Thursday, March 13, 2008

Day 46 "In the trenches" (weather-shifting edition)

Parable: Winds of change blowin' 'round here. People hired, people leaving, upper administration stepping deep in it.

One of the things that is typically misunderstood by outsiders to any bureaucratic culture is the resilience with which such institutional cultures maintain themselves even in the wake of ridiculous "sweeping" top-down change. A lesson I learned from watching Presidential administrations change in D.C. is that, no matter how fiercely or demagogically a new administration trumpets "new brooms" and "the solutions that are all simple if only those lazy long-term workers really wanted to become more efficient", you simply don't change institutional cultures swiftly or from the top-down.

When the greasy little bastard Gingrich went to Washington in '94 on the heels of his "Republican revolution," one of his targets was "all that waste and mismanagement in public broadcasting." This in itself was a cynical lie--public broadcasting represents a microscopic part of the national budget, compared to farm subsidies, corporate bailouts, or, I don't know, failed imperial wars and arms industry corruption--but Gingrich thought he had sussed out that frustration with Clinton amongst the Republican rank-and-file might be usefully unified by victimizing what he perceived to be easy targets. So he and his political surrogates (most notoriously, Pat "the Nazi" Buchanan, who never served in the military, very famously capped a rabble-rousing speech by screeching, in paraphrase of Jeb Stuart, "Mount up and ride to the sound of the guns!") blew out a lot of hot air claiming that "cutting the waste" at NPR (sic!!!!) would be all that was needed to fund Reagan-esque tax breaks. This was insanely bad arithmetic.

Interestingly, it also turned out to be very bad politics.

At the time, Dharmonia and I were working in public radio, eking out 7 bucks an hour while slogging to finish graduate degrees. Understandably, Gingrich's rabble-rousing and hate-filled attempt to victimize public broadcasting made a lot of people very scared--they saw their miniscule federal funds being further cut, and they feared that Gingrich's people would succeed in eroding what little public support for broadcasting might still be out there (Gingrich had intentionally and accurately sussed-out that said support was eroding because anybody with any money and political clout was already watching cable TV--and that thus, the only people who cared about educational broadcast TV were poor folks with no clout).

In the event, the reverse happened: there was a HUGE backlash, and the next annual fund-drive raised more money than they had any time in the past 12 years: people out there in the electorate were angered by the blatant and demagogic targeting of a valued arts resource that wasn't actually at fault. One of the clearest indications of all that the American population still cares about public art is that they do push back against cynical and arrogant attempts to falsely victimize those without political power.

The same thing happened all across D.C.: the ideologues and lunatics who rode on Gingrich's greasy coattails thought that the rabble-rousing bullshit that animated their backwards bases could also be used to browbeat long-term career office-holders and administrative staff.

This is stupid. Any career person has seen political appointees, each with their own thoughtful or ignorant, arrogant or sensitive, essentially uninformed outsider's perspective, come in trumpeting their "new broom" reforms. And if those appointees are dumb enough to browbeat and thus alienate the career people, those career people don't have to explicitly defy the top-down directives. All they have to do is put their heads down in their cubicles, do the minimum work necessary on the boneheaded new initiatives to maintain credibility, and wait for the temporary assholes to crash and burn, as they always do (as Gingrich did, as certain parties quite near here will) when their political browbeating runs headlong into the Shoals of Reality.

The only way to get things done in a bureaucracy in any lasting or meaningful and constructive way is to lead. Not to drive. To inspire people, to demonstrate via real and consistent behavior that you value their competence and are listening to their expertise, and to settle for slow, incremental, and real change. Not the polishing-turds gasbag rabble-rousing approach of "No Child Left Behind" and "Victory in Iraq" [tm].

Any competent administrator knows this. Any "new broom" who fails to recognize this (are you listening, Donald Rumsfeld? Paul Wolfowitz? Newt Gingrich?) is doomed to failure--which of course he (it's still usually a "he") will spin and turd-polish as "success", just before he bails to the private sector with a nice severance package.

Seasons changing, baby. There's storms at this time of year, but NO-ONE: no jumped-up "history" professor (Gingrich), or jumped-up CEO with zero combat experience (Rumsfeld), or oil-and-gas lobbyist, can change what works and what doesn't work in such seasons of change. All they can do is fuck shit up in the short term.

In the long term, springtime is still coming.

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