This basically puts to words how I felt the day I was walking out the door from this situation:
Category Archives: Rants
Perhaps my naive self was not fully prepared to appreciate the sheer monolithic structure of government work. I don’t believe I ever made a pretense that I was fully capable and/or ready to enter into the structure, but at the same time, it’s stunning how absolutely confined it all is and how positively medieval. Defined at first by Ganshof as the combination of legal and military customs among the military nobility binding land, lord, and vassals together, feudalism is a problematic term at best. It evokes a large number of images of a rigidly held power structure devoted to consolidating and holding as much power as possible. This is the angle from which I will make my comparison.
Like any good structure, there is a model that imposes structure. From my experience with this job, the power structure is pyramidal. Obviously, the Governor and the state’s Congress sit above this structure and influence it with their decisions and I am not genuinely not so concerned about that because that is out of the agency’s control. People elect their representatives, regardless of political agreement or disagreement, and as a state employee, you are bound to follow the laws and regulations they bind to your positions. Therefore, if the Governor is in our analogy the Royal, then the Congress is the House of Lords & Commons (note: the line is becoming very blurred here in the US on bicameral legislatures and in a small, poor state, those with the most money may not always have the most influence).
The Director of the Agency essentially serves as Royal Governor of the agency. Political appointed and legislatively approved, this individual’s role is to represent the agency in all realms. In my time at the agency, I met and interacted with the Director twice. The first was during supervisor training (to which he was mandated to attend) and the second was a spur of the moment visit to the county office at which I worked. On both occasions, the Director requested “real talk” about the agency and its goals and how employees were representing the State. On both occasions, questions were preemptively screened and vetted before getting to the Director. In other words, very little substance was offered. While this is not too surprising in general, it speaks volumes that the majority of communication from the Director’s office was in the form of press releases, vetting questions, and media interviews. The role of the Director from my perspective was mostly PR. The Director serves from the central office.
Beneath the Director, there are a large number of Divisional Directors. In such a large agency with so many encompassing programs from the State Hospital to Child Protective services, these Divisional Directors essentially serve as the established lords/ladies. Each is appointed by the director and requires gubernatorial approval before they take office. You hear very, very little from these people. In fact, the Director serving for my division retired before I promoted within the agency. Since that occurred, I do not remember, except when the new Divisional Director was introduced, ever having met, received an email from, or otherwise heard discussion about the new Divisional Director. This is important – not because silence indicates nothing: silence from a particular position in this level of management means they are genuinely working hard behind the scenes. Like the Agency Director, they serve in Central Office. The best analogue I have for this position would be a member of the clergy (or the second estate as they were called).
Beneath each Divisional Director, there are a number of Assistant Directors. In the case of my division, there were many ranging from personnel directors to policy directors, &c. Again, similar to clergy, the Assistant Directors were the Mouth of the Central Office (for your LotR fans out there) and were far more visible than the two above. One person in particular demonstrated best practices and powerful leadership qualities that would later come to define how I would attempt to manage my staff. This Assistant Director was very much visible; however, one could attempt to contact any of them for guidance. Each had their own support staff as well; for example, the Assistant Director of Policy (for whom a goal is to insure effective communication of new regulations and policies to the entire agency and its staff) has policy writers for all services offers, lawyers for specific projects, &c. Like the above, all these serve in Central Office.
This represents the top third of the pyramid and effectively documents the structure of the agency’s Central office. There are more staff obviously and other roles that I’ve not indicated here, but these are the important ones as it relates to the Division with which I worked. Like most monoliths, the structure holds its highest status individuals in the most centralized location with religious-like attending staff to administer the details. Central office does not equate to Field office, however, and the continued division of authority and structure is important because this is where it begins affecting all points along the way.
Nulle terre sans seigneur
No land with out a lord; no property without a liege. Those that have served in the Field Office shall, if they have integrated enough with successful people, be granted land of their own with approval from the sovereign. This is where the Field Office staff begins being impacted directly. To manage the need for a large number of Field Offices (one, sometimes two, in each county), the State has divided into a number of geographic and geopolitical (in one case) areas. A Director runs each area, much like a manorial noble in Britain would centuries ago (except with less killing, death, etc). They answer to the Assistant Director of the programs (the individual who I described earlier serves in this role and is wonderful at it). On a day to day basis, it is the Regional Director who’s vision is instituted and who’s dictates matter most. This position is therefore the most important managerial position for the Field Office: from performance evaluations and other personnel matters to communication regarding policy and regulation of the programs, their stamp is on nearly everything in the fief they have been granted.
