New New Deal, same old Turkey Farm

In the latest Claremont Review of Books released this week, William Voegeli reviews Time magazine reporter Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.  Voegeli’s review is worth reading as usual, but I am excerpting this passage quoting Grunwald’s account of the sclerotic legacy of New Deal bureaucracy for its value as an admission against interest:

One of his book’s heroes is Claire Broido Johnson, an investment banker hired by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to run the department’s Office of Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs. The Recovery Act allocated $5 billion to a three-year program to weatherize 600,000 low-income families’ homes through such prosaic enhancements as better windows, insulation, furnaces, and air conditioners. The effort was snake-bit from the start. Johnson took over the weatherization office-known informally as the “Turkey Farm” for the number of subpar civil servants sent there over the years when no other agency would take them—at a time when it had finished the program’s first year of operation by weatherizing not 200,000 but 30,252 homes. Johnson came into the job “like a hurricane hitting the building,” setting goals for every agency receiving money from the program, holding weekly calls to monitor progress, and creating a call center where staffers helped local officials navigate the elaborate procedures for getting and spending stimulus dollars.

It worked. “The program ultimately surpassed its goal of 600,000 homes three months early,” Grunwald reports. The success story convinced Mark Schmitt, former editor of the American Prospect, that with “one of the two best books ever written about government,” Grunwald has shown how the Obama Administration made “government more responsive, imaginative, tough on failure but supportive of promising ideas.”

But even one of Grunwald’s most inspiring stories has an equivocal moral. Predictably, Johnson “was not hailed at the Turkey Farm.”

Early on, when she asked all of the division’s staffers what they were accountable for, two responded: “You can’t make me accountable for anything.” One employee buried his nose in a newspaper whenever she approached. When she chastised another lifer for napping on the job, he filed a union grievance.

Increasingly frustrated, Johnson launched a secret “Operation Cupcake” to try to fire the worst laggards, but she never stood a chance against the cupcakes. They knew that political appointees come and go, but civil servants are forever. They call themselves “WeBe’s,” as in “We be here, you be gone.”

Eventually, those enemies got their boss in trouble with Energy’s inspector general when they reported that she circumvented cumbersome hiring procedures preventing the appointment of an urgently needed deputy. The investigation “ended Johnson’s career at the department,” and left her vowing never to work for the federal government again.

So, yes, 600,000 homes got weatherized in three years after it looked like it might take 20. But the official who made it happen be gone and is never coming back. Meanwhile, the turkeys who were making it not happen be there and are never going away. Johnson also left behind and intact the maze of regulations so conducive to getting nothing done, slowly and expensively, and so lethal to responsive, imaginative, and efficacious government. The extent to which renewed confidence in the activist state is justified by the attainments of prodigious high-achievers like Johnson, who overcome government dysfunction before being overcome by it, is highly debatable.

14 thoughts on “New New Deal, same old Turkey Farm

  1. I have found the same dynamic in large businesses as well. (One of these days I’m going to do a long post on the Numi plant.) Over the years I’ve come to the belief that whether its attached to a business, religious enterprise or government the bigger a bureaucracy is the more its function becomes perpetuation of the bureaucracy.

    Of all of the arguments against federal control of X, the risks of bureaucracy is the one that resonates with me the most.

      

    • “Over the years I’ve come to the belief that whether its attached to a business, religious enterprise or government the bigger a bureaucracy is the more its function becomes perpetuation of the bureaucracy.”

      This is why I think clear, explicit articulations of purpose are important. Goals should be three things: specific, measurable, and achievable. If an organization is tasked with weathering 600,000 homes in 3 years, then everything that organization does should be in service of that purpose, directly or indirectly. If you’re doing something that doesn’t serve that purpose, or undermines that purpose, it stops, post haste. Now, you can have some creativity with serving that purpose. Putting A/C in your offices so that your employees are comfortable and can work more productively would qualify; naps… not so much.

      I’m actually surprised to here that such a large bureaucracy or any government agency had such a clear purpose, as part of such self-perpetuation seems to be the avoidance of explicit goals or expectations.

        

      • I’m far less concerned with methods as I am with results. If you hit your 600k goal and you’ve got a foosball table in the middle of the office, well, hell, that’s how Silicon Valley rolls.

        When you can barely hit a 20th of your goal, it’s time to get things done.

        FWIW, my experience largely matches Tod’s… organizations… as they grow, they gather moss. To some extent I’m tolerant of this sort of thing because trying to fight it is sort of like trying to fight the tide. It’s nearly an iron law of organizational size.

        On the other hand, there comes a point where the right way to solve the problem is to take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.

