This is the second in my occasional series on life in Washington, DC. Just to recap I’m a twenty year veteran of government service, at virtually all levels, a lifelong Democrat, and a veteran of multiple state and national campaigns. I’ve even run for office…and lost. But I’ll probably do it again. I came to Washington three years ago this month after a lifetime working in state government and these diaries are my attempt to share that experience with the dKos community…of which I have been a part for – oh, man – almost nine years now. These diaries are unvarnished and provide a peek into Washington life that, sadly, most Americans will never get to see.
And, as always, I’m not going to reveal anything that would compromise my oath or security.
This week, we’re going to discuss the coin of the realm in Washington – the means by which everything gets done: access and communication.
Going into this, you need to abandon the way you think of inter and intra office communication at your place of work or within your school. In Washington, communication happens in a very different kind of environment under a radically different set of circumstances than in the “real world” – but for a very good reason. I think if government watchdog groups and truly serious reporters and scholars could get a handle on this, it would make it easier for them to interact with government types and do the kind of reporting that really needs to be done.
Everyone is Watching…All the Time…Everywhere
At your place of business if you need to tell the boss something in confidence you can probably fire off an email or write a memo. If you want to gripe about the boss to a co-worker you can shoot your buddy an email or a text. If you’re in a feisty mood and Romney has pissed you off, you can chat about it around the water cooler. At worst, you can say something wrong or inappropriate that will get you in trouble with the big bosses. You might get fired, but no one outside of HR and management will likely ever know what transpired. You can go home at night and discuss your day’s work with your partner or your spouse. You can vent. You can talk. You have an outlet.
I can’t do any of that stuff.
Virtually every email, memo, or text a government worker sends or receives while on the job is subject to security screening and to disclosure under the Presidential Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act (with a few exceptions, of course, to protect attorney confidentiality and to allow law enforcement proceedings to move forward). Political speech on the job is utterly prohibited – though some offices are more lenient than others. And if you have a security clearance you must be forever cognizant of what you say and where you say it. You have a little series of numbers and letters on your ID badge that designates your level of clearance. If yours doesn’t match that of the person you are about to discuss certain matters with, then you have to check your speech. Further, security functions on the basis of “need to know” information – so even though a colleague may have your level of clearance, they may not have a “need to know” what you know.
(NOTE: I laugh at guys on these “conspiracy” and UFO TV shows who claim they had Top Secret clearance in the government. Big deal. There are clerical staffers with TS clearance. That doesn’t give you automatic access to anything! If someone is touting their clearance, you can bet they didn’t really have access to important information. People who really have access to “the goods” keep quiet to protect themselves and their families – folks in the know are, honestly, valuable targets for espionage, extortion, etc.)
The US government, it is estimated, is the largest producer of records – both paper and electronic – in the world. Information, in many respects, is our primary work product. And in the USA the public has unprecedented access to that information through our open government and open meetings laws. What that means to a government employee is, essentially, that “anything you say can and will be used against you.” Even our personal salary and financial investment records are publically available – you only have to sign a single form to get them – and, BOOM, the “New York Times” can see what I’ve been investing in. That’s unprecedented in the private sector – one’s personal finances are considered sacrosanct.
As a result of all this, skilled government workers have honed the art of communication within this environment to a fine point. Getting things done means knowing how to communicate and, more importantly, knowing with whom to communicate. Being right, being smart, and being good at your job means exactly nothing if you don’t have the ear of people in power.
We need only look at the examples of how Katrina was handled in the Bush administration and how the economic stimulus was handled during the early Obama administration to get an understanding of this. In these cases, Michael Brown and Larry Summers we the “men on top” with direct access to the president. They had down line staff reporting to them what needed to be done – but that information wasn’t getting to where it needed to go. These men had cherry-picked staff that agreed with them and that would feed them what they wanted to hear. In turn they fed this advice, in similar fashion, to their respective presidents. And that information turned out to be totally bogus. There were people down line who knew what to do better than the bosses – but they had no way to get that information where it needed to go. If accuracy and intelligence were the keys to success in Washington, Paul Krugman would be Secretary of the Treasury.
In Washington, as we discussed last time, position and proximity to power dictate your level of personal power – not your skill set or your experience. This comes as a function of how communication is handled. In virtually every department of the government, at all levels, there is typically a daily (or, for lower level offices a weekly) staff meeting. This meeting usually involves “the principles” within a given office – the team leads, department heads, “old hands” and “trusted advisors.” They make reports on issues of importance, new ideas, and proposals to their boss. In turn, that boss takes what she considers to be important from that meeting to the principles’ meeting with her boss – and so on up the chain of command. This is how, for example, a piece of critical intelligence makes it from a low level analyst all the way to the White House – it gets vetted along the way by a department’s internal hierarchy before being kicked over to the President by an agency head. Important “hot” items go over to the White House in some form of a daily briefing. The most famous and storied of these is the Presidential Daily Briefing on matters of national intelligence produced by the CIA. But all departments have a similar in-line into the White House.
