Let me be clear about one thing from the outset. I am not anti-government as some might want to suggest. I was a federal employee for 30 years, and much of that time I served as a federal agent.
But I have been struck by the stark differences between how the U.S. government postures itself toward an ever-growing number of citizens who insist that agencies be tolerant, friendly, honest, fair and generous to the population versus the manner in which so many federal agencies treat their own employees, which is very bad.
After nearly 40 years of seeing it from the inside and watching it daily from the outside, let me state it plainly: When it comes to the treatment of employees – some of whom have dedicated their lives in so many ways – as an employer, the federal government is one mean bastard.
Now, I’m not speaking of the little armies of incompetents, sycophants, suck-ups and go-alongs that inhabit every working force no matter where humans choose to toil – mediocre people are treated pretty well by Uncle Sam. In fact, semi-worthless folks are treated better by the managers and directors of the agencies than the honest, ethical employees who see a wrong and then try to right it. Incompetents are treated better because they keep their mouths shut.
Two recent events have resurfaced this issue for me. First, there was an article in the business section of my local newspaper reporting that while employment opportunities are not as good in the private sector as college graduates would like, jobs are plentiful in the federal government.
That’s because so much of the federal workforce is eligible for retirement. Statistics tells us that fully 50 percent of the federal workforce can retire in the next few years.
Second was the filing of my IRS forms on April 15 and the realization that it would be one more full month’s work before the first dollar of my own labors went to me and my family, instead of to the government by way of some kind of tax.
I shudder to think about all those young, idealistic, honest college graduates who will have their bubble burst within days of swearing to that oath of office. What also makes me nervous is that as their honesty and integrity is tested, and they first learn of some of the awful things going on all around them, they’ll fail the test. They won’t simply walk off the job, they’ll make their dirty little deal with their new employer because the benefits are good and because they believe that somehow it will get better. Without serious attention to this problem, it will only get worse.
Consider that for every whistleblower who goes public, who risks it all then loses everything, there are approximately 50,100 fellow employees who have swallowed hard, walked into their boss’ office and made some attempt to give the American taxpayer a better product by addressing a waste, an abuse, some fraud or some incompetence.
And then they’re summarily tossed out of their boss’ office after being told to shut up, to stop rocking the boat, to grow up, to stop being a pest, or they’ll be very sorry.
For all the hoopla that’s given to searching for and then finding honest people to work in the federal service, you should be aware that the name given to those who insist on doing things the right way is “Goo Goos.” That’s the best compliment Washington insiders can think of to describe honest federal employees. That should give you some idea about how bad it really is.
So many federal employees end up choosing the path that guarantees the least trouble for their careers – silence. Some don’t even approach the boss because they’ve heard about what happens when others have tried. Honest employees scolded the first, second or third time (if it takes that many times to get the message) by bureaucrats determined to march in place until retirement eventually get the message.
The whistleblowers who simply refuse to go along with “the program” get both barrels of the angry management scatter-gun for their troubles, and that usually means their career is over.
The otherwise good employee who decides to remain silent never gets used to a corrupted workplace. He sulks or complains, and thus, he becomes a part of the problem. He wants to be a part of the solution until he learns the cost to career.
Making the transition from being an honest citizen to becoming a dishonest, corrupt government employee is such an institutional problem in the federal system that it even has a name; it’s called “losing your virginity.” Thus, otherwise honest people become part of the massive morale problem that today grips the huge, wasteful federal bureaucracy ever tighter, even if they’re only guilty of remaining silent in the face of obvious corruption.
Today, federal government agencies build at least 10 percent into their budgets to cover abuse, theft, incompetence and waste. With a budget in the trillions, that adds up to a lot of your cash.
You would think that there would be a program to encourage honest employees to come forward to stop a gross abuse of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money. You would think there would be a South Lawn ceremony at which time the president of the United States would thank those who have had the courage to stop a fraud or an incompetent waste of your money.
You would think that in a time of war, there would be no place for laziness, waste, deceitfulness or other forms of employee misconduct, and if you think that, you would be dead wrong.
What’s my proof? Linda Tripp, Billy Dale, and my former FBI partner Dennis Sculimbrene, as well as many others who fell victim to a federal government that moved swiftly to punish them when they became whistleblowers.
What the Clinton administration did to them was so utterly wrong, and yet the new administration has been in place for more than one year now. Yes, I know there is a war going on, but how difficult would it be for the federal government to right the wrongs committed against these decent whistleblowers by ordering his attorney general to settle their cases immediately so as to end their suffering that is both financial and professional?
If the Bush administration would simply do that, it would send a strong signal to others inside our government who have significant information relevant to the health of our national security to come forward now and tell us what they know.
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