By James R. Schmook, Ph.D.
In a bow to ecologists, I realize swamps can be useful in certain environments. However, the Washington, D.C., political environment is often referred to as the swamp that needs to be drained, and that is that swamp we will examine today.
Sen. Chuck Schumer recently demonstrated how easy it is for denizens of the swamp to misunderstand what "draining the swamp" really means. He attacked President Trump for his choices of key people in the new administration and was unable to grasp how these millionaires and bankers could possibly be helping to drain the swamp. Schumer evidently doesn't realize that the swamp problem is about entrenched career politicians and government executives who have consistently resisted all efforts to reduce the size of the federal budget and reduce the number of government employees. What we need are fresh eyes, fresh ears and fresh faces in Washington. It's not about whether they are from Main Street or Wall Street.
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Swamp draining will succeed only when we reduce the power and influence of the D.C. "WeBes." These are the managers who proudly proclaim, whenever a new administration assumes office, "We Be here before you got here, and We Be here after you leave." They assume they are irreplaceable, and they are wrong. This is the first of three elements needed in swamp draining; it involves personnel and reducing the number of careerists in federal government. In some government agencies currently, over 60 percent of their employees are working beyond their required retirement years, and now is the time to allow younger employees to assume more responsibilities and get the benefit of higher-paying positions.
We do not assume all government employees are contributing to the D.C. swamp problem. Many of them are motivated, responsible, high-achieving individuals – and we want more of them. They often do their own job and the job of low-performers, and then suffer the indignity of being promoted and rewarded exactly the same as the unmotivated.
The second element of swamp draining is cleaning up the processes that make the swamp a morass. For example, the current budgeting process actually encourages government managers to spend money, not save money. Impossible, you say? Not when you learn that managers are constantly reminded by superiors to make sure they spend every dollar that has been previously approved, even if they don't need it. The justification is that if you don't use it, you'll forever lose it. That is what's wrong with the budgeting process. It runs counter to what good government should be doing, which is using our citizens' taxes prudently. If we change the process so that we reward mangers for saving money rather than spending what they don't need, we will drain the swamp.
There are a myriad of such processes within the government that, unwittingly or not, run counter to best practices of efficiency and effectiveness. Just a couple of examples are the Weapons Acquisition process, and the Contracting process.
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The third element of swamp draining concerns policies and regulations. These are easy to establish, but more difficult to eliminate. One example is an unwritten policy that tends to employ a hire-from-within mentality that results in personnel being promoted from within the federal bureaucracy rather than hiring well-qualified individuals from outside the government, when filling vacant positions. Also, the policy regarding firing of poor-performing personnel is so cumbersome that it results in the practice of "stashing" people who should not be on the government payrolls. Managers just give in and allow the poor performers to come to work, do no work, but collect their paychecks. It's time to see what can be done to relieve our taxpayers of under-performing employees.
There are also many examples of "required" reports in every government agency that must be gathered and submitted every week but have no current use for making decisions. They may have once been useful, but no longer. We can reduce and eliminate many such reports, which will reduce personnel workload.
The swamp can be drained. The improvement technologies already exist for reducing costs, speeding up processes, improving quality and providing better services to our citizens. The timing couldn't be better for the Trump administration to make it happen.
James R. Schmook, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Navy commander who resides in Florida. He served as a bombardier-navigator in Vietnam, spent over 20 years in Naval Intelligence and was a process improvement and cost management consultant to government agencies and corporations for 30 years. Schmook's Ph.D. is in Organizational Behavior.