Unfortunately, the Regional Director (RD) under whom I served was not a good one: tyrannical and flighty are the easiest descriptors. The RD’s answer for most problems was to criticize and take power to institute what was perceived as necessary. The RD has a number of assistants that serve as Data Analysts for the area. The Data Analysts (DAs) are important in these situations, from my observations. I noted that when there were DAs that were willing to investigate, provide accurate and concise real world information, and otherwise talk to the Field Offices, the RD would follow their lead. Being a report driven performance evaluated position, the RD wants numbers to demonstrate strong guidance and compliance with federal goals. In cases where the DAs aren’t doing this and are pushing to be as favorable to the boss as possible, the RD gets as much leeway as they can and the only person that can hold them accountable is in Central Office and in most cases is over 100 miles away from any Regional Office in the state (the RDs get to designate their own Regional Offices upon assuming the title).
Underneath the RD, each Field Office has a Director whose goals it is to facilitate the services for the county. The Field Office Director was my guiding light and additional inspiration. The Director’s job is to supervise and manage personnel and to abet the Field Office to meet Federal goals. However, each office has a Director, the RD’s vision is implemented by the Field Office Directors. When one has a boss that has the ability to control nearly each aspect of your day, then you will find yourself complying with dictates that may absolutely no sense and often don’t have the backing of the clergy from Central Office.
Beneath the Field Office Director are the Field Office Coordinators who handle the day to day policy and regulation compliance with the agency and beneath them you have the Field Office Supervisors (this is as far as I could go). Then beneath the FOS, you have the specialists that interact with and perform the basic currency duties of the agency. Note how top heavy this structure is for the state? There’s nearly 10 levels of management above the specialist position and due to the personalities involved, a typical day can seem like a mine field.
So, what the hell does this all matter?
Ultimately, Central Office decisions affect everyone in the Field Offices; however, they are instituted by the RD. In my case the RD used ineffectual leaders for committees and other interactions to facilitate creating an environment were they began assuming additional power. For example, a decision was authorized to have a Field Office Worker serve as an Regional Case Review Specialist (additional oversight, you see). During the discussion phase, I brought up several questions, but most importantly I asked if we had legislative and directorial approval to do this (each position with the state must stick to its legislatively written job description). The RD replied that this did not matter and that we could do this however we wanted. Within three months during the course of a Legislative Audit, it was discovered that this was occurring in our region. The Auditors told the RD to discontinue this and her manager (who I respect greatly) did the same. So, then the position was rephrased into a New Worker Training Position. Her manager found out about this quickly and reminded that regulations in policy dictate that only those with certification can train New Workers.
Before my leaving, another plan was being concocted by the RD. Field Office management (director, coordinator, and supervisor) are rated on their basest levels against the federal goals. The FOD and FOC are rated on the entire Field Office statistics, the FOS are rated on the statistics of their individual teams. If your team are not meeting the federal goals, then you will not get a high rating in that review. The RD, wishing to increase and coax better performance, wanted to apply this to all county staff, meaning that a worker’s individual accuracy and timeliness did not matter on their performance reviews as they could not ever score higher than the whole county office. This is a violation of Labor Law, but was in the process of attempted justification when I left. The impacts, if allowed to go through, would obviously not only be illegal, but would be extraordinarily demoralizing.
Here’s my first post of how ever many it takes to get through the healing I feel like I may need to do from my previous job. This point of this post is to reflect on the myriad ways that state and federal politics and governance come together to impact the daily life of a state employee. This bureaucrat was completely unaware upon arrival that the structures worked in such concert and that their melody would be at times dissonant. Also, while I would like to source some material here, there are parts of it that I simply can’t because as I said I would prefer to remain anonymous and feel that some of these sources could focus directly upon the office in which I worked for nearly five years. While I feel like I’m healing from this very difficult, exhausting job, I do not wish to reflect poorly on anyone that remains there.
