David Wright, director of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the Department Of Health And Human Services, just quit his job in a big way. Wright wrote an insanely blunt resignation letter that was recently published by ScienceInsider. In it, he exposed the dysfunctional bureaucratic red tape that limited him from doing his job more than half of the time.
We’ve compiled some of the most entertaining parts below. Of course, feel free to read the full letter yourself, though I must warn that it’s loaded with various acronyms (common with government work).
He was only able to actually do his job around 35% of the time:
This has been at once the best and worst jobs I’ve ever had…Working with members of the research community, particularly RIOs, and the brilliant scientist-investigators in ORI has been one of the great pleasures of my long career. Unfortunately, and to my great surprise, it turned out to be only about 35% of the job.
The rest of my role as ORI Director has been the very worst job I have ever had and it occupies up to 65% of my time. That part of the job is spent navigating the remarkably dysfunctional HHS bureaucracy to secure resources and, yes, get permission for ORI to serve the research community…What I was able to do in a day or two as an academic administrator takes weeks or months in the federal government, our precinct of which is OASH.
Something as simple as converting old cassettes was impossible to do:
On one occasion, I was invited to give a talk on research integrity and misconduct to a large group of AAAS fellows. I needed to spend $35 to convert some old cassette tapes to CDs for use in the presentation. The immediate office denied my request after a couple of days of noodling. A university did the conversion for me in twenty minutes, and refused payment when I told them it was for an educational purpose.
It took years to fill open positions:
In one instance, by way of illustration, I urgently needed to fill a vacancy for an ORI division director. I asked the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health (your deputy) when I could proceed. She said there was a priority list. I asked where ORI’s request was on that list. She said the list was secret and that we weren’t on the top, but we weren’t on the bottom either. Sixteen months later we still don’t have a division director on board.
In essence, Wright’s experience with HHS is a prime example of the problematic nature of bureaucracy itself:
The sociologist Max Weber observed in the early 20th century that while bureaucracy is in some instances an optimal organizational mode for a rationalized, industrial society, it has drawbacks. One is that public bureaucracies quit being about serving the public and focus instead on perpetuating themselves. This is exactly my experience with OASH. We spend exorbitant amounts of time in meetings and in generating repetitive and often meaningless data and reports to make our precinct of the bureaucracy look productive.
And, as you’d expect, he ends with a bang:
As for the rest, I’m offended as an American taxpayer that the federal bureaucracy—at least the part I’ve labored in—is so profoundly dysfunctional. I’m hardly the first person to have made that discovery, but I’m saddened by the fact that there is so little discussion, much less outrage, regarding the problem. To promote healthy and productive discussion, I intend to publish a version of the daily log I’ve kept as ORI Director in order to share my experience and observations with my colleagues in government and with members of the regulated research community.
I plan to work through Tuesday March 4, 2014 and then use vacation or sick days until Thursday March 27 (by which time I will have re-established health care through my university) and then end my federal government service.
As history has repeatedly shown us, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Similarly, any time that human beings are in power and are not held accountable by others on the outside, they eventually take advantage of that power, lose their original drive, and stop working for the people whom they are supposed to be serving.
The Department of Health and Human Services is just one bureaucracy that could be more effective if it was held accountable for its actions. Instead, it is so big and convoluted that non-functioning websites, long wait times, misplaced resources and the infinite passing around of tasks is not only permitted but expected. As Americans, shouldn’t we expect better?