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I spent this morning closing up the offices of my agency in Washington, DC. We're furloughed until further notice and prohibited from performing any of our official duties, even on a volunteer basis, which I would have been happy to do. We may or may not get paid for the coming days or weeks. Everyone in this city has a prediction or an "inside scoop," but nobody really knows anything beyond that the House and the Senate are at a difficult impasse. Until leadership actually gathers in the same room together with the intent to negotiate, you shouldn't bother watching the 24-hour make-news channels on latest developments. This could take a while. Here are what I see as some of the positive and negative aspects of the shutdown. On the plus side, the American people are learning not to take the state of the federal government as a given. They'll see that, despite the progressive narrative, without a leviathan bureaucratic government managing every aspect of its lives, the world doesn't come crashing to a tragic end. The stock market doesn't seem to mind much one way or the other. My hope is that citizens might start questioning how many hundreds of thousands of "non-essential" employees we actually need inside of these agencies. That much would be a positive development, but most seem too busy taking to social media to blast this party or the other to ask the harder questions. The negatives are more obvious and have been covered at length. Parks, monuments, and agencies closed. Documents and payments not being processed. If federal employees are given back pay, as they have been in past shutdowns, then a bunch of employees were sitting around doing nothing on the clock. Of course, in the case of agencies like the NSA, we can question whether "doing nothing" belongs under the positives column as a less-bad alternative. The ugly truth about the federal government is there are far too many people in it, and most of them are paid very generously to do little work on a "when I get around to it" schedule. The facts that federal employees are essentially impossible to fire and are paid the same regardless of performance create an incentives problem. Telework - touted by the President as a "no-brainer" and "win-win" for all parties, is a terrible scourge that has destroyed anything resembling a team office culture. Most days, around half of our agency workers are at home, and its an open secret that telework days are little more than vacation days in which the employee is "on call" for simple online requests but otherwise free to go about their personal business. I understand this is what happened to Yahoo in recent years, which is why its new CEO took the drastic but necessary step of revoking telework options for most employees. As with any organization, there are high performers in the federal government, and not all of the employees are soulless timeserving bureaucrats (yet). These people tend to be younger, earn less money, and have higher credentials, such as law degrees and PhDs. One worry I have is that the shutdown will disproportionately impact and dissuade these high performers and either encourage them to leave federal service - making every federal agency operate more like your local DMV - or turn them all into yet more actively disengaged grievance mongers, complaining about their lots and counting the days until retirement.
It's that time of year again. President Obama is asking Federal employees to submit their ideas to his widely advertised SAVE Award to make government operations "more effective and efficient and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely." The lucky winner of the annual contest gets to present his or her cost-cutting idea "to President Obama in person" (wow!!!). http://www.whitehouse.gov/save-award The stated purpose of the initiative is noble, so what objections to such a program could one possibly have? The unfortunate truth is the SAVE Award is a taxpayer-funded promotional campaign for our President with no actual leadership involved and pocket change for savings. The winning SAVE Award ideas from 2009-2012 were invariably uncontroversial doodads that require no significant tradeoffs, burning of special interest groups, or decision-making of any kind. In past years, the SAVE Award forums quickly filled with much-favorited submissions such as "End the War on Drugs," "Fire Useless Employees," "Stop Going on Expensive Vacations," or "Sell Nancy Pelosi's Public Jet," only to have these leading submissions flagged and scoured by a team of online moderators. The winning SAVE entry last year (2012) was that "all Federal employees who receive public transit benefits shift from regular transit fare to the reduced senior fare as soon as they are eligible." The previous year's (2011) selection was "creating a centralized tool repository - or 'lending library' - where [NASA] tools can be stored, catalogued, and checked in and out by NASA employees." Not exactly game-changing stuff there, is it? The SAVE Award exclusively - and by design - selects one-time gimmicks with modest savings to keep from embarrassing the President with scandal while presenting an airbrushed public appearance of being concerned with reducing costs. All this culminates in a gushing and grandiose photo-op with the Celebrity-In-Chief. The clear progressive implication is - not only are these politically safe proposals the best ideas out there for cutting government spending- but we can maintain a lean and effective government through technocratic tinkering alone. Based on the track record, it's difficult to argue the SAVE Award is anything more than a publicity stunt with little-to-no value to those actually concerned with efficiency of government operations. Don't expect the Affordable Care Act to make an appearance in SAVE 2013.