As with any employer, there are basic goals and parameters established for success. When working for the state, the performance metrics are usually stunningly simple in their definition, and sometimes even in their application depending on what you are doing. For a specialist, the basic metrics are: 95% timeliness, 95% positive accuracy, and 5% negative accuracy (where positive is defined as completing and approving an application; and negative is defined as completing and denying an application) for SNAP. The negative case accuracy refers to an acceptable level; for example, of 100 negative actions, only 5 are in error, this is the goal. Therefore, you should never be ABOVE 5% in that metric. I focus on SNAP here because Medicaid’s rules are far different in application now and TANF has so few applicants that it is very difficult to NOT meet the goals. Ultimately, in exchange for federal assistance in funding the programs and regulation, the states have all agreed to these metrics as their basic performance indicators. Further, through achieving these goals statewide, the state can receive additional funds.
This makes it seem very, very easy to do this. Truthfully, the specialist position is not hard – it is time consuming and tedious to learn and train. The average specialist takes approximately 1.5 years to fully sort out the juggling act of client interaction, proper case documentation and disposition, and their role within the larger office structure. The three metrics, therefore, are intertwined: the more accurate one is, the more timely they typically are as well.
There is a basic organizational structure to the oversight and administration of these metrics (again, all of which is necessary). In addition to offering the program, states must have an independent review team that is randomly checking into the accuracy of cases, they must have supervisors trained to review and educate staff on error reductions, and occasionally federal workers will visit and randomly pull cases for review. States often establish legislative review teams and other bodies (more on this later in another post) to do the same thing. The goal is as much oversight into how the agencies are spending taxpayer dollars (which regardless of political leanings is a good thing). Here’s the rub: no one can ever seem to agree on which number is to be focused.
In regard to specialist accuracy, the Federal numbers look at payment accuracy and case accuracy. To them, case accuracy is important, but payment accuracy is the key and each specialist that works the programs should be able to correctly determine an applicant’s SNAP benefits 95% of the time or more. Most often, case accuracy refers to an error of process (wrong date, failed scan job, etc). In their performance metrics, the state uses case accuracy as the primary means to assess a specialist’s performance, because that is how it is defined by the state (more on these incongruities in a bit).
This is the world in which a specialist and supervisor live and die in working these programs. Does it seem confusing and combative yet?
As you may remember from my post and the October 2013 link I included, Federal politics pay a large role on the staff of these agencies. In the tension leading to the 2013 Federal shutdown, many politicians on both sides railed against the other and did nothing to prevent it. At the time, in speaking to a very different side of the aisle relative of mine, I said “it’s complete bullshit that some politicians FROM other states get to determine who does and doesn’t get to work in my state.” The relative, who tends to more localized and state level governments than federal power, agreed. Positions funded by federal dollars will be furloughed in the event of any Federal government shutdown – this is unavoidable. The issue with this is: these positions often tend to be administrators and whole units of employees that are working on very important policy and regulations issues for the agency. Like I wrote in yesterday’s post, I genuinely noted a distinct lack of trust and fear in my specialists during this time, and ended up losing a number of them in the weeks and months after these events to other jobs. It’s a solid fact of life: half your income is derived from federal dollars and no federal dollars are being paid at this time – if that’s the case, then you might be working half time going forward. The issues resolved and that subsided.
Why is October so important? It’s the start of the Federal Fiscal Year. The state’s fiscal year does not align with the federal (this will be important in a few). Per regulations in policy, the federal agencies in charge of SNAP must notify the states by the 90th day preceding the start of any new methods, regulations, or policies that have been passed and put into the “State Must Also Have This in Policy” books. So, when a major change will be instituted with the start of the next Federal Fiscal Year, states will receive notification no later than July 1. It is up to the state to properly prepare and train their staff for the impending changes. In practice, this typically serves to update the various review boards aside from the supervisor and specialist, who then get to attempt to explain why the mistakes were made when no clarification or regulation was provided for them to prepare for the change. This is especially damning in that the start of the state’s fiscal year is July and the state’s extra help positions could be disseminating information. Though I can’t lump this all at the feet of the state’s policy units.
