Dear Bureaucrat, I want to be a crony!

Dear Bureaucrat,

I’ve worked my way up to being a supervisor, but I still don’t feel like I’m an insider. The top floor isn’t interested in my views on what the agency should do. Also, I’ve lost out on promotions a couple of times recently to people less qualified than me; one didn’t even have any experience in our agency. I know it’s cronyism, and now I’m ready to get off my high horse and join in. How can I become a crony?

Boss Tweed

Dear Boss,

First promise that you will only use cronyism for good. Promise? OK then… Read the rest in Federal Times

Reader response to Dear Bureaucrat, My Job Wants Me to Lie

One note – it’s amazing how hard it is to change a requirement. 
I worked at an agency that was offered a contract that included the requirement that a certain form had to be filled out by all new hires within some period of time. The program and form had long been cancelled (years before). No problem I thought, I’ll have them remove requirement. Contract analyst said they couldn’t remove it, as it was part of the standard template. Escalated to City Attorney office – same response from staff. Escalated to an actual Deputy City Atty. After back and forth, told that it was a requirement and they could do nothing about it. So agency had a choice, sign an agreement agreeing that they would do something they knew they couldn’t do or stand on principal and turn down the funding (with related job losses). 
They signed and certified that every staff would be required to complete the form upon being hired. 
I and I’m sure many others could go on for days with these stories. 

name withheld

Dear Bureaucrat, I want my job to give me rules. Am I crazy?

Dear Bureaucrat,

Where I work, there’s no way to look up how anything should be done. When I needed to send a document by overnight delivery, it was a two-hour project to ask around about getting the label, the billing code, where to bring the envelope, etc. When I do my work, I have to copy how each task was done last time, no matter how stupid that was, because there’s no way to know what requirements we really need to meet. Then somebody will decide they want it done differently and I have to redo it, even though there was no way I could know. There are policies and procedures on our intranet, but they are vague, out of date and contradictory, so everybody ignores them. Am I crazy to want a rule book so I’m not always guessing what will go through?


Dear Hammurabi,

The good news is, you are not crazy. We all hate red tape that gets in the way of doing our jobs, but Leisha DeHart-Davis coined the term “green tape” for rules that help us do our work. In one study, DeHart-Davis, Davis, and Mohr surveyed government workers about rules for their jobs. Workers who said their workplaces had more written rules, rather than unwritten rules, were more satisfied that the rules were applied consistently and less likely to say the rules were unnecessary, burdensome and excessively controlling. They also had better job satisfaction. When everybody can read the rules, at least you know what you need to do, and you are less at the mercy of other people’s whims.

The bad news is… Read the rest in Federal Times

Dear Bureaucrat, Should I worry about my annual evaluation?

Dear Bureaucrat,

This is my first full year working at my agency, so it’s the first time I’ll get an annual employee evaluation. Is there anything I should be doing to get ready for the evaluation meeting with my supervisor? My salary doesn’t change based on the evaluation, so should I even care about it?

Lake Wobegon Effect

Dear Wobegon,

Your annual evaluation matters, even if it does not affect your pay directly. (Pay-for-performance schemes were a fad in the public sector some years ago, but they have mostly died out.) The annual evaluation is the one time your employer has to make an official statement about how well you do your job. When you apply for a promotion or career development opportunity from your current employer, or apply for a job somewhere else, your record of evaluations will be part of your qualifications. If your employer gives bonuses or awards, even if they are not based on your annual evaluation, the awarding official may be reluctant to stick his neck out by making a judgement that is inconsistent with your most recent evaluation. And if you ever get into a dispute where your employer may take action against you… Read the rest in Federal Times:

Dear Bureaucrat, I’m being micromanaged!

Dear Bureaucrat,

My boss insists on checking over any work I do before it goes to anybody outside our division. When he makes changes, they aren’t really improvements. I don’t think he’s trying to claim credit for my work, because he lets me send it under my name after I put in his changes. But I feel belittled, the needless review creates extra work and delay, and people think I’m late doing my part of projects, when the real problem is it’s waiting for my boss to check. How can I get him to be less controlling?


Dear Hobbled,

One approach is to discuss your feelings frankly with your boss. Don’t do it! Because your frank feelings are, “Your unwillingness to delegate to me is a personality flaw, or at least a lack of management skill.” That won’t help, and is probably a misdiagnosis.

Professor Carrie Leana researched the factors that predict whether a supervisor requires an employee’s work to get his approval before it goes out, or delegates to the employee. She found that differences among supervisors, in their need for dominance and their opinions about the proper role of supervisors, did not predict how much they delegated. But a supervisor’s perceptions of any particular employee’s capability, responsibility and trustworthiness was a relatively strong predictor of how much he would delegate to that employee. Interestingly, there was no significant relationship between a supervisor’s perceptions of a particular employee and objective measures of the employee’s job performance.

So if you want your boss to delegate more to you, focus on…     Read the rest at Federal Times:

Dear Bureaucrat, should I quit my job to launch a startup?

