01 July 2011

Death by Accountability

Accountability seems essential - even moral, right?  EVERYONE should be accountable for their acts.

However, moderation in all things - especially moderation.  For instance, most people agree that water is good. It's possible to drink too much water, however - this even has several names: water poisoning, hyper-hydration, etc. You can kill yourself with too much water, and I'm not even counting drowning here.

Before Ronald Reagan, government employees were known to be hard-working, not particularly well paid, and dedicated to their country. Well, Federal employees haven't actually changed. From Reagan onward, however, government has been described as not the solution to the problem, but that government is the problem.  He then proceeded to use government to build up a 600-ship Navy and double and triple our national debt. Go figure. Except for political leverage by unscrupulous politicians, I really can't see why government has been targeted. Why not Bear Sterns? Why not Bank of America? And except for people who have never seen a federal employee and what they do, I can't see why anyone would believe government was a bad thing. After all, who protects us from volcanic or earthquake crises? Provides us weather information and warnings? Delivers our mail? Guards our country? Cuts our Social Security checks? Chases down fraud (well, everywhere except Wall Street, anyway). 

The inevitable consequence of this broad and unjustified negative categorization has been to demand more accountability: prove to us that you aren't wasting taxpayers' dollars! One addresses this by demanding more and more reports, setting greater and more complex rules. Who actually does this?  Congress usually dumps at least 10 loony new regulations on Federal employees and businesses every year.  Who enforces these? People in cubicles.  We call them The Bean Counters.

I'll emphasize that it's not just happening in the Federal government. I've watched this trend towards ever-greater accountability expand from almost nothing 35 years ago to what we see today in many different domains.  Scientific journals now frenziedly game the rating system to increase an artificial number called a Citation Index or Impact Factor. My performance as a scientist is rated every 6 months. This is largely good, but also partly bad, because how do you rate someone doing a discovery process?  It's complicated and largely artificial, and the current process requires at least a person-day each time for each scientist. It's like the technology that counts how many times people click on an internet ad - it is artificial and leads to strange, illogical behavior, like Content Farms.  

Let me give an example I'm familiar with:
Before I moved with my family to Venezuela in 1987, the USGS National Center was a hustling, busy place crammed with scientists and technicians. The building is a series of stacked 8-sided stars nearly a third of a mile (half a kilometer) long. In 1987 it produced maps, energy and mineral resource assessments, and was a world leader in developing new geophysical technology. The "A" stack of the 3rd floor was Administration, the "B" stack was devoted to chem labs, the "C" stack geology, etc. 

When I got back from Saudi Arabia in 1995, all the chem labs had been gutted from the "B" stack - and it was now filled with cubicles for all the administrative assistants required by ever-growing additional rules, regulations, and reporting requirements. These people were not bad - but they were bean-counters, not contributing anything to the products of the USGS. They also cost money: salary, building space, etc., and this was taken at the expense of doing what the USGS was tasked to do: map our nation and its resources - and international resources that we are so critically and strategically dependent upon, such as the Rare Earth Elements now controlled (97% of world production) by China.  

This cancerous growth was all driven by Congress, which gives us several new bills each year that demanded ever-greater accountability, to make sure that taxpayer money wasn't misspent. Republicans and Democrats are equally well-intended - and equally guilty - for the accountability cancer. Never mind what banks and investment firms get away with (and still scream about too much oversight). The burden on the USGS Administrative Officers can be characterized in an amazing and very tangible way: 2 to 3 meters (10 feet!) of shelf-space were necessary to keep all the regulations in 5-cm/2-inch binders. The first time I saw this, it was mind-boggling. More boggling than this was the way that this reportage and accountability burden increased every single year since then. Now there are so many rules and regulations that they must be kept online. At least it saves cutting down another forest for the paper needed.

Accountability has had a huge effect on scientific productivity. Publications and maps - despite the availability of computers and plotters and The Cloud - is less than half what it was 10 years ago, and it is declining.

Bloated accountability has also had a huge effect on the people charged with managing it. As a chief scientist, fully 60% of my time was taken up with all the required reportage. My work-week was routinely about 55 hours long - because I felt I had to help the scientists get work done and product released. In a science team of ~120 people, we have an Administrative Officer who routinely works a 60-hour week - and she still can't keep up even though she works from dark til dark. She could not function without the 9 assistants to do all that reportage and accountability checking. That's an astounding overhead.

From one admin officer needed per 100 scientists and technicians in 1987, today it is now almost 9 per 100 people.  


When there is suspicion and distrust, the public demands accountability, and this is generally not a bad thing. However, it is possible to stifle research and business productivity almost to a halt with too many accountability demands - mandated reports and constantly-evolving rule-sets for how to do even basic things.

Death by accountability is possible, and I've been watching The Monster's growth actually accelerate in the past 10 years.  It's like a tumor: it demands greater and greater resources, and imposes its priorities on you no matter what else might be important. Already there is far too little Operating Expenses (OE) to get anything meaningful done in the USGS anymore.

Death by Accountability affects not just federal employees, but private businesses and university researchers, too.  We are all being nibbled to death by the flock of accountability geese.

Is there a solution? YES - and it's surprisingly simple.  All new regulations and reporting requirements should have a maximum time-limit - a Sunset Clause. After five or six or even 10 years, they should expire. If they are still necessary, they will inevitably be renewed. But we must stop the permanent add-on increase and growth of The Monster.


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