Government Scandals: Why We Shouldn't Overreact

Recent abuses in the GSA, the Secret Service and the ICE are reprehensible. But they're no reason to overhaul government policies.
by | May 15, 2012 AT 1:49 PM
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions told reporters that the president should take responsibility for the Secret Service, GSA and energy company Solyndra scandals and insist on a government culture in which taxpayer dollars are not wasted. Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC

This hasn't been a stellar couple months for public servants. We've seen three scandals cast us in increasingly unflattering lights: the GSA's party fund, the Secret Service's party hotel, and the conviction of ousted ICE leadership caught padding their pockets with fake receipts and big reimbursements.

Usually when we see problems in government, you can trust Ken and me to start preaching "pipes over people." We often say that our problems are not people problems, but issues with how the work gets done.

But sometimes? Sometimes, it's the people. It is people making bad decisions, and in some cases doing some pretty bad stuff.

The pipes are not at issue in any of these three cases. (Well not as the cause of the problems anyway. They'll certainly be an issue soon enough.) These problems were caused by individuals. In the case of GSA, it was a group of individuals who skirted their own rules to try to do something for the people in the organization. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt: For the sake of discussion, I'll accept that their intentions were pure, even as the conference was getting a bit flamboyant and tone-deaf to the current economic climate. I'm not totally up on my international prostitution laws, but the other two issues were not only bad decisions, they were most probably illegal — and at the very least not what you expect from some of our most trusted public officials.

In my effort to avoid the political campaigning and government-bashing going on, I admit I haven't been following these stories as closely as I would have a year ago. However, I was perusing around last week when I came across a post with an interesting question: "What can we put in place to keep these scandals from happening?" While very well intentioned, I must admit I did a spit take with my chai latte.

In 41 years of life, I have never heard a negative story about the Secret Service until this year. Not one. I've been personally involved with several presidential and vice presidential visits in my career in public service and have first-hand knowledge of how advance teams come in to an area and work. Not only have I never seen a negative story, but in all those visits, I never heard a negative comment regarding their conduct. I'm not sure what it says about our current state of affairs when we have to put into training and policy that you shouldn't solicit prostitutes while on business travel. But now, thanks to the actions a few errant individuals, the travel pipes for the rest of the men and women in that fine organization are quickly getting gunked up.

The ICE officials were taking trips, submitting bogus receipts and collecting reimbursements to the tune of over half a million dollars. You just know how this is going to play out: Now, before any reimbursement is paid, you'll have to verify that each receipt is valid by contacting the business and asking them to send the duplicate cash register reciept for the file when possible. And the reimbursement process will instantly jump from six weeks to six months.

As for the GSA, well, the story oozes irony. Those of us who have worked in the federal sphere have a love/hate relationship with the GSA. In this instance, some individuals were clearly bending the rules they typically put in place to keep the rest of us from doing what they wanted to do. All karma references aside, nobody in this case was out to defraud anyone. They were focused internally on rewarding some people who work really hard in a thankless environment. What they should get is a stern reminder to make better decisions in the future. What they are getting, though, is a overreactive clampdown on all conference travel. That's a pity. A lot of good work gets done at these events (spending excesses aside), and relationships are formed that pay off in productivity in ways that cannot be measured.

These were bad decisions, no doubt. And they need to be treated as such. We cannot "policy" ourselves into making different decisions. I'm certain the current poor decisions were not condoned by the current policy. We also are unable to put in enough safeguards so that they never happen again. Whenever we try, we only gunk-up and twist-up the pipes even more. That robs us of capacity, and that is the root cause of our problems. Instead, fire the people who decided it was OK to bring hookers back to the room. All of them. Fire the people stealing. It only makes sense they should not be trusted with the life of the president, or our tax investments, if they can make such callous and poor decisions while on the clock. Then, put GSA through the wringer (quickly) and let them get back to work. They will not make the same mistake any time soon. So use the appraisal system to note conduct and let's trust them to self-police after reemphasizing our expectations.

Sometimes it's not the pipes at all. It's the people. So please, leave the pipes alone this time.