Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I Was Once A Drone Too

Easy target. Gummint. Drones.

I heard last night that someone I know is going to lose his job. He works for the state Parks and Recreation Commission. They're getting hit hard.

He seems to be an OK person. Don't know him well. Didn't hear this from him.

The new state budget was announced about a week ago. Everyone is figuring out what to do between the beginning of May and the beginning of July, when the new budget kicks in. Apparently some places had it figured out in advance, and were only waiting to hear the official details. So the Parks people kicked in right away. They need to give 90 days of notice and all.

I can't say if he deserves to keep his job or not, but the Parks system is obviously not high on anyone's list of essentials. Not like schools, not like highways, not like law enforcement. Just one of those things that is so important until it's time to save money.

I spent a lot of years working for state governments. Two governments, about 20 years. In a way it was an advantage. I didn't earn all that much but over all it's more secure than some places, and I'm frugal. And beyond that, it gives you a great perspective on large organizations.

It's easy to criticize government but it's no different from any large company. Not that much. Aside from never ever being in danger of closing there really isn't much difference.
Even bureacrats need something to read.

"If you take two parts pathological aversion to risk, mix it together with one part apathy and a jigger of laziness, what you get is the government workforce culture" applies all around. *

I've seen it.

Over the years I developed a rule of thumb. Of the people you work with, one third do the work, one third do nothing, and one third actively screws things up.

The corollary is that incompetence is rewarded and competence is punished. Do good work, work hard, be dependable, and you'll be given someone else's work to do as well. Management prefers to avoid those who are completely undependable or who cannot be awakened. So they pick up the work of those people and dump it on the good ones, who feel guilty that they can't get it all done.

And then they get angry.

And then they get bitter.

And then they leave.

Guess who gets left on the job?

I have to say that I can sum up all of my experience and all of the problems of a large organization in two words: incompetent management.

I don't know if this guy I heard about was good or bad at what he did, but it isn't his fault. When the current governor came in, she was planning to improve things. It isn't all her fault. All of them are to blame.

The legislature meets for a month or two, passes laws, and goes home. The governor passes instructions to the heads of the various agencies, and then goes back to glad handing and planning for the next campaign. And whatever else governors do. Then the heads of the various agencies turn to their lackeys and pass the instructions along, and go back to lying to each other and continuing political knife fights. And so on down the line.

The best people in the system are at the bottom. They take things seriously. They believe in what they are doing and keep things running. And they make the least and have no power.

After a while, a year or two, or five, everyone gets to a common level. No matter who you are, what your talents are, how good you are, how much ambition you have, all you want to do is to live long enough to retire. You just want to get through today, and tomorrow and so on, and get that never ending basket of fruit and sit down and wait to die.

This is not good.

I've looked around a few times and decided that things could be run with almost no staff, compared to what I've been in the middle of. I realized this pretty clearly when I was in an office of 50 programmers and analysts and managers and so on and heard that Borland Delphi was built and maintained with fewer than 10 people. A product that worked well and was sold world wide.

All of us could barely keep our bag of rats working from day to day. It took weeks to get a meeting, and then no one made decisions. We had no contact with our customers or understanding of what they did. No training, no tools, no incentive. We were all hoping to get in enough years to retire, wave goodbye with one finger, and retreat to lawn chairs where we could finish our days swearing to ourselves about our wasted lives and talents.

So the governor came in four years ago and had a big plan and nothing happened. It could have but it didn't. Then the next election came. Then the economy tanked. Then the legislature met, and cut. Now people are wondering how long they can live in their cars, and when they will have to eat their pets or sell their children.

You can bet that almost everyone in management at any level of management, is going to stay. Because they are so important. They will have to keep the flame and pass along the secret knowledge about how to mumble, shuffle, obfuscate, intimidate, delay, and dodge.

The watchword was always "wait". Can't do that now, wait. Not ready for that, wait. We don't have the resources, wait. Not enough staff, wait. You're way ahead of everyone, wait.

In 2003 I was pushing to switch to Microsoft's .Net technology. I ran an agency's internet site. Though web stuff was new to me I had experience in other platforms, and two degrees. I taught myself HTML, CSS, ASP. I became good. Then I sent myself to .Net training and paid for it with my own money. And they didn't care. Six years later they're still running the web site on ASP. They don't care.

If the budget collapses they'll just shed a few expendables. They don't care.

Things won't get done. They don't care.

A few children will die. They don't care.

They never have.

Every six months or so a child dies in this state in foster care, or from an abusive parent. Big news, big time. In all the papers. On all the broadcast stations. Gigantic fuss.

Six weeks later everyone has forgotten. Management waits. Wait long enough and every problem solves itself by being forgotten.

Then another child dies. Same story. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Everyone forgets. Nothing happens. System continues on autopilot.

I worked with some intensely intelligent people. People who knew the whole social worker system, the laws, right and wrong, knew what was good and bad. Too bad they didn't run the place.

I had quit a permanent job to come aboard as a temp just so I could make a difference. Worked hard. Did things no one else could do, or was trying to do. We were on a project to rebuild the whole old mainframe system as modern software.

Then after a while we saw some contractors. Then more. Before too long the contractors were running everything. They didn't even talk to us. I managed to switch to web work, and after a while longer got on at another agency doing data warehouse work.

The original project continued, ever inflating. Two of us, with another four or five well chosen people, could have finished a bare bones but rock solid implementation in a year. Guess what. Everyone liked all those contractors buzzing around, looking important, using big words, making $200,000 a year compared to our $40,000. Obviously, since we were making less we were not as good, so more contractors appeared and pushed out all the regular staff. One guy played online poker at his desk. Others read the newspaper. And so on.

About two years after I left the whole thing collapsed. Only a small glitch, about $12 to $14 million, I guess. Throw it away and start over for the third time. Or was it the fourth? No one cared. Too little money to fuss over.

So now people are losing their jobs. Too many people, too little money.

Nobody thought ahead. No one who was important. Funny how they never do. They just wait. This will blow over too, and then they'll celebrate with another coffee break and hire more staff because they're so overworked.

Right. It's true. They get so fatigued thinking about all the things they'll have to do someday that they want to go and take naps to recover in advance. To nap, perchance to dream. To dream, perchance to see all those fresh compliant staffers whose head count alone indicates how important you are. Just wait. They'll be flowing in the doors one day, and we'll all be important again. And then, after one last coffee break we'll get to retire and finally switch off for good.


References:

* The Register http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/16/open_source_letter_to_obama/page2.html

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