, ,

Confessions of a Government Man

Welcome to my blog. I am a retired Senior Executive (GSA) and the author of a recently published book, Confessions of a Government Man: How to Succeed in Any Bureaucracy.

The book is meant to educate and entertain (emphasis on the latter) by sharing the wisdom gained during my lengthy government career and to impart tall tales about “funny happenings in high places in government.” I’ve included a lot of tongue-in-cheek business advice for success in any large organization. As the promo material states, on one hand I had the honor of dealing with a lot of influential people, including presidents, members of congress, judges, military leaders and giants of industry. On the other hand I also had to cope with community agitators, petty thieves, urban hustlers and garden variety con-men.

I will be posting excerpts from the book and material based on the book’s contents. As an introduction, for an opening blog I describe my first and last days at GSA. Between the lines is a succinct colorful history of government employment in general. I would be the first to admit that times, technology and the profile of government employment have changed dramatically (for the better) over the course of my career. Because the book is a little crude at times some of the terminology has been refined to make it suitable for GovLoop.

* * *

It seems like only yesterday, but when I came to GSA in 1965 I was a baby-faced recruit who got carded in bars for drinking eligibility. When I retired a lifetime later I still got proofed, but this time it was in the movies for the senior discount. In between, there was a career filled with memorable experiences.

On the day I reported to GSA I was welcomed as warmly as if I had horse(expletive deleted) on my shoes. My first boss was a branch chief named Alex. He was like legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. When a reporter asked one of Lombardi’s top players whether the coach gave special treatment to his stars the player said, “Vince treats us all alike. Like pigs.” That could also be said of Alex. On my first day, Alex gave me two pieces of wisdom to last a lifetime. “We’re surrounded by thieves and liars,” was his take on his peers, employees, superiors, customers and anyone else who had the pleasure of doing business with him. His other mantra was “All politicians are (expletive deleted).” This was a lesson that I was to learn many times over in my career, perhaps a bit more diplomatically but there was always that silent barrier between careerists and political appointees or elected officials.

I owe Alex a debt of gratitude for what he taught me about the work ethic and for providing me with an endless supply of great quotations (none of which are suitable for this post).

Other than Alex, almost every man I met that first day was named John or Jim. The ladies were all Mary or Betty; they had Wonder Woman eyeglasses, teased hair and pounded Underwood or Smith-Corona manual typewriters.

I received my share of advice from crusty veterans. Before settling in, an old-timer named John, who must have been at least forty years old, introduced himself, offered a hearty handshake, and said to me, “Son, let me give you a bit of advice. Get yourself another job.” More than forty years have elapsed and I’m not sure of whether I should have taken his advice or not.

Apparently I was a willing listener, or too frightened to disrespect my elders. This senior person filled me with his personal quirks, much of which concerned a deteriorating domestic situation. Among the details of his life, which I did not have a need to know, was his confession that “My wife says… (see ‘not suitable’ comment above).”

* * *

Fast forward thirty-nine years. My retirement party was almost like a mob funeral with all of the proper respects being paid, except that the guest of honor was still alive.

This is a brief description of the GSA I left, excerpted from my book:

When I left the government, the profile of government employment had changed dramatically from my early days. The typewriters and adding machines were gone. Now the women were named Jennifer or Stacey, had advanced degrees, could negotiated blood out of a stone and could do magic with a computer. They drank apple martinis at happy hour. The Jims and Johns were augmented by Jasons and Michaels who wore designer shirts, never heard of polyester sport jackets and enjoyed a Samuel Adams with dinner.

When we traveled we didn’t have to justify air versus auto or train and we stayed at the Marriott or Ritz-Carlton instead of the local fleabags. We went to conferences at the Waldorf and yacht clubs instead of the basement of the federal building. We could purchase refreshments for everybody without having to ask people to throw a few bucks in the pot or bury the cost in some other accounting classification such as a bogus cab ride.

Our computers were state of the art and our offices were first class. The vinyl floors and bare ceilings were replaced by plush carpet and modern lighting which didn’t need supplemental desk lamps. The old gray or wood desks were now ultra-sleek modular units.