Ultimately, this amounts to both sides not effectively communicating. However, in my discussions with higher level staff in central office, I have found that they did receive the necessary information and upon receiving (after the fact) the information upon which we should have built I always looked for the time stamps of emails. Sure enough, they were June through July; sometimes August if further information was needed. In 99% of these instances, it was evident that the efforts were made to inform staff. Therefore, if the federal regional office and the state central office are on the same page, and then the state central office notified the state regional direction, why did the new information not get to the people that needed it most?
I don’t want to labor too long in this section because most of it will be covered in the feudalism post for tomorrow. However, in organizational structures such as this, the simplest and most effective way to communicate from the highest level is through the passing of notes up and down the chain of county (state), regional (state), central (state), regional (federal), and central (federal). Everyone knows the old childhood game of whispering a bit of nonsense to a classmate whom then passes it on to another, and so on, until the end of the line where the original message was nearly entirely lost. However, there is a saving grace – memos and text straight from the original source clarify everything. Unfortunately, these get lost along the path.
Given the core direction of the state regional offices in adding to correctly administer and develop staff and changes, their role is paramount. The better the regional staff and administrators, the better the region is run and the more effectively things are communicated. I believe you see where I’m going with this…
So, here am I back after a near 13 month hiatus, wondering why the hell I didn’t write at all during the previous number of months. Writing for Cultura is slow, but steady; the Lay of Seidenbard is still slowly (read: very slowly) progressing. Further, I’m no longer a bureaucrat. I departed from the steady progress I’d been doing for a number of reasons, all of which I hope to express and discuss further. I also intend to write a music review a week, offer an update on Cultura/the Lay once per week. I won’t have much more time than that as I’m moving to start a scientific job within the next week to the east coast.
Like previously, I hope to feature songs and/or a inspirational piece of art once per day (some of Paimona’s newer pieces, if possible).
The section in which I make excuses:
So… why didn’t I write for a damn year and month? Simple: I was exhausted. Being more prone to quiet introspection and carrying a generally introverted disposition, my position within the monolithic pyramid could either be performed coldly or spun in a more humanistic way. Being a metal fan, I decided to rebel against the standard order of business and applied far more supportive techniques; the end result being that I was available and open to my subordinates and their clients as often as I could allow. The structure does not like this, I noticed, but it won me high praise from my direct managers. However, the interpersonal interaction that faced the typical day’s work left my nerves and mind to an absolute frazzle (as my very Southern forebears would say).
In the interest of full disclosure as I still maintain a level of anonymity here, my position was as a specialist and later a supervisor at a Department of Human Services (in some states, Social Services) in a small, southern flyover state. The overall state’s population is unimportant, but suffice to say that it is a poor, historically so, state with poor access to education and a history of segregation. This office is located in one of the larger counties in the state, exhibiting both very urban (for the state) and rural populations with a far higher degree of diversity than the flyover states are often considered as having. In the local area, there is a major state run university, a private fundamentalist Christian university, several community colleges, and a number of vo-technical schools. Major companies in the area are dominated by a global, multibillion US Dollar per year company and its satellite vendor companies, agribusinesses of all types, and transportation. In other words, there are a lot of people (and goods) coming in and out of the area for a variety of reasons.
The agency itself evokes a snapshot of feudalistic grandeur both (a testament to medieval law and administration). Many hours travel from the capital city of the flyover state, the county office sits tucked into a curious hinterland – one that is very much part of the state and the other that is very much independent of it at the same time. This dissonance was astounding. Previous to the October 2013 threshold (see the link for further information), the role of the specialist within the agency was to interview, document, and dispose (official term for completing) of applications for SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – formerly welfare), and Medicaid (services ranging from children’s programs to medicare assistance). After ACA began in October 2013 and after the policy writers and managers returned to their jobs, Medicaid became a mostly automated system with applications occurring through the Federal Healthcare Marketplace or the State Healthcare Marketplace. Hospitals hired specialists away from the agency and governmental contractors did as well, because the positions paid better, offered better hours, and better benefits. All these are valid reasons for leaving employment, especially after the threshold of fear ramped up due to the governmental shut down.
