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/

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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/ )
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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/
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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.

Case Reports and Open Source Work Products in Public Administration

Public administration practitioners can be more successful if we learn from each others’ experience and inventions. We can look to medical doctors and to software developers for two ways practitioners can learn from each other.

The first way is case reports, as are published in medical journals. A case report is a description by a practitioner of a situation she encountered, what she did about it, and the results. Case reports are different than the case studies used in public administration teaching and scholarship. Case studies focus on the information about a case that illuminates a technique being taught or a theory being considered, but one value of case reports is presenting specifics that do not fit any existing framework. For example, AIDS research started with a case report of an inexplicable case of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Another difference is that case studies are typically by a researcher who was not involved in the events, while a case report is by a practitioner who handled the case.

A second way is open source work products. The narrowest definition of open source is disclosing the human-readable “source code” of a computer program. But open source has evolved a broader meaning, in which any type of work product is shared publicly, so that any interested person can contribute improvements to it. The work products that public administrators could make available to each other for open source collaboration include procedures, position descriptions for personnel, statements of work for contracting, and any number of other artifacts we produce and use in our practice. Center for Public Administrators is experimenting with open source collaboration on “annotated work instructions” as an alternative to ISO 9000. (See Project on Annotated Work Instructions.)

For more about case reports and open source work products in public administration, see my article in Public Administration Review (paywalled) or the open access version.

Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed

Most practitioners never attend any of the public administration academic conferences, but it could be well worth your time. And if you attend, it makes sense to give a presentation. My new working paper advises why to present, and how to do it successfully.

Here are some excerpts:

Presenting at a conference is evidence of your expertise. This is especially useful if your job does not provide much opportunity for accomplishments that are recognized outside your organization.

Many people practicing public administration were educated in a different field, so a conference can be an introduction to the public administration professional community..[T]he people you meet…tend to be the most innovative practitioners, the best prospects for collaboration within and outside your job, and the most willing to share information.

A practitioner can present her own experience with techniques she has applied or cases she has participated in. A frank presentation of what she tried, what worked, what failed and what she observed can show other practitioners what they want to copy or avoid, and can show academics a specific instance of phenomena they might want to study more generally…Your new information does not need to be broad in scope to be valid and valuable.

[A]fter your proposal is accepted and your panel is scheduled, you should do outreach to encourage people attending the conference to come to your panel. If you know anybody who will be at the conference, then contact them personally to invite them to attend your panel. If somebody on another panel is speaking on a topic related to yours, then contact them to say you are looking forward to attending their panel and suggest that they attend yours.

I also give examples of presentations by practitioners at the 2015 Northeast Conference on Public Administration (NECoPA), which I helped organize.

The working paper “Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed” is at
http://ssrn.com/abstract=2765800