Thursday, January 3, 2013

Leading Liars: How Washington Works

Person after person and one bureaucracy after another are falling on swords to protect higher ups in the Benghazi scandal.   Hilary Clinton blocked the path leading to the White House saying “I take responsibility” for the Benghazi tragedy.  Moving down the State Department ladder, the assistant secretary for diplomatic security, two deputy assistants and an official in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs were asked to step down to atone for bungled security. Their swords we later learned had the consistency of rubber.   Now the legislators are in on the game.  FOBSS (Friends of Barack Senate Side) wrote a report deflecting blame across the State Department and the alphabet soup intelligence agencies, each of which by its institutional silence acknowledges its role in the horrible tragedy.     

This circus brings back to mind one of my own inside-the-Beltway experiences that had been relegated to dormant memory banks.

System wide the Postal Service used (and still uses by the way) a global productivity measure called Total Factor Productivity (TFP) to gauge performance.  While employed by the Postal Service in the late 1990's I oversaw the production of and was custodian of the metric.  TFP data had long been reported in the Postal Service’s annually published “Comprehensive Statement on Postal Operations” submitted to the Congress.   The Postal Service used the metric to define strategic goals and its success or failure in achieving those goals.  Supporting data and calculations in mind boggling detail were submitted for review to the independent Postal Rate Commission.

One day an employee from our Government Relations group stopped by my office asking for input on the new Comprehensive Statement productivity section.  I said I was sorry, I couldn’t produce it.  I had been told by my bosses that I should no longer share TFP data with anyone, at any time.   The bosses said Bill (the first name of the Postmaster General) had decided TFP data didn’t reflect what was actually happening on the workroom floor or give proper credit to management.   TFP didn’t have visibility or credibility, the PMG reportedly said. 

Surprise, surprise, the TFP trend had turned negative.  The Postal Service was producing less with more.  I objected, pointing out that TFP calculation had been identified as the best available process of gauging postal productivity growth (and decline) in a very public arena.  The data were published and expected.  If the Postmaster General didn’t like the data, we should explain why (there wasn’t really a good explanation; the then recent positive bump in financial performance was due to an unprecedented and never to be repeated decrease in unit labor costs, not better operating management nor more efficient use of resources).  We wouldn’t get away with hiding TFP.   My protests were unavailing.

I referred my Government Relations colleague to our Operations group, hoping they would be willing to aggregate workroom floor productivity data that are used to track local operational performance.  In the Finance group, we had just entered into a let’s-buy-some-time contract with the expert productivity-something-or-other Center at Virginia Tech, which was supposed to come up with a new productivity-something-or-other measure, but that exercise wouldn’t be far enough along to be of any help for at least six months.  That was the last I heard of that year’s Comprehensive Statement until I learned, via the front page of the Washington Post, of a letter authored by the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government Reform, excoriating the Postal Service for flouting the law’s injunction that the Postal Service report on its productivity.  Mr. Chairman demanded that heads roll. 

I was summoned to Postal Service Controller’s office.  He asked me with a glint in his eye whether he had ever even once told me “to not report the Postal Service’s productivity in the Comprehensive Statement.”  I said, a bit sarcastically, “No, you had only told me to not give anyone TFP data at any time.”  He thanked me and I left.  I got a call from our CFO’s secretary asking me to come on up.  The CFO said I know you’ve been a strong supporter of the TFP metric, but please confirm “that I never told you to break the law concerning the reporting of productivity performance.”  Now I was catching on.  The CFO was normally a decent fellow.  “No, you never told me to break the law” I said. 

The next day a copy of a letter from our CFO to the Subcommittee Chairman appeared in my inbox, stating that the person responsible for failing to disclose TFP data had been identified.  The miscreant (me but not identified by name) was counseled on the error of his ways and was working on producing a new productivity metric.  The CFO promised no further omissions.  A letter issued as well from the VP of Government Relations saying the Comprehensive Statement report coordinator was disciplined; his calendar year bonus would be withheld (bonuses were deferred until after Jan. 1 that year because of a tax issue).   The General Counsel signed her own letter, this stating that the Law Department would tighten its review process for the next fiscal year.  When we released the TFP data we attempted, as best as we could, to layer lipstick on that pig.  As the final act in the drama, the House Subcommittee Chairman called the GAO in, which conducted a review  and issued a report recommending a change in the law, so none of this would happen again.  GAO never established how or why the omission occurred in the first place. 

This is how Washington works.   It distorts, deceives and shucks and jives.   It uses bureaucracies, institutions and underlings to deflect blame and absolve leaders of responsibility.   Washington protects the guy at the top, always.  It’s understood.  And it succeeds unless the guy at the top is so vain that he tapes conversations in his office.  At the end of the day the players gather in a circle and congratulate each other for having reformed the system.

What happened with respect to Benghazi, almost certainly, is Obama said he wanted a light footprint in Libya because having an armed camp didn't fit with his spin on the success of the Libyan intervention, would undercut his claim he had El Qaeda on the run and would discredit his glorification of the Arab Spring.  The minions complied.  But that will never be directly established because everyone protects the guy at the top.

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