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FY-Eye: Inside the Bureaucratic Jungle

By Ed O'Keefe

A new study reveals that 90 percent of college students working with career counselors have expressed an interest in federal careers or internships, a jump thanks in part to the election of President Obama. Permit The Eye to recommend a book that provides an honest, if less-than favorable impression of what a federal career might entail.

The Agency Game: Inside the Bureaucratic Jungle, by William B. Parker, is a frank assessment of the obstacles and frustrations that many career government employees face on a regular basis. It's a must-read, unofficial employee handbook also useful for anyone thinking about a government career or attempting to better understand the bureaucratic culture.

After 30 years working for a Fortune 15 corporation, regional and federal government agencies and two non-profits, Parker's self-published handbook lists hundreds of terms ("consultants," "scapegoats," "turf," "yes-men") and defines each of them from a bureaucratic viewpoint. A few examples:

Absenteeism: "Absenteeism, like alcohol and drugs, is an escape and is frequently connected with their use. When it is widespread, absenteeism signifies an agency in the advanced stages of its life-cycle."

Blame: "...it is the chief competitive weapon in the never-ending wars for turf. It is thus something to be avoided at all cost; something to be thrust, if at all possible, onto others. No less prominent a chronicler of life in the nation's capital than The Washington Post characterizes the assignment of blame as 'local blood sport.' And many a prominent public service career has been built on doing just that, assigning and fixing blame."

Mentors: "I assume there are mentors in public life. It's just that I have never met one. ... " I suspect their scarcity may be caused in part by fear: many, maybe most, managers spend their time and energy trying to hang on to their goodies and perks; few are overly anxious to teach their bright, ambitious eager beavers and Young Turks hard-learned tricks of the trade that could be used against them."

While the definitions are soaked in sarcasm, Parker argues his book has a much more serious intent:

"I'm convinced that agencies are littered with people who felt they'd change the world and now are punching a clock," he said during an interview this week. Nobody properly prepares potential or new government employees about the likely perils or drawbacks of large public bureaucracies, he said.

"If you're brand new and going to inflict your venom on the world, read the book to learn about what will happen and who you'll meet." It could also help mid-level bureaucrats survive until retirement age and might assist political appointees in crafting "an event-free survival," he said.

Parker has also launched a blog from where you can order a copy of the book. He hopes readers will provide feedback that will one day allow him to update his unofficial government employee handbook.

Read previous FY-Eyes here and send your recommended news articles, books, speeches or academic papers about the federal bureaucracy to federaleye@washingtonpost.com.

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 1, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, FY-Eye  
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Comments

A blatant plug for one person's obviously biased view of the bureaucracy. I'm sure you could have found more scholarly works on this topic that actually included facts and research to support conclusions. Make the guy pay for an ad.

Posted by: bigtom6156 | May 4, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

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