Chris Johnson


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There was a time that the distinguishing characteristic of working in a bureaucracy (as an employee) were: it's not very fun; the pay is OK but not great; the hours are good (no nights and weekends), the benefits are pretty good; it's difficult but not impossible to get fired; and the retirement plan is very good (both benefits and pay). In that world, I'd argue that the vast majority of employees in any bureaucracy -- all but the top handful of political appointees -- focus on optimizing their own longevity as employees. That can explain a wide variety of behaviors -- while it probably leans toward CYA behaviors at steady-state, there will be times that an employee would get a signal from above on a non-CYA maneuver that would be a good thing to do. So the surprising nature of the actions taken could just be a reflection of a personal preferences, political events, or even a mood from the top (very small group of people) that can change fast because that group is small, non-expert, and political. And that preference is magnified by the 99.9% of the bureaucracy's employees who are watchers and followers. No long-term policy preference or coherent strategy other than, let's do what the top people seem to want right now.

The fact that more recently bureaucrats are actually paid well suggests the above would be even stronger tendencies now. Further amplified by social media -- you don't have to just satisfy your bosses; you also have to satisfy the vocal people your bosses seem inclined to satisfy. The last element is why care if you're hard to fire? I think the answer is, you still have to put in a lot of years to get that prize retirement. You could either do that in relative harmony with your co-workers and sometimes get assignments that aren't a grind; or you could be the person other people don't like and have to work through many years of social exclusion and bad assignments.

Bottom line: keep your job forever; and not have it be more bad than it has to be; by implementing the preferences of your bosses in a way that's visible to them and others -- whether it's effective or not.