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.”
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).