Saturday, January 20, 2007

'Un' derstanding the Government

When I worked in the government I learned a very important lesson. Well, maybe I learned more than one but the most important one was that there is no easy or simple way to do anything.

Large or small a government agency is a bureaucracy of unrealized depths. And speaking of ‘un’. I would encourage you go and see the movie “History Boys”, which is identical to the play with a little added scenery and movement. It is a most worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes. The main character, a professor extraordinaire, loves to change an adjective by adding the prefix ‘un’. I think he calls it a subjunctive adjective but that may only be in Spanish. Who cares, it brings us back to the government which is anything but uncomplicated.

My first experience with a government department was in 1977 when President Carter appointed me to a position at the State Department. When the President appoints you to a job that is not Senate confirmed, he doesn’t call you up and ask you to take it. You usually get the position because you worked in a visible position in the campaign, you gave a great deal of money, or you know someone in White House personnel. I worked for Mrs. Carter and she liked me, but I also knew someone in personnel and lobbied for the job for months. During which time I lived in my car on 6th Street N.E.

The position was as the Director of the International Visitors Program. It was a terrific job and I loved it. But, the White House personnel liaison was a terrible sexist (who later became an Abassador, what a surprise) and he told me that I was not going to make more money than he made. So he put me in a senior foreign service position but my pay grade was not a senior foreign service grade. The way they made political appointments in those days was a little different than today. The job was a level 1 and my pay grade was a level 3. At that time, I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed about it. But I later learned that career foreign service officers were pointing and laughing behind my back. OK they don’t laugh, but the career foreign service is a whole other blob.

Anyway, because I had a level 3 job, I was only entitled to level 3 office furniture. Little did I know when I went to the enormous warehouse for mostly expensive but unwanted, unused, and sometimes undesireable (there are those un’s again), furniture, that I had chosen level 2 furniture. Let me assure you, there was no diplomat in any universe who would have selected this stuff. It was too, too ‘obvious’—they might have said untasteful, but that’s not a word. Did I mention that they hated me not only because I was a political appointee but because I was a woman, young and Jewish. The couch was low to the ground, vivid red, modern lines, silver legs and arm rests. The tables and the desk were glass. The desk chair was high enough to use, and not made for a desk but rather a companion to the couch. It looked like it had been gifted by a Danish Ambassador who wanted very much to get it out of the embassy.

So there I was, sitting in my office, meeting with a high level foreign visitor when the movers appeared to remove my level 2 furniture a and ship it back to the home for wayward government living rooms. Needless to say, after I threw myself on the couch and convinced them that there was no way in hell they were taking it out the door – even if I had to call the Secretary of State for my office furniture dispensation—they relented we had a cup of coffee, and they left. Actually, the movers, who weren’t even paid enough to have reached a level, were absolutely tickled about my protest. The international visitor was somewhat appalled by the performance, but he assured me that governments were the same no matter the continent.

You see how stupid the bureaucracy can be. Rules are rules and there is no place for flexibility. Which brings us to the present. Have you ever tried to get any information about a program, project, or person on a government website. Just click on or and see what you get. Yesterday when I was trying to get some information about an NIH cancer program that assists private sector business’s, I used my clicker. But after an hour I finally had to phone the Deputy Director of NIH to ask for some guidance. Together we ventured to Google and began the search. It was fruitless and he finally suggested I call his friend who worked in the program—whose number we also could not find.

There is no way I will ever be convinced that there is a way for a spy or a terrorist to get any information, secret or otherwise, from any US Government agency, or department or independent entity, when the head of the agency can’t even find out about the programs about which they are in charge. Should I tell you about the first time I received a Top Secret document – I can't, I will come undone. We’re just sayin...


Anonymous said...

I can neither confirm.....or deny... I read this..

Walt said...

Reminds me of a visit to NIH.

I was staring at the building map on a wall trying to find the room where I had an appointment. It wasn't on the map. I was cusing under my breath rather loudly when a nice man stopped to offer help.

I show him the room address. He looked at me saying "Oh that's not on the map because that wing is too new."

He then pointed me in the correct direction. I thanked him, but pointed out if NIH had the money to build a new wing they also had the money to add it to the main map in the lobby.

He agreed and said he'll look into it because he was the director of the NIH.

Small world.

No terrorist is going to blow that wing up since it's not on the map. Grin.

Anonymous said...

If you ever wanted to mess with placing an item strategically at some locale..check out for some neat stuff, INCLUDING 'Top secret', Secret' file folders and more..and uh..we never had this conversation..