Dear Bureaucrat,

I feel like I’m missing out. People are starting companies and nonprofits, and I’m just holding down a job. If I stick with it, I’ll get promoted eventually, but I’ll still be a cog in a dreary machine. I want to be an entrepreneur and build something I’m proud of, but I’m afraid to give up my steady paycheck. Should I take the leap, quit my job, and work full time on finding a dream to make real? Or should I wait until I develop a can’t-fail idea and then take the plunge?

Mark “Hoodie” Z.

Dear Hoodie,

You’ve been influenced by two kinds of romanticized startup stories. The first is total commitment; working sixteen-hour days so you can code all night and pitch all day, living in a group house and subsisting on instant ramen, until you attract venture capital and then make it big. If it doesn’t work out, then you start picking up the pieces of your life. The second story is getting a brilliant idea and developing a business plan that maps step by step how to implement it, so the risk of failure isn’t even part of the story.

Back when Google and Amazon were startups, Professor Saras Sarasvathy researched what successful startup entrepreneurs actually do, and it usually didn’t match those romanticized stories. Sarasvathy found that the entrepreneur usually…Read the rest in Federal Times

AuthorDavid S. ReedPosted onMay 4, 2019CategoriesUncategorizedTagsDear BureaucrateffectuationPublic AdministrationSide ProjectEdit”Dear Bureaucrat, should I quit my job to launch a startup?”

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Reader reply: Federal procurement is the problem.

Jonathan Shepard replies to Dear Bureaucrat’s column on a useless computer system:

While you’ve identified some useful workarounds here, I do believe that the root cause of this problem (across the government) is a fundamental mismatch between the strictures of the federal procurement process and the software development (and support!) lifecycle. As you know, when federal agencies need to procure an IT product or service, they have no choice but to go through their agency’s procurement systems, often with a set of half-baked requirements. Nothing inherently wrong with half-baked requirements; many requirements (even in the most innovative companies) are only partly articulated until they get deeper into product development. That’s why there is such a thing as agile software development. But the problem is that the federal contracting process is fundamentally ill-equipped to support agile software development. And as the example you cited demonstrates, there is little consideration in most federal contracts for ongoing support and evolving needs. Federal IT systems are generally regarded as one-time “projects” in a project management sense. They are not. They are products with sophisticated users, evolving needs, and changing requirements. A FOIA request management system is a product in the same way that Uber (or Gmail) is a product. 
Federal IT systems are inexcusably terrible. I am a former PMF, currently working in the tech sector. The “technological” challenges facing federal agencies are (for the most part) very solvable, sometimes laughably so. If tech startups were able to compete in a truly free market for federal agencies’ business, judged solely on the quality of their products and customer satisfaction, it could revolutionize federal IT systems and bring them up to par with the private sector, probably at a fraction of the cost currently being expended by federal agencies. But there simply isn’t a way to do it today, with existing procurement processes. Great developers don’t bid on RFPs. Great developers make great products, and let them speak for themselves.

Dear Bureaucrat, our computer system is useless!

Dear Bureaucrat,

My agency uses an on-line system for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, but the system is useless. Half the people who need to work on a request don’t have passwords for the system, so I need to constantly email and phone them about what they need to do. There are review and approval steps that my agency requires, but aren’t part of the workflow in the system, so I have to remember who needs to see what, whether they’ve responded, etc. Every step I have to do that the system pretends doesn’t exist is another chance for errors to creep in, which I get blamed for. I’ve talked to IT about matching the system to what we actually need to do, but they say the development contract ended years ago, so there’s no budget for changes. What can I do?

Charlie “Modern Times” C.

Dear Charlie,

Occasionally an agency is forced to admit that a system development project failed. But your problem in more common—the system is bought, paid for, and officially a successful implementation. It just doesn’t do what the workers need to get their jobs done.

The fix is that workers create our own solutions to do what the official system doesn’t. Spreadsheets are the most common form, but people also use templates, macros, web-based file sharing services, etc. IT departments call this “shadow IT” and point to the security risks. I prefer the term “cuff system” which goes back to when bookkeepers would write a number on their shirt cuff to remember a figure that wasn’t in the official ledger. As to security, the data breaches that have made headlines were from official enterprise systems. Cuff systems done properly can beat that record.

Look for ways to… Read the rest in Federal Times:

Read the Dear Bureaucrat columns in Federal Times

Dear Bureaucrat, I want to be a crony!
(hint: adopt the appointee’s short time horizon)

Dear Bureaucrat, I want my job to give me rules. Am I crazy?
(hint: make some green tape)

Dear Bureaucrat, Should I worry about my annual evaluation?
(hint: build the official record that you’re great)

Dear Bureaucrat, I’m being micromanaged!
(hint: don’t surprise the boss)

Dear Bureaucrat, should I quit my job to launch a startup?
(hint: quit no, launch yes)

Dear Bureaucrat, our computer system is useless!
(hint: roll your own, even if you can’t code)

Dear Bureaucrat, my boss doesn’t reward me.
(hint: let a little crap hit the fan)

Dear Bureaucrat, should I get an MPA?
(hint: not necessarily)

Dear Bureaucrat, my job wants me to lie.
(hint: there’s the idealistic way, the popular way, or the subversive way)
The link to Wong and Gerras’ paper in the column is incorrect. The correct link is