Friday, November 8, 2013

HHS 'is demoralized, the best people have left, IT services are antiquated'

More delightful insights into governmental agency bureaucratization from Megan McArdle at Bloomberg

[M]y father, ... became the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection when Mayor Ed Koch hived it off from Sanitation. New agencies, my father pointed out, have a built-in advantage not merely because they have not yet developed years of “this is how we do it” cultural barriers, but also because new agencies get to pick all of their people. When they created DEP, they chose who came over from Sanitation, which meant that they could screen out the turkeys. Turkeys aren’t a problem just because they eat up your budget and do no work; they create organizational problems by forcing good people to spend time dealing with them.

Anyone with family or friends in the civil service hears about the hours wasted on bureaucratic wrestling with the guy who spends his energy crafting strategies to get you to do his work. My favorite came from a doctor in a prestigious department at a state hospital whose secretary threw out most of his mail, including all of the invitations, because answering it was too much work. He ended up getting his wife to come into the office and act as his unpaid secretary, because firing or replacing the secretary was way too much trouble.

I am not slamming all civil servants as lazy lackwits; these stories come from good civil servants who are endlessly frustrated by the obstructive and destructive minority. Turkeys in government are like prizes on "Wheel of Fortune": Once you win one, it’s yours to keep. They can’t be fired, and they rarely quit; the best you can do is wait for a chance to transfer them somewhere else.

Because of the Universal Law of Turkey Accretion, the quality and effectiveness of a government agency’s personnel are likely to peak very shortly after that agency is established. HHS has been around for a long time, and so has its IT staff. Which means it has more than a few turkeys. Or, as David Cutler put it in a 2010 memo to Larry Summers, “The agency is demoralized, the best people have left, IT services are antiquated, and there are fewer employees than in 1981, despite a much larger burden.”