Reflections From a Retiring Federal Employee

fdrlemplysI have worked for the federal government is various capacities for nearly 37 years and am in the twilight of that career. I started working on the farm where we lived in Ohio at the ripe old age of ten and, although I’ve held several private sector jobs, (factory laborer, salesman, restaurant worker, etc.), the greater part of my work experience has been viewed through the filter of a public servant. While serving in the Navy and the Federal Government, I have experienced a wide variety of leadership styles and have, in fact, been a leader at the department head level myself so I believe that I have a fairly adequate perception of the topic about which I am going to write.

Presently in this country, there is a stark contrast between being a true leaders and merely supervising. Never has the chasm between the two been wider. It seems to me that, overall, leadership trends have mirrored the trends evident in our upper governmental structure. The political class of the United States today features a plethora of small minded bureaucrats who seem to be more concerned with the many petty projects in their home districts that can be utilized to funnel money to their co-conspirators and friends rather than the true statesmanship our forefathers possessed as evidenced in their actions which benefitted individualism and thus, the country as a whole rather than certain favored fragmented but vocal self-interested groups. In the same way, this mind set has invaded the lower bureaucracies as well. We see top level bureaucrats micro-managing their subordinates and hiring/promoting those who best suit their personal needs rather than the needs of their agencies. As a result, we find managers and supervisors who are inept and unqualified trying to run multi-million dollar departments with no real idea how to do so. In most cases, these managers simply maintain the status quo with no thought as to the ever changing geopolitical, technological and cultural world in which we live. They generate no original ideologies and seem incapable of critical thinking when involved in decision making. (A great analogy of this point would be a train wreck in which there is a myriad of injured and maimed and, all the while, the witnesses to the event stand indecisively waiting for someone else to make the difficult corrective decisions.)

These inept supervisors are promoted rather for their political skills or for politically correct qualifications and, in turn, they surround themselves with those who whisper what their itching ears want to hear thus avoiding the probability of a differing view or a direct confrontation with an underling who is underperforming. Even more daunting is the thought of actually presenting an argument counter to that of their superiors. Standing firm in the protection of their subordinates when presented with a recommendation that could harm morale or the establishment of an inefficient work practice is nearly unheard of and is nearly always harmful or fatal to ones’ career.

We supposedly hire entry level people on the basis of their expertise in a certain field and then promote those who have no real experience in the field in which they are granted purview. Meanwhile, well intentioned hard working individuals are left to ponder why they are unable to function freely within the confines of their fields of expertise and just where exactly it was that their career went wrong. Regrettably, we lose many of these well qualified individuals to the private sector where original critical thinking is often quickly rewarded with promotion, bonuses, etc. I was once asked why, as critical as I am of the government, I still worked as a public servant. My only answer could be that if everyone who wanted to affect change were to leave, productive and effective change would be impossible.

In the reactive political society in which we live, original thought is discouraged in the name of cost savings. Minor problems are allowed to develop into major ones for fear that requesting the funds for necessary corrective measures of relatively minor problems might not be politically expedient to one’s career. Thus, funds are withheld until the end of the fiscal year, at which time great amounts are released and employees are encouraged to go on spending sprees that rival any Walmart on the best of black Fridays. The result of this financial turmoil is a crumbling infrastructure of governmental facilities and poorly supervised employees who are allowed to misbehave to the point that there is a critical failure or, God forbid, the press catches wind of it, at which time it becomes a major scandal. We see this scenario played out over and over at all levels of government , the result of which can be seen by budget overruns, increasing debt and poorly executed contracts resulting in losses in the billions of dollars each and every year.

Well then, what should be our course of action? Although I try to be an optimist, I can say with a great degree of certainty that the political machine of the United States of America is broken beyond repair. Too many bureaucrats and citizens are entrenched in their government’s willingness to placate the masses rather than make a stand and make the tough decisions required to correct the situation. In the world in which we live, instant gratification is the standard. Political campaigns are now centered upon convincing the masses that the politician is capable of providing the greatest amount of stolen wealth to each individual in the form of governmental taxation rather that providing an atmosphere in which hard work and personal effort makes it possible for individual wealth and prosperity to grow.

Growing up on a farm, I can appreciate the value of waiting. You can’t plant and expect a crop within minutes, hours or even a few days. You must learn to wait. Plants must be treated proactively in order to ward off attacks from outside invaders. You must perform the tough work required to weed out those things that adversely affect your operation so that those that are beneficial can flourish. Then, you have to wait until just the right time to reap what you’ve sown. If you are impatient, you’ll find yourself in a financial black hole into which your operation will soon follow.

That is where we are today in this country, a black hole of debt, bureaucracy and despair from which there will soon be no return, if we haven’t reached that point already. As the national debt continues to climb beyond nineteen trillion dollars, politicians lack the intestinal fortitude to take a stand and institute the kind of measures that could possibly right the keeling ship. A strong leader who truly puts the rights of individuality before the desire of the masses may be able to return this country once again to the rugged individualistic society which our forefathers envisioned for us but alas, I fear we’ve waited too long to avoid the inevitable.

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