        The part that always throws me about these stories is that I have yet to come across a situation in all my years where actionable info doesn’t exist somewhere. Anybody who really needs to get fired, there’s plenty of ways to document it (because after all, if you deserve to get fired that badly, you have to be doing something else with your day, other than “your job”, and that’s going to show up at your desk, on your phone records, in your email, or on your browser’s cache, or… somewhere).

        So when I read these stories I’m curious what’s going to happen after she’s gone, and I’m curious why she couldn’t get rid of who she wanted to get rid of… and I’m also curious why she wanted to get rid of people when she’s actually hitting her goals.

        Usually, you light a fire under someone’s behind and the department starts getting things done, getting rid of people is no longer your main problem. Making it your main problem and railing against it makes me wonder what the rest of the story is.

          

        • I’ve watched — personally — the firing procedure of a civil servant. (It was a NASA employee — I don’t know his grade, he was a senior engineer with a decade+ of experience).

          It took two months, which is a lifetime compared to the process for firing an at-will employee (“Bye!” doesn’t take long). However, the process wasn’t exactly painful either.

          They installed some monitoring software, documented his work times, and showed a log for two months and he was gone.

          I saw one fired even faster than that — having, shall we say, “explicit” stuff on your computer gets you out the door quite fast.

          There’s good and bad about not being able to fire someone at the drop of a hat — it’s a lot more expensive and time consuming to get rid of the dead wood, that’s for sure. OTOH, it’s a lot harder to fire someone just because you don’t like them or they’re getting in your way (and generally a lot harder to hire relatives and such).

          I’ve seen a lot more overt empire building in the private world, where you can simply fire dissenters and ‘run a tight ship’ (generally one full of people who say ‘Yes sir!’ a lot).

            

          • Seems like part of the issue here is their unionized status, which would not be the case for a NASA engineer. It’s very hard for me to support unionized federal bureaucrats. In manufacturing, I get it. For a DC paper-pusher, not so much.

              

          • Civil Servants — real, actual civil servants with the GS-grade and everything have protections equal to or better than any union.

            There’s actually a reason for that — and like a lot of the reasons behind unionization, it fixed the problem so well that many people have forgotten entirely WHY the fix was necessary.

            The civil servant system — with all it’s protections — was put into place to prevent what amounted to the wholesale replacement of entire swathes of the federal bureacracy every 4 to 8 years. (The old spoils system).

            Of course, it was actually put into place by politicians who got sick and tired of the government going through a giant turmoil every election and stuff not getting done, with half the new hires being absolute idiots and nobody knowing how to work the phones (and of course, their own personal relatives being fired).

            Which led to the CS system — where indeed, firing someone takes quite a bit of documentation (which is why getting hired requires quite a bit of documentation and interviews) — but wherein the employees, by and large, know their job. (And can and do, in fact, often keep the system running while the new politicial appointees try to figure out how to work the phones…).

              

    • And in academia, appropriately enough for this week, where there are sprawling entrenched fiefdoms of middle managers and administrators all holding on to their career-long sinecures without anyone asking just what they do or lobbying to remove their ‘tenure.’

        

  2. The military subcontractor community is even less accountable and exists in an incestuous relationship with the military procurement community in JCIDS. Not merely content that military acquisition is screwed up seventeen ways from Tuesday, there’s a whole university geared to the creation of more such bunglers, the Defense Acquisition University, marching headlong into the 1970s.

    To further spice up the orgy, Congress has its fingers in every orifice of the military procurement process.

      

  3. Samurai Johnson to the rescue. A sure sign of disintegrating big government is the limping heroics described above. Precious tax dollars reaped from the fruits of those who labor, direct opposites of the sloths who roam in “turkey” government agencies, to administer contractors to install windows in person’s homes. Sounds easy to do, until government is involved then this noblesse oblige gesture on the part of big government becomes a tax dollar wasting “turkey farm”.
    America’s historical antecedents are found in Japan’s totalitarian government becoming moribund in its own rules and regulations that it eventually disintegrated leaving a power vacuum filled by displaced, roaming military with better weapons than the peasants. They became the samurai. The crumbling Roman Empire’s power vacuum sucked in the “chivalrous” knights who exerted total control over their peasants and lands.
    I’ll leave your vignette with the Samurai and the Japanese culture that often promotes the “nobility of failure” when someone tries to break out of a culture’s norm, they must be doomed to fail. I wont thank you for reminding your readers that our culture’s norm is big government is far from perfect but what can you do except polish up those bureaucrats who dare to put in a days work?

      

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