Working for the federal government

So you want to work for the Federal Government?  It is not as easy as you think. Photo: Screenshot of USA Jobs

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. – May 9, 2011 – First, I would like to say that my intention is not to bite the hand that fed me. It is to get several things straight and, maybe, get someone’s attention that can affect some change, if in fact it hasn’t been done already. I was lucky enough to enter civil service in 1980, and able to stay with the old Civil Service Retirement System, that has provided me with a generous pension since I retired in 2005.

The first fallacy that most Americans believe in is that Federal workers work directly for the American public. They don’t; they work for the executive that is the President and his political appointees. While it is true that career civil servants are somewhat protected from political influence, the bottom line is that if you don’t do what your political appointee boss tells you to do, you may be fired or at best put in a “closet”. I have actually seen people in high positions moved to a room that at one time had been the storage closet, so this is no urban legend.

USA Jobs

USA Jobs

Many of us remember that in the early 2000s, Dick Cheney met with representatives of the energy industry, including those from Enron, to create the energy policy for the Bush presidency. The transcripts of these meetings were never made public, notwithstanding investigations by Congress several years later that asked for them.

Cheney claimed executive privilege and never released said transcripts. Soon after that, my Agency was asked to determine whether the fracturing of underground formations for the production of methane gas was safe to human health and the environment. We were told that the “vice president was very interested” in the report.

Several of us in the technical staff that commented negatively on the content, as well as the configuration of the “peer review panel,” were only given token attention, and eventually kept away from further reviews. As expected, the report found that the practice didn’t present any danger to human health and the environment.

If you are a technocrat, like I was, it is very difficult to keep your integrity and still be successful. You actually get pressure to make statements that contradict physics, and if you don’t, you are not considered a “team player”. After a few of these episodes, you stop getting meaningful assignments, and then you are reproached for not doing your work. Many of us had to resort to documenting everything, so that when one got a bad evaluation, one could present evidence that the employee actually did what they were asked to do, and that they weren’t given work commensurate with that person’s academic training and experience.

While you protect yourself by being forced to do these actions, you, obviously have to say goodbye to being promoted until you get a different boss, and a chance to prove yourself all over again.

With this obvious waste of talent, supervisors developed a number of strategies. The most widely used one is to replace actual employees (Permanent Full Time Equivalents, PFTE’s), with contractors. Some agencies actually have more contract PFTE’s than employees. A contractor that wants to be retained knows that they have to do what the contracting office asks them to do.

In other words, they will have to come up with the politically acceptable answer, even if it doesn’t quite adhere to reality. They have to work a very fine line between actual truth and political truth. Contractors are put in the position of sacrificing their integrity to retain the client.

This brings me to the process for contractors to get in this arguably enviable position. The Federal Government has the well known “Request for Proposal” (RFP), process. It is supposed to guarantee that the best qualified company gets awarded the contract. There are all types of safeguards, confidential processes, and reviews, all to guarantee fairness.

One of these is a “Technical Review Board” for technical contracts. This board is formed with members of the technical team that would benefit and control the work to be done by the contractor. The review board members are supposed to act fairly and keep all decisions confidential, including information from their boss. In actuality, this is nearly impossible.

I participated in four review boards for multimillion dollar contracts while I was in the Federal Government. Each time, I was told who the usually-preferred contractor was, and encouraged to work with established performers. In two of the cases, the contractor that won the award was not the one that presented the best proposal, in my opinion. In one case, our boss appeared to be influenced by the charms of a person of the opposite sex that was one of the principals in the winning contracting firm. That person left to get a Ph. D. soon after the firm got the contract.

Another significant factor is that in most cases, the firm that has held a contract tends to be the person getting the renewal. While there is a natural advantage in being familiar with the work and the management staff, it is not always the best choice for the job. It is common in the Federal Government that once a firm gets a contract with a Department or an Agency, that they would keep the contract indefinitely, becoming almost like part of that Department or Agency. It’s a dilemma with some justification, but how to safeguard against its becoming unfair and undeserved?

Employment in the Federal Government is supposed to be competitive. While there are groups that get preferential treatment, including veterans of the Armed forces, in general, the applicants are supposed to be evaluated according to knowledge and experience. For some years, affirmative action has been a “buzz phrase” that led to the increase of minorities and women in the Federal Government.

Managers are encouraged to hire women and minorities, getting kudos if they do so, but there is no requirement, per se, to do so.

As a Hispanic, but male, professional, I felt that recruiting more females should be separated from recruiting more minorities. (Especially after the Federal Government obtained gender equity in the 1990s – speaking of numbers of positions, not pay). I remember one of my bosses kidding about hiring a Hispanic female and saying that she counted for two. This is why I felt the affirmative action targets needed to be separated.

Giving special treatment to veterans was always controversial during my stint in the government. Many managers resented that they had to either hire or sometimes disqualify a veteran during a job search. I always remember that, during a training, one of my colleagues asked the lecturer how to disqualify a veteran when making a decision for a new hire. I was so incensed, as a veteran, that I responded by indicating that she was trying to break the law. She never assumed that a veteran would be one of her colleagues in a professional work force.

However, the episode that has to “take the cake” is a hiring practice I became aware of in the last decade I worked. My office was given additional positions, and the managers came up with a fairly innovative (and likely illegal) way to make sure the new hires were what they wanted. During the time after they decided what positions would have to be filled, but before an official job announcement was published, the hiring official asked a contractor to put an advertisement in professional magazines. This ad was rather cryptic and just stated the type of work or profession and the range of salary, ostensibly to put out feelers for qualified candidates as a prescreening process. After applicants responded to the ad, they were screened for specific job criteria, and only then, and only the top candidates, were informed that the jobs were for a Federal Agency.

During this process, they were essentially coached on how to respond to the job announcements, in a way to guarantee to be one of the top candidates for the job. How did I find out about this pre-hiring process? This was told to me in confidence by a person that got hired this way.

We all have read of the revolving door between regulators and the regulated community. What is not talked about a lot is how persons working in the Federal Government could have a conflict of interest with the community that they regulate. One of my bosses was married to a scientist that worked for an industry group association that lobbied the legislature and was regulated by my Agency. This boss, during his/her tenure was responsible for and actually implemented regulations that affected the particular industry group in which his/her spouse worked. During the regulatory process, the industry group was actually consulted, and in many cases, suggested wording for the regulations. Many in the office felt that this was not proper, but apparently the Office of General Counsel for the Agency cleared it.

Not biting the hand that feeds me, but how it works needs to be examined.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker and not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist at The Washington Times Communities.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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