Adventures in Bureaucracy
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Consul-at-Arms has a post that cannot be ignored, and for a couple reasons.

First, the obvious. One of his commenters suggested transferring all consular work to DHS. Speaking as someone who already works for DHS, I have to ask whether it's our good reputation within the federal workforce or the great press we get about our efficiency in performing our mandates that would make someone think that the department should have another bureaucratic unit shoe-horned into our organizational chart. Don't get me wrong -- I'd love to lateral into consular work in some underrated gem of a post. In fact, I'd already be ahead of the game in visa processing, as being an immigration inspector at the start of my federal career burned all the trust and faith in my fellow man completely out of me, so I'd be more than willing to reject every visa applicant who came to my window right from day one. Maybe I could even get Consul-at-Arms to put in a good word for me with Personnel.

I can understand the idea that people who have already had a great deal of experience should be able to skip the dues-paying when making a lateral over to another organization. I can understand the idea, but I don't agree with it. The idea of working your way up the ladder is still around, but why do people expect to be able to switch ladders without stepping down a few runs along the way? Experience is the best teach, and those dues-paying jobs are not there to give people a place to wait until the good jobs open up. Skills may be transferrable, but knowledge and understanding of why things happen rarely is. What may seem to you like paying your dues is an organization's way of teaching you the nuts and bolts of how that organization works. This is particularly true of some of the more complicated bodies of law, like (you knew this was coming) the Immigration and Nationality Act and all the associated regulations, policies and procedures. One of the big problems DHS is having with its immigration functions is that people with superficially similar skills -- immigration and customs are basically the same, right? They both deal with borders -- were put into positions where they lacked the knowledge to excel. Ask any INS people in CBP or ICE about the transition, and chances are they'll talk about how Customs managers were put in charge of immigration projects. There was a steep learning curve there because these new CBP and ICE had little first-hand experience with the subjects they were now expected to oversee.

The second idea in the post was more provocative: a reverse Visa Waiver program. I don't know how that would work, but I like the sound of it. If the Visa Waiver program strips out the consular review layer of the process, the reverse could add another layer to it. Perhaps something with flaming hoops and moats filled with crocodiles. Then again, at some posts that's just how people get to the visa window in the first place.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
One of the more interesting aspects of the immigration situation these days is the accomodations being made by businesses going after the illegal alien population in this country. The whole dust-up about the Bank of America offering credit cards to people without Social Security numbers is just the most recent case in point. There's also legislation to curb the granting of mortgages to people without Social Security numbers.

It's somewhat surprising that there hasn't been much analysis of these decisions from a business point of view (but only somewhat, as I really don't expect much from the news media). Put yourself in the position of the banks, which are for-profit institutions. There is a potentially large market (in the millions) of people who do not have legal status in the United States, and there's money to be made in offering services to them. Of course, any financial institution is going to offer credit and make loans only to people who are expected to repay their debts. You'd think that a person with no legal status would be a prima facie bad risk -- after all, if you extend a home loan to someone who gets deported the next year, chances are you're never going to get that loan repaid.

But that doesn't appear to be the case, judging from the number of financial institutions that have apparently assessed the risks and figured that the illegal aliens will be around long enough to make good on their loans. A lot of that comes from the government's schizophrenic policies on immigration. The enforcement agencies go after illegal immigrants at the same time as other agencies assist them, whether it's the IRS granting a tax ID number or Social Security paying out benefits. Then there's the large quasi-legal population who have Temporary Protected Status (some people have had TPS for nearly a decade) or some sort of pending applications (which may be denied in the end). It's hard enough for the federal government to figure out the legal status in some of these case, much less a financial institution.

It's troubling that so many new laws pertaining to immigration seem to punt on the issue by putting responsibilities on state governments or private institutions to verify legal status before giving out driver's licenses or credit cards. The enforcement of immigration laws is ultimately a federal responsibility, but for whatever reasons -- largely political, in my view -- the federal government has allowed the problem to grow to the point where there are millions of people physically present in the country with no legal right to be here. That failure has cascaded down to prevent problems for a host of other organizations, and now it seems they are increasingly being saddled with legal responsibilities because of it.