Employees were empowered to make critical decisions and they were all literate enough to sign their own correspondence. Those that couldn’t work the usual 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM day were allowed to be flexible in their hours or even work at home. People received transit subsidies, child care assistance and tuition reimbursement. Among the most ingenious workplace initiatives was leave sharing, whereby if someone faced a hardship and ran out of vacation time and sick leave, they could receive donations of leave from fellow employees. This saved many from financial disaster.

We carried cell phones and BlackBerrys before many in the private sector. Salary levels were commensurate, and sometimes better, than private industry. A government employee was far from the old downtrodden bureaucrat chained to a lifetime of servitude in the system.

On the flip side, as a manager I couldn’t fire or discipline anyone without a paper trail and lengthy due process. Every dissatisfied employee or unsuccessful contractor had multiple forums to seek justice. This took up an incredible amount of supervisory, legal and human resources time.

If I used one of my salty expressions at the wrong time I could get hit with an EEO complaint or be charged with creating a hostile work environment. Ditto if I innocently patted an employee, male or female, on the shoulder for good work.

We had to be careful of what we committed to writing because almost every document was subject to public review under the Freedom of Information Act or discovery in litigation. Likewise, any controversial project required public input, often a good idea but more often a forum for every super liberal or anti-government scholar who wanted to delay a project.

* * *

The bottom line on all of this is that the government is a pretty good to work.

I will post additional book excerpts from time to time. For more information about myself or my book please check out my website, http://www.thegovernmentman.com. For a look inside go Amazon.com.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Terrence (Terry) Hill PHR

Thanks for sharing your story. A lot has changed in your 39-year tenure, but in some ways we have barely changed at all!

Ed Powell

I joined a little later in 1973 because military service interrupted my formal education. However, it seems that my experience from that point on was totally different, with one exception. Like you, my first supervisor helped shape my feelings and actions throughout my career.

He was a Bob, not an Alex; Bob Clancy from the Army’s Redstone Arsenal. He was newly assigned to Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing and was facing a hostile crowd as he attempted to replace a historic quality control process. He hired a gaggle of fresh faced college students, made us wear suits, walk ramrod straight, smile a lot and shake every hand we could muster. We could never leave the office without a jacket and we had “the gospel” — statistical quality assurance talking points — in our pocket at all times. (We worked in a suit with shined shoes in a factory around machinery, oil, grease, splintered pallets, steel bandings, solvents and ink where most wore coveralls and boots.)

Our official mission was very limited but he gave us a stronger tasking. “Go out and do anything and everything in any corner of the building or remote warehouse that will result in a better or safer product.” He said that we would be challenged but should plow ahead because most people would not make a scene. He told us that we could take as much authority and power as we needed because most people were so willing to give up the responsibility.

He as 100% right and I did that very thing for 30 years. It was a great ride and I can’t imagine working with a better group of people than those that I met and worked side-by-side with in my career.

I also inherited more than a few losers along the way and made a few regrettable hires but I did “the right thing” for those that worked hard every day by firing them. There is NO DEFENSE for NOT FIRING a loser and I found that most federal managers used the myth — “impossible to fire a government employee” – as an excuse for not doing THEIR job!!! (It isn’t as hard as it looks when you have the support of your agency management, HR and legal staff.)

Jenyfer Johnson

Love your blog and I think I will have to get your book. You sound alot like the “old guys” I started out working with at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, CA, when I started my career back in 1984 (they’d been there awhile). They showed me the ropes, where to go, how things were done (and not done) and things were alot different back then.
I can’t wait to read more!!

Carol Clark

I enjoyed your “straight shooter” type writing style Alan. I started my career a few decades later (1989), yet the work ethic, culture, and technology was almost identical to what you described in 1965. My first supervisor was Linda. Total Quality Management (TQM) was the latest craze and we were brainstorming and benchmarking and learning the guru approach. It is amazing when you reflect on all the people who have crossed your path in your career and yet they never even realized that they were mentors in your life. I can’t wait to read more…….