Returning to the new marketplaces, it became evident early that were a number of issues with the new web-based data hub driven system. This was explained effectively by a high ranking member as “attempting to build the airplane after we’d all ready taken off.” Due to the new income thresholds, the number of new available categories for Medicaid eligibility, and a relaxation in some policies, more people than ever were eligible for Medicaid services, ranging from full coverage (very few) to assistance in paying private premiums. The hiccups in the system and the delay in training made serving the valid questions of these individuals difficult, time consuming, and heart wrenching for both parties involved.
Having become a supervisor a earlier in the same year this unfurled, I came to realize my role as defined by the agency was to review cases of all types for accuracy, ensure timeliness, and to maintain some semblance of order/discipline. In actuality, the role needed to be redefined. Accountability needed to be shared to all points of the team, transparency needed to rule (where it could, obviously one need not violate the places where it was not allowed), and the staff needed a leader that was available, open, and honest. The clients needed this more than anything, because the emphasis returned to focus on the barest fact – the currency of the agency’s work is generally the people that we serve and not the statistics that they become when their application is approved or denied.
Personally, 2014 opened with a heartbreak. Paimona and I had discovered that we were pregnant (we’d been trying for nearly 4 years to have another child). We miscarried to start the year and I had to center myself to her grief to help her heal from it (you never do, I don’t think… there are times when I still think on it and cry). Fortunately, we have an awesome, wonderful, scientifically minded big kid with a great attitude, a beautiful smile, and a penchant to give the best hugs for which a dad could ever ask (her team went undefeated in softball! in the Spring) This, though she was just as heartbroken, was the only way we were able to pull ourselves from it. My role as a bureaucrat began taking between 45-60 hours per week, my second job began taking 10-20 hours a week, and the rest of it was devoted to family. This is why it’s such a BIG DEAL that I got a single job, performing science for one company, earning as much as I would working both currently.
These facts combined resulted in the loss of my “ear” as it were for music. I was too tired, emotionally and mentally, to fully devote my time and energy to that when I had so many other projects going. Therefore, I had to abandon this dream here, which is something I appreciate when it works well to keep my nose to the grindstone and continue writing. It makes me think of creativity and the process of it all.
Given that this period has now ended, I intend to return to writing a review per week and featuring some of the new promos and other information that I still get as result of my previous writing. I’m not going to catch up what I missed in 2014, I can’t, but I can continue from where I left. To heal from my job with DHS, I will be writing a section regarding a particular facet of what the position entailed either each day or three times a week, depending on how much time allows.
Ultimately, I’m left with the question: “Is it such a crime to go apart and be alone?”
Ultimately, that which makes the bureaucracy a rewardingly, safe job is also that which destroys it’s very integrity and the integrity of those working there: the culture. Weber, penultimate observer of the bureaucracy, believed that American bureaucracy was going to eventually supplant German bureaucracy (which at his time was considered an amazing and wondrous thing). It did, though not entirely in the anticipated means.
Now, firmly ensconced in its echo chamber, the bureaucracy is a monolith by its nature. Then again, most companies are; however, there is something truly unique about the pyramidal like structure of a developed agency. At my agency, the power brokers sit miles away at the state capital, surrounded in an echo chamber not three blocks from the state’s Capital Building. The state is divided in to X number of areas in which there is one main area office from which a director rules down to each individual office in the county seat. It is modern feudalism when one breaks it down: the governor is the king, the director his trusted companion, the director’s team is a series of trusted companions, and the directors of the area are the knight vassals.
At each point along this path, one can be roadblocked, railroaded, and tossed aside. Misrepresentation rules the day which falls right back in line with the culture: an individual that attempts to offer fresh ideas is often vilified the moment it becomes convenient to their management. Now, I realize that this is the fate of the middle manager, yet it’s disquieting. I look at friends in similar positions that work hard and well for their companies and seldom serve as a fall guy to their manager. Working hard and pretending to work hard are often the same within the bureaucracy. There is a great deal of difference between: “look what my team accomplished through hard work!” and “look what my team accomplished through me working hard!” Oh well, maybe I’m the bigger fool, a favorite musician wrote, that nurtures every fight and every loss.
In other news, if anyone that reads this is interested in a writing, anthropology/philosophy geek that has management, research, and field experience, toss me an email.