As you can see, this kind of stove piping leaves a lot of room for unimportant items to be overly highlighted and for important items to get kicked to the curb. If any member of the hierarchy is unconvinced that a “hot” issue is really all that hot, then it will not proceed to the next level in the chain of command. After 9-11 there was a lot of talk about staffers who “knew better” and who “ran around with their hair on fire” but couldn’t get anyone to listen to them. On the surface this was a major problem and a serious breakdown in communication. However, this occurs as a function of how and to whom data is presented. There are a lot of folks that I deal with whose hair is always on fire! They’re utterly incapable of telling the difference between a hot issue and an issue that really doesn’t matter. Under the principle of “even a blind squirrel finds a nut” – sometimes they’re right. But often not. It’s incumbent upon the people within the hierarchy to be able to sort important data and good data from the bad. If you have intelligent leadership, the system works. If you have “Brownie” and his buddies at the helm, the wheels fall off.
Opening a Back Channel
What I have discussed above is what is commonly called the “mainline” of communication in government. Most of this is done verbally, not in writing, unless a formal mode of communication like a diplomatic cable, a white paper, or a cleared memorandum is called for…and these are usually carefully crafted in case they are publically revealed. Email communication, of course, is more informal but practiced players learn what to not put in their mails, unless they have some shielding under the FOIA or other disclosure laws.
However, the real Washington power brokers and key players have learned the art of opening “back channels” into this line of communication which allow them to telegraph their ideas and their issues around the hierarchy directly to where it needs to go. The most famous of these was opened up between the Navy Department and Henry Kissinger’s office. The thing got so vigorous it actually resulted in the navy spying on other branches of government to compile intergovernmental intel the navy wouldn’t normally have had access to.
But the typical back channel takes the form of “I’ve got a buddy at…” This highlights the importance of networking and friendship in DC. If you have a friend at the White House or in the front office of your agency who you met at a baseball game or your kid’s soccer practice, you want to take care of that person. You want to make sure they get an invite to the barbecue and to the cocktail party. While you’re chatting, you can then turn the subject toward work and start filling their head with your worldview. If you’ve built these kinds of relationships well and you play the quid pro quo game correctly, you can use your network of back channel contacts to get ideas around your department heads and into the hands of the people that matter. I should point out that, sadly, analysts, scholars, and lawyers seem to be the absolute WORST people at doing this. They come from an academic worldview in which “being right” is what counts and they think is all they need to do is get their good information out there. They often become petulant and disgruntled when no one listens to them, making them even less likely to get a fair hearing.
This system explains, in large part, how Beltway thinking can be so remote from common sense thinking within the rest of the country. It certainly explains, in the case above, why Katrina was handled so badly and why guys like Larry Summers had such a lock on our crisis-level economic policy in the early days of the Obama administration. Summers was, frankly, the biggest talker on the economic team and he had established an iron-clad back channel network that was feeding information into the White House which supported his views. Less practiced Washington hands on the economic team couldn’t compete with his talking points because they didn’t have that network to draw upon. Obama, as an outsider, himself, was sitting in the Oval Office being told by everyone, formally and informally, that Summers was the man to listen to. What the President failed to understand is that Summers had engineered that messaging himself. This was also the basic means by which Dick Cheney ran the country for 6 of George Bush’s 8 years. Cheney kept Bush in a bubble with the only lines of communication coming in – originating with Cheney himself.
Wine and Wieners
Probably the most famous and well known back channel in Washington is the vaunted cocktail party. The way these things are described here on dKos, they sound like a bunch of the great and the good standing around in formal attire sipping champers in the ballroom of a Victorian mansion. Hardly. Even the best paid Washington hand makes no more than $155K per year. (We’ll talk more about making money in DC later.) That’s a pretty good salary – until you factor in that DC has some of the highest cost of living in the nation. And a new Beltway worker on the make isn't going to earn anywhere near that amount.
The typical DC cocktail party is a bunch of your real friends and members of your work network standing around in your cramped apartment or in the living room of your suburban home eating Costco food and drinking whatever Cali wine was on sale that week. Members of the press love to get an invite to these things - especially the noobs - not for the food or the glamour, but for the access. Amateurs get played by the press at parties, pros play the press.
The big galas and dinners are reserved for the corporate elite who want to play the big media and cash strapped pols that just want to pretend their years in Washington had at least some touch of class. These parties are based on the “big get” – the rich and powerful throw them to demonstrate who they have the power to compel to attend. But very little communication takes place at these things. The real talk in Washington goes on in front of the TV after everyone has gotten drunk and bored of watching the Redskins lose again.
What does this all mean?
1) The next time you hear an outraged watchdog on Maddow claiming “I filed a FOIA request and only got five things…there must be more…” you can bet there probably isn’t more. Informal, verbal communication is the way things get done in Washington. Before a memo was ever written, every detail was worked out at the Starbucks and during a series of morning briefings. You cannot FOIA what comes out of people’s mouths.
2) When you hear someone brag about their access to “classified government information” that’s a sure sign they don’t know a damn thing about anything. Take what they say with a grain of salt – what they know probably came through the rumor mill.
3) Access, not knowledge, is the means by which ideas get advanced. Successful players know how to work the communication network to their advantage. Good managers know who to trust. Bad managers are lazy and let themselves get played.
4) Someone is always listening in Washington – whether it is foreign spies, the media, your boss, a watchdog group, or just a traveling tourist, you learn to watch what you say and you craft your speech for maximum effect.
5) Success means building a network that gives you a pathway into the channels of power. You do that by making friends, serving brats and beer, and by trading information. And you never, ever forget that all this informal communication is a part of “the game.” The moment you “make it real” is the moment you’ve lost the ability to be effective.
NEXT TIME: By popular demand a look at the people of Washington, DC and the tragedy of living in a city without the full rights of citizen.