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.

Advertisements

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?

Signed,
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: https://www.federaltimes.com/opinions/2019/04/18/dear-bureaucrat-how-can-i-work-with-and-around-my-agencys-useless-computer-system/

Dear Bureaucrat, my boss doesn’t reward me

Dear Bureaucrat,

I’ve been doing the same job for three years, and I’ve learned how to keep everything running smoothly so no problems reach the higher-ups. If it wasn’t for me, there would be some train wrecks that would look bad for our agency. But my boss doesn’t appreciate me. I get basically the same treatment as everybody else who isn’t a problem employee. Meanwhile, the people who work on senior executives’ pet projects get awards, first pick of travel and training, etc., even though they’re not accomplishing much. How can I get the recognition I deserve?

Signed,
Ms. Cellophane

 

Dear Cellophane,

You’re right, employees who work on the pet projects of the most powerful people in an organization are treated better. One reason is that their efforts are more visible to the people who decide who gets what. Another reason is that senior officials are disproportionately concerned with their signature projects, compared to the regular work of the organization. Their egos and their future job prospects depend on whether the projects they are personally identified with are seen as successful. So they lavish the organization’s resources on their pet projects, including bonuses and other recognition to recruit, retain and motivate the people working on them. The official also benefits from a “halo effect”—by rewarding employees who work on the pet project, the official helps spread the story that the project is successful and important.

One strategy for getting more recognition is… Read the rest at   https://www.federaltimes.com/opinions/2019/04/04/dear-bureaucrat-how-can-i-get-the-recognition-i-deserve/

Dear Bureaucrat, Should I Get an MPA?

Dear Bureaucrat,

I’ve been working as an assistant investigator in a public defender office for nearly two years. I like it, and I want to continue a career helping people caught up in the criminal justice system, but there is no room to promote me in my agency. Should I go back to school for a Master in Public Administration so I can move ahead in my career?

Signed,
Woodrow W.

 

Dear Woodrow,

It makes sense to get a graduate degree. Other ways to learn can be more efficient, such as books, web courses, or classes outside a degree program. But the degree will make employers more comfortable with hiring or promoting you. You face three decisions; which degree, which school, and full time in-person classes versus a different format.

An MPA or an MPP (Master in Public Policy) is not necessarily better than [Click here to read the rest in Federal Times]

Dear Bureaucrat, My Job Wants me to Lie

Dear Bureaucrat,

I supervise a procurement team. Every month, I’m supposed to sign a form acknowledging “responsibility to authorize and approve only essential obligations and expenditures.” But I can’t know whether each item we purchase is essential. Many of them are highly technical. I told the person in finance who collects the forms that I can’t judge whether any purchase is essential, but she said every account manager needs to sign the form and that includes me. I talked to my boss, and he told me to work it out with finance. I don’t like making these false certifications. It’s not ethical and I’m afraid it sets me up to catch the blame if it turns out one of the technical managers is requisitioning things we don’t need.

Signed,
George “Cannot Tell a Lie” W.

 

Dear George,

You are not alone. Government work often pressures us to make certifications that we cannot know the truth of, or that we know are false. Wong and Gerras did a frightening study of the need for Army officers to lie routinely. For example, they found commanders were required to certify their troops completed 297 days of mandatory training, when only 256 days were available for training.

The pressure to certify something you cannot know is more than an affront to your personal ethics. It is an excuse for your agency to not apply real controls that would prevent unnecessary purchases. It is also one more brick in building an agency culture where dishonesty is viewed as normal and necessary.

So what can you do? There’s the idealistic way, the popular way, or the subversive way…

Read the rest of the answer in Federal Times at https://www.federaltimes.com/your-career/the-bureaucrat/2019/03/07/dear-bureaucrat-my-job-wants-me-to-lie/

Send your question to DearBureaucrat@PubAdmin.org

Dear Bureaucrat: An advice column for people who work in the public sector

Dear Bureaucrat, My job wants me to lie.
Dear Bureaucrat, Should I get an MPA?
Dear Bureaucrat, My boss doesn’t reward me.

These are some of the problems the new advice column Dear Bureaucrat will answer. The answers are based on practical experience and peer-reviewed research, and sometimes they will be controversial. Who else would advise, “consider letting a little crap hit the fan”?

I’m looking for questions to answer in the first few columns, so send yours to DearBureaucrat@PubAdmin.org  Anonymous questions are fine, and we won’t print your name even it you give it.

New Movies about Government Workers’ Side Projects

New documentaries from the U.S. and Canada show government workers with creative careers on the side.

Some government jobs offer so much opportunity for accomplishment that they are worth more-than-full-time effort. But more often the opportunity of a government job is to put in a modest level of effort, leaving time for family responsibilities or side projects. Filmmakers in the U.S. and Canada have just released documentaries about the creative side projects of government workers.

The American production is Creative Feds, which features two government workers who are musicians on the side. It shows each performing with their bands at festivals, dances, and in one case a National Public Radio show, demonstrating that these side projects are not mere hobbies, but serious commitments that have met with some success. (Screenings of Creative Feds are listed at http://creativefeds.com/screenings/ )
jeniffer-playing-300x199
Jennifer Cutting in Creative Feds

The Canadian production is a web series entitled The Secret Lives of Public Servants. Three episodes have been released so far, featuring government workers who on the side are an artist, a comic book creator and a cosplayer. All the episodes touch on the tension between the workers’ creative side projects and the conformity expected in their government jobs. This is particularly the case for the artist, Marc Adornato, whose art is explicitly political and triggered a police investigation of one of his public performance projects. (The police report concluded that performance art is not a crime.) The episodes are available at http://amenjafri.com/2017/11/19/the-secret-lives-of-public-servants/
marc-adornato-300x1691
Marc Adornato in The Secret Lives of Public Servants

The filmmakers for both of these projects said part of their motivation was to show the public that government employees are full human beings, rather than the stereotype of faceless bureaucrats. But there is a more important message for public sector workers ourselves. We do not need to wait until we can afford to leave secure government jobs before seriously pursuing our ambitions, whether they are artistic careers like the people portrayed in these documentaries or any other aspirations. A government job puts some constraints on our side projects, in terms of time, conformity and otherwise, but the documentaries show that we can work around those constraints.