It is the start of a new year and time for another tall tale. As I’ve said just a few times, 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. This blog can truly be called a “confession” about behind the scenes maneuvering. Although this particular story is more than forty years old, the same type of event can happen today. It is also an excellent example of how young govies can be empowered to make major decisions (whether qualified or not) at a junior ranking in the federal hierarchy.
This is a book excerpt.
Working for the government, at a young age and with minimal experience, you can find yourself making critical decisions, affecting the lives and livelihoods of many people.
I was with GSA for about two years and as a trainee I was learning the business of planning and managing space the government way. It required learning the laws under which we operated and the often cumbersome procedures and policies.
My first real assignment involved finding space for tenants in federal buildings in upstate New York on an as-needed basis. I worked under the guidance of a senior technician and we both reported to the same supervisor. We were involved in the planning for new federal buildings in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. The scenario was that each proposed project had to survive a preliminary planning process and if there is congressional support they went through a funding ritual which normally involved appropriating money for site and design first. Once the building was designed and after the obligatory political haggling, construction funds were appropriated.
One quiet summer afternoon I was sitting at my desk shuffling a few papers and observing the cruise ships (our lower Manhattan office had a river view), when the phone rang on the other side of Alex’s (my branch chief) partition.
I heard only his side of the conversation.
“Let me find out.”
The receiver clunked to the top of the steel gray desk and Alex emerged from behind his partition. He looked around, not happy that I was the only person in sight.
“Where’s Charlie (my immediate supervisor)?”
“He’s in Newark at a meeting,” I replied.
“Where’s Milt (senior technician)?”
“He’s with Charlie.”
“What about Pat?” This would be Pittsburgh Pat, an eccentric technician who he would only ask for out of desperation.
Now he looked at me realizing he reached the bottom of the barrel and had to provide critical information to the commissioner. Displeased that his career was in the hands of a 23 year-old trainee he said, “You’ve been working on upstate, haven’t you?”
He phumphered a few times, knowing he was entrusting me with some political flimflammery. “The White House wants to announce a project for upstate New York.” This was during the Lyndon Johnson administration, when I first became aware that White House news releases were well orchestrated con jobs.
Alex went on. “Which project do we need more, Buffalo or Rochester?”
I knew that both projects were designed and awaiting construction funding. Now, with thirty seconds allocated to think about it, I was an advisor to the Congress. I looked up at the ceiling, winced a few times and silently contemplated that whatever the choice was I would likely spend a lot of time in one of those frozen upstate tundras.
Both cities had a minor league hockey team, which was a passion of mine. Buffalo, however, was closer to several Canadian hockey-mad cities, expanding the personal fulfillment possibilities.
“Buffalo. Most of the current space is obsolete and…..” That’s as far as I got. It was an early lesson in getting to the point immediately without extraneous fluff.
“Thanks,” was Alex’s only comment as he reentered his bunker and retrieved the receiver. “Buffalo, Mr. Commissioner.”
Within days Congress had signed off on the funding and there were massive press releases on how the Johnson administration was helping upstate New York so vote Democratic this year. That is how the Buffalo Federal Building happened to be completed in 1969 (Nixon presidency but it was started during the Johnson administration) and the Rochester Building not until 1972, under Nixon administration funding.