html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Long AND esoteric? Twice in one day? Just for you, baby.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Long AND esoteric? Twice in one day? Just for you, baby.

Ezra Klein pointed me to this article, about a new Bush executive order that made my heart sink. I need to tell you guys why, from the perspective of a civil servant, this is a terrible idea.
In an executive order published last week in the Federal Register, Mr. Bush said that each agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president’s priorities.
Now I surely will not agree with the policies of Bush appointed gatekeepers, but I wouldn’t want a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee under any administration. (Besides, the President appoints the head of the agencies. Isn’t that enough to set the agency on his agenda?) From the perspective of a low level bureaucrat looking up the line, there are two big problems with this, independent of ideology.

The first is simple. I just don’t want to add a single step that adds time to management review. Honestly, you’d be shocked how long it takes for us to get anything through management review. Anything we release to the public, including our non-controversial, small scale documents, must go through six (6) levels of review. We schedule three to four weeks for management review. Yeah. Three days on each desk, if we give them advance notice that our stuff will be coming. If we were doing controversial stuff, it would be longer. If we had to route through one additional back-logged office? If they were far away, and my bossman couldn’t chat with them to prep them for the document, and we were just another insignificant office on the west coast? I can’t even guess.

But the more important reason is that a distant political appointee, even assuming that she is not a partisan hack and that she is interested in the topic and not using the office as a stepping stone, would know exactly the wrong amount. Anyone at a distance from the process can only know enough to be dangerous. When we go to write anything that tells people what they have to do, there is an intricate multi-year negotiation between everyone involved. There are drafts, and comments, and drafts, and workshops, and drafts, and internal meetings, and drafts, and formal written comment, and more drafts. Usually, in the end, you will come down to very awkwardly written compromises that no one will sue you for. They are compromises like “We will shift this item from the list for mandatory implementation by the next contract negotiation to the list for voluntary implementation unless it has a positive CBA, in which case it must be done within three years.”

Every word in there was hard fought. People snorted and sat back at the table with their arms crossed. We changed it until no one threatened to call their congressperson any more. We explained to them why we have to implement the law that way, and caved when we couldn’t get more, or when we were wrong. We brought in someone’s good idea. I know how people laugh at ridiculous regulations, but I swear they didn’t get to be ridiculous because no one was thinking. They’re ridiculous because the topics are complicated, and we have to accommodate widely divergent views, and because there were so many iterations.

Anyway, a political appointee who wasn’t there for the painful years of writing regulations can only disrupt a very precarious balance. She thinks to herself that those two lists are mostly redundant, moves over a column heading, and undoes an eight hour meeting. She crosses out a verification technique and destroys the trust of half our constituents. Unless she was there, she can only make things worse. I don’t want her in the loop.

Now, I think Bush issued this Executive Order the way he does everything, specifically for his anti-science, anti-environment, anti-regulation, anti-public health, anti-everything-I-believe-in purposes. I think it was deliberately intended for his corporate buddies, to delay agency actions that cost them money. I hate to think who he’d appoint to those offices. But if all those things weren’t the case, I would still think it was a terrible plan.


Blogger Justin said...

Here's the other side of that. Obviously I'm more inclined to agree with the link, because that's the way I tend to lean on these things.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Because you want another long rant from me that isn't even funny?

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I can't claim to understand this first-hand, I will say that every time we sit down with government employees to get software requirements, I recognize that it will be at least a week of doing nothing but sitting in a conference room trying not to fall asleep while lots of people I don't know discuss a lot of stuff I don't care about.

Fortunately, my boss understands this, and when we both recognize about half an hour into a meeting that it's going to be one of those meetings, we share a nod, and I get up and go back to my desk to do actual work.


8:30 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Word. Now imagine that after you'd gone to weeks of those meetings, and made the obscure language that wasn't awful for everyone, some well-meaning (in the best case) presidential appointee thought she could improve it, by, you know, just changing some small things.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Some people feel much the same way when well-meaning (in the best case) regulators and bureaucrats think they can improve things by trying to manage other people's affairs from arm's length.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Right Mark, like what kind of light blubs we use in our own homes.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this reminds me of the community "political officers" that accompany military units (like in the hunt for red october)

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice post!

7:51 AM  

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