Dispatches from Leviathan – The Ministry is a Harsh Mistress

July 18, 2007

I work as an independent contractor. I am not an employee except to myself and draw no wages except what I allow myself from my company. I try to live in the libertarian and anarchist way I think is superior – fair contracting for my services and knowledge in exchange for money, freely negotiated, with both sides benefiting from the exchange. I am responsible directly for my own success or failure and I happily help out others when asked.

That idealism is muted by the reality I face living in Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada. If I want to feed my family, grow my business and expand my career, I must do business with the Federal Government. Everyone in Ottawa is in that position in one way or another. While some will look at me as some kind of traitor for somehow supporting the state and enabling it, I look at it like my opportunity to get back some small modicum of the taxes that have been taken from me in the past. I am using the opportunity to learn how to do some of those “services” the government supplies, in order to find private alternatives. I am see evidence on a daily basis that the state and government are incredible wastes or our moeny and time, examples of which I will share with you here.

Yeah, I’m rationalizing, but my kids gotta eat.

I fancy myself like Manny from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” – a computerman contracting to the Authority to survive, while working for its downfall from within, mainly because there is no other real choice. I will start referring to my desktop as ‘Mike’ and I already know who my Prof. Bernardo de la Paz and Wyoming Knox are (and I only contact them through ‘Mike’). My success is yet to be determined…

I work at a particular Ministry that is responsible for the management of property, and a particular kind of property that I personally don’t consider property. I am contracted with them to help develop a few internal and external applications to allow them to search and display their massive records database.

Now, at this ministry, like all ministries, are two types of workers – contractors and employees. I work with 5 other contractors on the development team. We work great together, are efficient and have consistently delivered on time, on budget an with minimal problems. We are incented, of course, by being paid to deliver and by the pride of a job well done. We wish to deliver the best possible service and product to the client. The full timers, on the other hand, are not so incented. They don’t want to rock the boat. They are happy to extend deadlines in order to make work. We have had servers sit for months, while certain groups of full timers look for cables, where ‘success’ is merely plugging a box in. We have a team of 12 people doing a project which, quite literally, was completed by one of our team after his kids went to bed one night.

Now not all of them are that bad – there are a few who generally are good. They are usually younger ones and they are the creative one who find ways around the idiotic rules we have to work by (we aren’t allowed to use free, open source products of higher quality, we have to wait for IBM to deliver high cost, inferior ones).

The management is worse. Their style is not to deliver service to their clients, whether those clients are other government employees in other departments or the public, it is to create mini-empires to protect their existence, even at increased cost to those clients and the taxpayer. I have witnessed thousands, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars wasted, while the government pleads austerity to the public. The managers do not want what is good for the end users, but what maintains or increases their power, position and influence. We are there to make them “look good” not to deliver. We deliver only if it coincidently makes the manager look good. The hierarchy is everything. Creative thought is suppressed and punished.

Each day is nauseating. Each day I shake my head in disgust and disbelief. Each day, my belief in the total wrongness of the state and of government is reinforced.

I will be at this current contract for at least the next 6 months. I hope on a regular basis to send more Dispatches from Leviathan, based on my experiences and my observations. They will be true. Unbelievable, but, sadly, true.

Stay tuned for “Planning by Committee”, “If you don’t like it, you know what to do” , “Money is no object” and my favourite “You aren’t allowed to talk to the client”.

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4 Responses to “Dispatches from Leviathan – The Ministry is a Harsh Mistress”

  1. Josh Says:

    Right, Mike, because no corporation functions like this, and all government branches are identical. For the record, my dad works for NS Health, and previously with the City of Toronto, and experiences nothing like this. Indeed, he reserves negative comments for know-nothing politicians who, frankly, don’t have a clue half the time. (Two other relatives work for the Feds as well, but don’t liken themselves to Heinlein protagonists.)

    As for me, well, my experiences in the private sector involve a poorly-run manufacturing company in Toronto, in which a lack of investment in production systems (not to mention A/C for almost all the workers) helped contribute to constant delays, a poor work environment, and lots of annoyed customers who I had to deal with and mollify. While working at a foreign policy lobbying group, I found only the most petty politics and conflicts in the tiny office, in which one of my supervisors who accuse the other of trying to usurp “his” work.

    Most recently, colleagues at a university were being systematically shunned and ostracized in their department to some arguably politically incorrect research. On the other hand, two other colleagues – federal scientists – do excellent work, but are occasionally thwarted by idiotic “accountability” measures, where they are required to justify installing any piece of software as being for official purposes.

    What’s the lesson in all this? Simply that you can always pull out an anecdote to justify your preconceived prejudices, whether you are anti-government, anti-corporation, or anti-lobbyist. Office politics frequently suck. Some organizations and poorly governed. On the other hand, some run impeccably and are full of happy, productive people. My current department is a testament to that.

    For someone who values the individual so much, this sort of post betrays a tendency to atomize people into little more than cogs subject to the overwhelming forces of the “Leviathan”. It is hardly news that office politics can inhibit productivity, produce waste, and otherwise make things unpleasant. It is simply wrong to ascribe this to any feature of “government” in general.

  2. Mike Says:

    Josh,

    Oh I have no illusions about this being any better in large corporations. I have worked for Alcatel, for instance – they make PW look positively speedy with their internal bureaucracy. I have worked for the Federal government for over 8 years and even when I was a Dipper, I saw it as a bad thing.

    In the feds, at any rate, I have seen this as business as usual, rather than an exception. There is no incentive to do a better job. None. And since they aren’t spending their own money, they don’t seem to care.

    That being said, consider this anti-bureaucracy, as well as anti-state. I would not enjoy this in private business either. Mind you, most private businesses wouldn’t be in business long if they did that (unless they were in some highly regulated and protected market, like say telecom….).

  3. taylorteach Says:

    “The managers do not want what is good for the end users, but what maintains or increases their power, position and influence. We are there to make them “look good” not to deliver. We deliver only if it coincidently makes the manager look good. The hierarchy is everything. Creative thought is suppressed and punished.

    Each day is nauseating. Each day I shake my head in disgust and disbelief. Each day, my belief in the total wrongness of the state and of government is reinforced.”

    Replace “managers” with “principals” and “client” with “student” and you’ve described my job as a public school teacher perfectly.

  4. theconverted Says:

    Oh, don’t even get me started on that taylorteach…..


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