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Sunday, June 2, 2013
On my very first day of federal service many years ago, my boss plunked a huge stack of letters down upon my desk. “Here’s your first job,” he said. “Answer these!” It was a daunting pile of queries and requests, but I got through them all.
“The purpose of that exercise,” my boss advised, “was to show you who you work for — the American people. All of them. Don’t ever forget it.”
He was a wise old bird. It was indeed a lesson that impressed me and endured. The pile of letters I had to work though spanned the breadth and depth of our national populace. In that long-ago pre-digital era, the physical appearance of a missive could speak volumes: from torn loose-leaf to vellum bond, impeccable typing to barely legible scrawls.
I recalled this episode recently amid the scandal and furor attaching to the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department.
The complexities and quiddities of each issue will keep investigators and pundits long engaged.
I hope the American people will shun quick fixes and simplistic solutions. I would humbly offer, however, a surmise of a rather simple “cause” that may be captured in a single word: insularity.
Its simplest meaning denotes an island, from its Latin root, insula. In modern usage, its definition suggests ignorance or lack of interest in cultures, ideas or peoples outside one’s own experience.
Alas, in my 31 years of combined (federal and state) public service, I witnessed this unfortunate phenomenon — and its regrettable outcomes — under different guises, on several occasions.
To grasp the true import — and inherent tragedy — of insularity in public agencies, it is essential to emphasize a bedrock truth too swiftly and facilely ignored by most American people: We are served, day in and day out, by one of the best, most honest and effective civil governments in the world.
Yet problems do cyclically occur in the “family” of federal agencies. The results invariably spark publicly visible crises whose antecedents were usually rooted in an agency’s “good intentions.”
The public entertains a long-nurtured image of the lazy bureaucrat, with feet propped upon the desktop. Yet his convenient portrait of indolence is belied by the fact that too many agencies are, in fact, understaffed and over-tasked — and have been for a long time, regardless of parties in power.
Despite staff and funding restraints, such agencies press on — sometimes even heroically — to accomplish their missions.
And therein is where so many woes of insularity arise: Stressed agencies frequently address their mandates any way they can. Thus, when workloads increase and duty complexities multiply, a nearly fatal form of “task triage” transpires: Agencies lose touch with their true “customer,” the American citizen. Agencies then respond often to only the squeakiest wheels; they sacrifice what seems expendable (often, mistakenly, their public outreach); they succumb to a subtle but insidious “state of siege” mentality; they withdraw into themselves; they cleave too tightly to their own interpretations of their mission statements; and, in short, they become islands.
In the worst instances, insularity devolves to hubris. And a public entity can become profoundly, toxically estranged from the very public it should serve. Such instances in American history are not unknown, but mercifully, relatively rare.
Again, the irony and anomaly is that such instances are usually not born of evil intent but more often misdirected zeal.
It was my great good fortune to work for an exceptionally inspiring and admirable agency. Our congressionally mandated mission (drawn from a daunting matrix of 150-plus federal laws and countless step-down regulations) was to “conserve, protect and enhance” living natural resources. The key phrase came at the end: “. . . for the continuing benefit of the American people.”
Happily, 99.9 percent of the agency embraced that final phrase 99.9 percent of the time. Rarely, there would be those individuals who might insistently voice: “But I work for the Resources!” It was the cry of commitment, passion and dedication; alas, it was also the perilous anthem that could temporarily tempt some to stray to its siren strains — with predictably rocky results.
So, I urge all citizens to expect excellence from their civil government staffs, but insist upon openness. To current public servants bedeviled by shrinking budgets and swelling tasks, I humbly share counsel offered me by that wise old bird, my first boss: Remember who you work for — “the American people — all of them.”
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