This HHS official’s resignation letter says everything you’ve ever thought about bureaucracy

posted at 7:21 pm on March 14, 2014 by Mary Katharine Ham

Yeah, yeah, I Upworthied the headline. But I tried for something to truly encapsulate the heaps of truth in this letter, and a standard headline didn’t do it. I’m against compulsory service, but there’s a part of me that thinks a year of compulsory service within the federal bureaucracy might change minds. Exposure to the truly harmful forces of government—often unintentional and sloppy, but harmful nonetheless—could yield progress in assessing the beast honestly. Or, maybe it’d just yield more pensions.

A Health and Human Services official has resigned after dealing with the frustration of the “profoundly dysfunctional” federal bureaucracy, which left him “offended as an American taxpayer.”

In a resignation letter obtained by ScienceInsider, David Wright, director of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) — which oversees and monitors possible research misconduct — offers a scathing rebuke of the unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy that he dealt with for the two years he served in the position.

In his letter to Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, Wright explains that the 35 percent of his job that was spent working with science-investigators in his department “has been one of the great pleasures of my long career.” The majority of his duties, however, represented his worst job ever.

He calls it “secretive, autocratic and unaccountable,” making use of exactly zero good-management principles put to work in businesses across the nation. People who know nothing about his mission or job description make critical decisions about what he can and can’t spend. Compared to the academic bureaucracy he came from, the federal government is slower by months, sometimes more. He also points out that perhaps the highly politicized environment in which he’s working is not the correct one for a scientific oversight organization:

Finally, there is another important organizational question that deserves mention: Is OASH the proper home for a regulatory agency such as ORI? OASH is a collection of important public health offices that have agendas significantly different from the regulatory roles of ORI and OHRP. You’ve observed that OASH operates in an “intensely political environment.” I agree and have observed that in this environment decisions are often made on the basis of political expediency and to obtain favorable “optics.” There is often a lack of procedural rigor in this environment. I discovered recently, for example, that OASH operates a grievance procedure for employees that has no due process protections of any kind for respondents to those grievances. Indeed, there are no written rules or procedures for the OASH grievance process regarding the rights and responsibilities of respondents. By contrast, agencies such as ORI are bound by regulation to make principled decisions on the basis of clearly articulated procedures that protect the rights of all involved. Our decisions must be supported by the weight of factual evidence. ORI’s decisions may be and frequently are tested in court. There are members of the press and the research community who don’t believe ORI belongs in an agency such as OASH and I, reluctantly, have come to agree.

Wright calls for at least discussion of the problems with bureaucracy, if not outrage. To that end, he’s planning to “publish a version of the daily log I’ve kept as ORI Director in order to share my experience and observations with my colleagues in government and with members of the regulated research community.”

Read the whole thing.

Good. More sunlight and less fooling ourselves by saying a government agency is performing a sacred duty when the reality is it’s likely far too dysfunctional to be performing it well enough to be worth the money or to help the people it’s meant to serve. The quicker more people come to grips with that, the quicker we can start actually helping people (sometimes by reacquainting them with some of their money formerly used to fuel the bureaucracy).


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Bureaucracy is the process which converts energy into solid waste.

Schadenfreude on March 14, 2014 at 7:24 PM

Sticker on rear-door of a large (truck frame) van I saw a couple of days ago :

“If the Sahara Desert were run by the Government, we’d be out of sand in five years”

listens2glenn on March 14, 2014 at 7:32 PM

Bureaucracy is the process which converts energy into solid waste.

Schadenfreude on March 14, 2014 at 7:24 PM

So good to have you back, Schadenfreude!!!

wren on March 14, 2014 at 7:34 PM

wren, thank you, my quiet and good friend.

Schadenfreude on March 14, 2014 at 7:36 PM

New York Times, May 1st:

“Former HHS Official Wright Investigated by IRS, Justice Department for ‘Possible Tax and Professional Irregularities’”.

Count on it.

orangemtl on March 14, 2014 at 7:39 PM

All “government programs” s/b renamed to “taxpayers funded and accounted to programs”.

Schadenfreude on March 14, 2014 at 7:41 PM

The majority of my government interaction is at the county and state level – and I am constantly shaking my head over the mindless bureaucracy. Most of my career has been in the private sector, so I am always thinking of things being done as if in the private sector. But in government, decisions that take a week (at most) in the private sector, take a minimum of 2 or 3 months. (Getting used to this, since I can’t directly change it, has been the hardest adjustment I’ve had to make in my last decade of working with / around local government.)

Even with my interactions at the Federal level, things move at a far slower pace than in the private sector – and things that should be easy to grasp seem to require inordinate amounts of time to explain.

