Time To Rely On Character, Not Guidelines

The Secret Service’s response to its embarrassing Colombian prostitute scandal — like the GSA response to its infuriating Las Vegas spend-a-thon — says a lot about the bureaucratic mindset.

In an effort to prevent agents from engaging in future drunken romps with hookers, the Secret Service has tightened guidelines.  Agents working overseas now are “banned from drinking on duty, visiting ‘disreputable establishments’ and bringing foreigners into hotel rooms.”  These are viewed as “common-sense enhancements” of existing rules, and will be accompanied by more “ethics sessions” for staff.  In short, the Secret Service, like the GSA before it, is relying on more regulation and more bureaucracy to solve its problem.

Does anyone really think, however, that the wording of regulations is what caused this scandal?  Does the Secret Service really believe that the agents who got drunk in a strip club and took Colombian streetwalkers back to their hotel rooms consulted the employee guidelines before they guzzled their first shot of vodka?

The problem is not with regulations, but with people.  If the Secret Service has hired agents who thought their behavior in Colombia was acceptable, then the problem runs a lot deeper than tweaking the terms of Regulation 12.3(b)(iii).  The processes that led to the hiring of the agents failed, and the training that helped to shape their behavior also failed.  The Secret Service needs to take a comprehensive look at how it selects and schools the people who protect our President.  It needs to figure out how to identify, hire, and promote individuals with qualities like responsibility, dedication, and judgment — because the agents involved in the Colombia scandal sorely lacked those crucial qualities.

It’s time our government understood that we must put our faith in people, not regulations.  You can’t regulate reckless people into responsible people.

We’re From The Government, And We’re Here To Help You

There’s a reason most Americans think the line “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you” is funny.  It’s because we’ve all experienced the run-around at some governmental agency, where we’ve been told to move from one line to another for inexplicable reasons or we’ve been unable to get a simple answer to a simple question.

The point is well made by a story about President Obama’s recent response to a farmer’s question at a town hall meeting in Illinois.  The farmer asked about some impending regulations about dust, runoff, and noise that he had heard about, and the President — after gently encouraging the farmer to not believe everything he heard — confidently told the farmer to “Call USDA” because they would be able to answer his questions.

An enterprising reporter took the President’s advice.  The resulting story is a classic example of governmental run-around that catalogs every call the reporter made and every non-responsive response the reporter received.  Through nine phones calls over two days, the reporter is bounced from the USDA to the Illinois Department of Agriculture to the Illinois Farm Bureau, back to the Illinois Department of Agriculture and then to various departments within that agency.  Everyone steers the reporter to someone else.

The reporter ends up at the media relations department at USDA headquarters in Washington, where he receives a statement that is a classic of both bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and the CYA mentality found in many governmental entities:  “Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA’s robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country.”

This story is all-too-familiar to anyone who has had to wrestle with governmental bureaucracies.  It’s one reason why many people take no comfort in confident statements that more governmental programs and more regulations will solve our problems.  And, it leaves the ultimate issue open:  Who’s going to answer the poor farmer’s question?