the smaller and more manoeuvrable armies with which he had triumphed at Marengo and Austerlitz.

I worked for 32 years for a high-minded international organisation that when I left had still, after 60 years, failed to establish a filing system.

Glaeser on teachers

Edward Glaeser, an urban economist on the Harvard faculty widely and properly regarded as a smart guy, explains quality assurance for K-12 teaching in the Washington Monthly.  Ed, don’t risk your day job.

Glaeser’s article falls off at least two cliffs, a cautionary lesson not to opine outside the range of the data you actually have at your disposal.  First, he sounds like, um, an economist who has never really managed anything, and treats good teaching as a trait of teachers. Not a skill that can be improved and developed, a trait, like blue eyes. Teachers are what they are, so just find the bad ones and fire them.  As he is a teacher for a living, one has to assume he believes he has learned nothing about the craft since he was a wet-behind-the-ears new PhD. But just because you haven’t learned to improve your own performance is no reason to conclude no-one else can.  If, like me, he has indeed become a better teacher with coaching and practice, there’s really no explanation for not expecting the same of K-12 teachers.  And an economist should be quick to realize how much cheaper it is to train and coach than to fire and start over again and again, even if the latter worked.

He likes standardized tests, perhaps because they generate data of the usual (quantitative) type, whether or not they measure what you actually care about, and I think he wants to apply them to teachers.   Now, what would that be like?  “When John and Susie raise their hands at exactly the same time, and John is a row in front of Eddie and didn’t turn in his homework today, (A) Call on John (B) Call on Susie (C) Assign extra homework (D) Erase blackboard (E) None of the above. “  Maybe he just means external testing of students, and going back to the well of promoting teachers by score gains, and to be fair, he also wants to supplement these measures with classroom observation by experts.

But however we test whom, what’s most deaf-and-blind about this column remains Glaeser’s complete failure to say a blinking word about any way to make teachers better at what they do beyond threatening them with firing and (I guess) dangling a pay carrot.  For someone whose job is half teaching people to do stuff better than they can when they arrive, this is not just narrow-minded but incomprehensible. What does he think is happening to his students in his own courses, for Pete’s sake?  Does he think they stop learning forever when they graduate?

Waiting in line

Among the quantitative models I enjoy teaching, my favorite is probably queuing theory because of its ratio of practical-benefit-plus-surprising-insights to effort required to ‘get it’ (and use it).  Alex Stone has a nice op-ed on queuing in the NYT today, which begins with an example of thinking outside the box that I always use in class:  briefly, your plane does always arrive at the far end of the finger, not randomly. This is partly because (i) it minimizes aircraft taxiing in and out time and getting stuck in apron traffic (airplanes queue too, and Stone misses this one) and partly (ii) because maximizing your walk to the baggage carousel, past as many distractions as possible, shortens what feels to you like ‘the wait for your bag’.

I am mystified, given the batch of interesting and useful psychology Stone packs into his article, that he fails to provide the invaluable, priceless, life-altering secret with which you can never again wait in line, for the rest of your life.  I have up to now only shared this secret, imparted to me by the late Edith Stokey along with a lot of other wisdom, with my students, but you can learn it after the jump: Continue reading “Waiting in line”


Keith’s reflections on parental authority causes me to reflect on the conjunction of the unified, rarely disarticulated phrase “trust and confidence” with the two elements of authority.  Here’s Kent, in disguise, trying to get a job with Lear when the latter is being dispossessed of his power and, in the next scene, will face flatfooted insubordination.


… you have that in your countenance
which I would fain call master.


What’s that?

KENT Authority.

What is he talking about?  Most people would agree that a secretary telling a distinguished professor, “You don’t have the authority to send me out for coffee!” is speaking reasonable, clear, English and using the word correctly whether or not she’s right.  As it happens, the professor is “the world’s greatest authority on tropical butterflies,” also a meaningful, proper English utterance, and true. When the prof tells the butterflies in his lab to stop flapping and sit down, they sit immediately and await further instructions, right? When he gives a student a D for bad attendance, the grade sticks because of his authoritative knowledge of butterflies?  Mark Moore used to ask the profound pedagogical question, “what gives you the right to hold the chalk?”,  meaning not just whence comes your authority as a teacher, but what kind of authority is it? After all, the track coach can’t outrun any of his sprinters.

In every language in which the word occurs, AFAIK, authority has these two very distinct meanings, one having to do with power and the other with knowledge.  When I teach management, we spend a fair amount of time on the importance of being clear about which kind of authority is better wielded in different situations.  Occasionally a student points out that it’s important for a group to have ‘trust and confidence’ in its leadership.  This pair is a portmanteau of very different ideas that don’t always go together.  You trust your mother the architect for all sorts of things, because she will do her best to advance your interests (OK, including interests you don’t know you have), but you wouldn’t have her do your brain surgery.  Keith’s first pilot deserves confidence (probably)  but not trust; his second is the opposite.

Leadership can be viewed as changing the decision trees inside the heads of others who are choosing between doing A or B.  The important things about the A and B branches are two: the decisionmaker’s probabilities that the world is one of several ways it could be i,ii,iii…, and the outcomes he will receive if, for example, he does A and the world is ii.  Knowledge authority acts on the probabilities: when an engineer says “if you build it that way, it will collapse with a busload of schoolchildren on it,” he’s changing our probabilities about how strong the steel really is, or what forces the truss will experience, none of which he commands or ordains.   Power authority changes the outcomes directly: when the pharaoh said “drag those stones up to the top of the pyramid and you can have lunch; refuse and I’ll have you flogged” he was attaching outcomes that changed the relative attractiveness of the paths. (This is not the same as pointing out possible outcomes that were there already, but of which the decisionmaker was unaware.)

Knowledge and power are not Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and there’s no prima facie equivalence between them, nor balanced complementarity. Which is better? Of course there’s no universal answer, but my students find that using knowledge often makes people in organizations smarter, often smarter than the manager, and builds capacity for future challenges (even while they are grousing about not getting clear instructions) , while using power is gratifying to the ego and gets you out of the office by 5PM, but can leave a lot of value on the table.

What government needs is sound business leadership

And lots of privatization, of the functions the private sector can always do better and cheaper than government.  Which is all the functions, right? This sorry mess doesn’t prove anything by itself, but it’s right up there with nation-building in Iraq as an illustration of what can happen when a bunch of Babbitts win an election and unleash the magic of competition and sound business thinking on stuff they’re no good for.