I’ve always thought that this was a direct result of so few people actually being held accountable and responsible – combined with the absolute fear over change without checking every single bloody box in triplicate. But when it comes to water / environmental issues, I’ve seen far too much political bias impacting and skewing decisions.

Athos on March 14, 2014 at 7:41 PM

I don’t know how these people do it. Particularly under the Obama admin.

You literally have to sell your soul to the devil of political corruption to work under this admin.

There’s no way I could do it. I value my conscience.

lineholder on March 14, 2014 at 7:42 PM

which oversees and monitors possible research misconduct

Isn’t presiding over research misconduct somewhat opposed to the idea of investigating said misconduct?

steebo77 on March 14, 2014 at 7:45 PM

Here you go this is a great list of bureaucracy to the max read ‘em from A-Z.
http://www.usa.gov/directory/federal/index.shtml?id=60031

mixplix on March 14, 2014 at 7:46 PM

I actually worked for a federally-funded, short term project through the Texas Workforce Commission, to put disadvantaged, at-risk youth into summer jobs.

Coming from a career in marketing professional services – architecture and engineering – it was without a doubt the most frustrating job I’ve ever had the displeasure of doing. Seeing the teens get jobs and gaining experience and higher self-esteem was gratifying, but dealing with layers upon layers of bureaucracy and career government employees was definitely an experience that I cannot get out of my head.

So, I get it.

tru2tx on March 14, 2014 at 7:51 PM

The federal govt. does about 75% too much. Much of what they do could be transferred to the states or simply not done at all.

rodguy911 on March 14, 2014 at 7:57 PM

Athos on March 14, 2014 at 7:41 PM

There is always a down-side to saying “Yes”, and there is practically never a down-side to saying “No”;
therefore, “NO” is the preferred route to everything.
“After all, what are they going to do? Fire Me?”
That is an affirmative action, easily reversed, and one that takes months if not years to act on.

Another Drew on March 14, 2014 at 8:05 PM

rodguy911 on March 14, 2014 at 7:57 PM

Your concluding clause says it all.
But then, they wouldn’t need 95% of the people they have, would they?

Another Drew on March 14, 2014 at 8:07 PM

Imagine. A federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Verges on oxymoronic, like “government worker” or “military intelligence”.

And OASH. Pronounced “WASH”? As in “white-wash”?

Anyway, not only are federal bureaucracies notoriously slow and inefficient– when not downright dysfunctional, but some of them bring about exactly the opposite results intended by their establishing legislation. Classic example is the EEOC established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, of which the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), said:

…[if anyone can find in the bill] “any language which provides that an employer will have to hire on the basis of percentage or quota related to color, race, religion, or national origin, I 
will start eating the pages one after another, because it is not in there.”

We all know how that turned out. Quotas, affirmative action, preferential hiring, college admissions– the whole can of worms. In less than a decade, the EEOC’s first bureau chief Alfred W. Blumrosen had managed to cram the law down Humphrey’s– and the rest of America’s– throat.

de rigueur on March 14, 2014 at 8:11 PM

He calls it “secretive, autocratic and unaccountable,” making use of exactly zero good-management principles put to work in businesses across the nation.

That pretty much sums up the federal government and how it works. It’s not one department, or one agency, or one branch — it’s the whole stinking cesspool called Washington, DC. The DC stands for they really Don’t Care. They don’t. It will not change, really change, until everyone of the career politicians,cooperating bureaucrats and lackey press are thrown out on their “secretive, autocratic and(/or) unaccountable” arses.

This November is the moment to stem the tide and begin to reverse it. We, the people!! So it is written (right there in the Constitution), so it should be done (right there in the Voting Booth).

CPRforAmerica on March 14, 2014 at 8:11 PM

It’s that much worse than academic bureaucracy? Academia loses to turtles.

rbj on March 14, 2014 at 8:22 PM

Bureaucracy is the process which converts energy into solid waste.

Schadenfreude on March 14, 2014 at 7:24 PM

Absolutely true. Nice to see you back.

talkingpoints on March 14, 2014 at 8:48 PM

Government : It takes twice as many people to get half as much done as the private sector…and I’m being charitable.

sirpatrick on March 14, 2014 at 9:13 PM

Only ONE way to remedy this. Starve it to death. It will NEVER reform itself.

bluesdoc70 on March 14, 2014 at 9:18 PM

“If the Sahara Desert were run by the Government, we’d be out of sand in five years”

listens2glenn on March 14, 2014 at 7:32 PM

–Milton Friedman

anuts on March 14, 2014 at 9:22 PM

Bureaucracy is the process which converts energy into solid waste.

Schadenfreude on March 14, 2014 at 7:24 PM

Beautiful.