For the Bank of America, it's a public relations headache that caused its CEO to respond to critics. For others, these issues are being used as a political club to try to force changes in the laws. That's where any solution will have to be -- either enforce the laws we've got consistently or change them to something that will be enforceable.
It's no secret that I've been letting this site slide for a quite some time, but I'm glad I checked in today to see how people have found this part of the web. One of the most common ways people find "Adventures in Bureaucracy" is by searching for Jan Hooks as Bette Davis, which I mentioned way back in 2004. Somehow that got in the top three search results in Google, proving once again that there is no possible way that humans can understand how computers work. Anyway, that skit with Bette Davis' videotaped will -- from way back in November of 1989, when the entire East Bloc was collapsing, remember? -- is still one of my all-time favorites from SNL. If you don't remember, have a look at an excerpt for yourself -- it starts at 1:46. "Barbara, YOU GET NOTHING! Because you wrote a NASTY, TELL-ALL BOOK, and I want you to have a BAD LIFE! AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!" Good comedy is forever.

However, there was a unique referral that I hadn't seen before: "Can bureaucracy be beautiful?" Well, the actual search string from Kazakhstan was "Can be Bureaucracy beautiful", so perhaps the writers of Borat are looking for a theme for the sequel.

It turns out that this is also the title of an article published in 2000 in "Public Administration Review". Here's the abstract: "Public administration has long been understood to be both a science and an art. In its artful aspects, public administration can also, in fact, be beautiful. At their very best, public organizations and processes have forms, designs, experiences, and languages which are beautiful and compelling. It is this beauty and its potential which draws us to public work. And, there is very great beauty in ideas of high and noble purpose and in the organizations and processes we build to achieve those ideas."


Actually, I think it's the clash between the "beauty in ideas of high and noble purpose" and the ugly reality of how we try to achieve them that makes bureaucracy such an unpleasant concept in the minds of so many. When most people think of "bureaucracy", it doesn't bring to mind images of Camelot so much as images of one of the inner rings of hell. From my experiences here in Washington, what really draws people to public work is the pay and the benefits.

Here's an "Ode to Bureaucracy", which says that bureaucracies are good, it's just bureaucrats who are bad. As a professional bureaucrat, I should resent that. However, since the examples are mostly from consular work and not from mine, I suppose I can live with the criticism, especially since I can see the point. Bureaucracy is governed by laws and procedures, and in a good bureaucracy these laws and procedures should be transparent and relatively straight-forward. When people within the bureaucracy confuse their preferences for said laws and procedures, or when the procedures are so complicated that most people can't understand them (like, say, the tax code or immigration law), the system loses its transparency, and that reduces confidence in the whole system.

And speaking on behalf of my paper-pushing brethren, it must be said that the bureaucrats are not solely responsible for all the problems of the bureaucracy in general. Political directives from the White House and the Congress, as well as decisions from the courts, can cause a real mess in the bureaucracy. The entire Department of Homeland Security seems to be a perfect case study for this. TSA (to pick one much-maligned segment) was created and directed by law to do certain things. Next time you're going through an airport, remember that Congress wrote the laws saying what TSA was supposed to do, and trying to come up with a workable system for implementing what the lawmakers want is the whole point of the bureaucracy.

Of course, the short answer to "Can bureaucracy be beautiful?" is to go to Federal Triangle or L'Enfant Plaza at rush hour and judge for yourself, since just about everyone you see is going to be a bureaucrat.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
What a day today was. The big snow/sleet/ice storm swept through the Washington area, leaving a huge mess in its wake. I have to find a new radio station for bad weather. There I was, all snug under my covers, listening to the sounds of sleet lashing my window, and my morning radio station referred me to their web site for all the closings. That meant I had to get out of bed, only to find that the federal government was open on a two-hour delay. There was much cursing when I read that, especially when all the TV stations were saying how everyone should stay off the roads. Unfortunately for me, OPM overrules Channel 7 every time.

I ended up getting to work early, driving a steady twenty miles an hour through the slush, and I actually stayed late because of the huge pile of accumulated crap that's always waiting on my desk. At least the drive home was easy. By that time, the main roads were dry, and there weren't many other people on them.

Still, I was looking forward to a snow day, and I was pretty annoyed that I didn't get one. And I'm not the only one, as today's Federal Diary was filled with comments from whinging feds, which almost completely knocked out the usual complaints about DHS.

Then there was the best example of understatement I've seen in a long, long time:

"It's possible that there are too many lawyers in D.C."
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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