Doomberg on March 14, 2014 at 9:29 PM

Dude better be careful that he doesn’t get “Vince Fostered”…

Big John on March 14, 2014 at 9:39 PM

Sticker on rear-door of a large (truck frame) van I saw a couple of days ago :

“If the Sahara Desert were run by the Government, we’d be out of sand in five years”

listens2glenn on March 14, 2014 at 7:32 PM

Perfect! I’m stealing this … and perhaps make stickers of my own.

PatriotGal2257 on March 14, 2014 at 10:46 PM

I put in 5 years at a VA hospital. The lifer admin bureaucrats were absolutely soul sucking. I have nothing but the highest regard for the MD’s who serve at VA’s. They are underpaid, overworked, and serve the best that our society has to offer. I was in a purely research wing(AAALAC regulated) so I had no patient interaction, but I did work with some of the oncologists in the hospital.

Murphy9 on March 14, 2014 at 11:14 PM

“If the Sahara Desert were run by the Government, we’d be out of sand in five years”

listens2glenn on March 14, 2014 at 7:32 PM

.
–Milton Friedman

anuts on March 14, 2014 at 9:22 PM

.
After I posted that, I went looking for web sites that would have political stickers, T-shirts and such. I typed that whole thing into google, and THAT’S when I found out it was a Milton Friedman line from some long time ago.

It left me kinda’ “sheepish”, ’cause I figured right then that probably everyone else here already knew that, except me.

listens2glenn on March 15, 2014 at 1:00 AM

From the resignation letter:

On one occasion, I was invited to give a talk on research integrity and misconduct to a large group of AAAS fellows. I needed to spend $35 to convert some old cassette tapes to CDs for use in the presentation. The immediate office denied my request after a couple of days of noodling. A university did the conversion for me in twenty minutes, and refused payment when I told them it was for an educational purpose.

It sounds to me like we need the person who denied the $35 expenditure to be running the rest of the government. Whoever it is, they saved us $35.00.

dirtseller on March 15, 2014 at 8:39 AM

Everyone should have to deal with the DMV on an annual basis as a reminder of what a govt bureaucracy is like so they can be prepared for future doctor visits.

Kissmygrits on March 15, 2014 at 8:55 AM

Only ONE way to remedy this. Starve it to death. It will NEVER reform itself.

bluesdoc70 on March 14, 2014 at 9:18 PM

And the only way to starve it to death is to stop paying taxes. How many of us do you think have the courage of the forefathers to do that? I did.

HiJack on March 15, 2014 at 9:35 AM

After I posted that, I went looking for web sites that would have political stickers, T-shirts and such. I typed that whole thing into google, and THAT’S when I found out it was a Milton Friedman line from some long time ago.

It left me kinda’ “sheepish”, ’cause I figured right then that probably everyone else here already knew that, except me.

listens2glenn on March 15, 2014 at 1:00 AM

Get used to it. We’ve all been there.

HiJack on March 15, 2014 at 9:37 AM

I’ve been with the State Dept for five years now. All I can say is, yeah- at the federal level we spend a lot of productive time doing things that have little to do with the overall mission. Most of it is HR driven.

I used to work for a large municipal police department, and although city government has its flaws, the smaller scale seems to be nowhere as unwieldy as the federal level.

guinneach on March 15, 2014 at 10:20 AM

The penalties of liberalism…. the government is totally out of control. What a freaking surprise!

ultracon on March 15, 2014 at 11:15 AM

This sounds exactly like the “Circumlocution Office” in Charles Dicken’s novel, Little Dorrit.

“What’s an elephant? A mouse built to government specs”

iamsaved on March 15, 2014 at 11:32 AM

The larger the entity, the more bureaucratic it becomes. This is also true in the private sector.

Hat Trick on March 15, 2014 at 11:46 AM

Coming up next, David Wright will be notified that his daily log while serving as Director of ORI has been classified as ‘Top Secret’ information by the NSA, and must be turned over to the proper authorities immediately.

Any public release of the data contained therein can make him subject to civil and criminal penalties including fines of up to $5 million and not less than 20 years in prison.

In 3..2..1..

After all, any information release that might slow or pause the ever-increasing size and reach of the Federal Government, would potentially cause grave damage to our national security, right? It may seem ridiculous to many of us, but this kind of mind-set seems to prevail for many of our civic employees and political officials.

s1im on March 15, 2014 at 12:45 PM

The quicker more people come to grips with that, the quicker we can start actually helping people (sometimes by reacquainting them with some of their money formerly used to fuel the bureaucracy).

Come on now, MKH. I know you know better than that. That is not how Washington does things. The Washington way is to form a new bureaucracy to govern the the failing bureaucracy. That will fix it!

Kjeil on March 15, 2014 at 3:10 PM