Briefing

The Last Laugh

Government folks who moonlight as comedians are not above telling tales out of school. At the third, not-quite-annual Funniest Fed contest in May, several would-be stand-ups riffed on the image of federal employees as lazy or inept.

"If you're teleworking and you're wearing pants, you're teleworking wrong," quipped Dave Johnston of the Office of Personnel Management. The recent threat of furloughs has forced a "rebranding," he added. "Instead of nonessential personnel, we're luxury employees."

The averted shutdown in April "left me broken-hearted," said an Environmental Protection Agency staffer who goes by the stage name Platinum. "I've had my federal job for 27 years, so I have no problem calling in sick."

Jonathan Shepherd of the U.S. Agency for International Development mocked the conspiracy theorists who said the government had planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, jabbing that "the government couldn't plan a garage sale if life depended on it."

The production (slogan: "They can freeze our pay, but not our sense of humor") ran for multiple nights at the Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse in Northern Virginia, where a tough crowd voted to determine finalists. Producer and comic Naomi Johnson's inspiration came from the bureaucratic jargon in a memo distributed at the State Department, where she worked in 2003.

Funniest Fed has sold more than 1,800 tickets and has raised $5,000 for charities, among them Fisher House, which builds housing on military bases for families visiting troops.

-Charles S. Clark

E-gov Squeeze

One victim of the late-night wrangling that averted a government shutdown in April was the e-government fund, which was slashed from $34 million to $8 million for fiscal 2011, forcing the abandonment of some federal transparency initiatives and freezes to others. The e-gov fund is no stranger to lowered expectations, though. Congressional appropriators cut the fund by nearly 90 percent during its first year.

Rethinking NIH

What if the National Institutes of Health started over from scratch?

That's what Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow asked recently in the journal Nature: "What institutional arrangement would do a better job of improving the health and well-being of its citizens?"

Crow cited lung cancer as an area where NIH could do better. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of cases are linked to smoking, he noted. "Yet of the $2.45 billion that the NIH has spent on trying to find a cure during the past decade, most has been directed toward the discovery of molecular and genetic causes and treatments rather than on establishing how to modify people's behavior," he wrote.

Obesity and diabetes are two other national epidemics with significant behavior and cultural components that NIH's biomedical focus tends to miss, Crow tells Government Executive.

"The way that we're structured and the way that we're organized isn't focused enough on outcomes," he says.

Crow suggests whittling down NIH's 27 institutes and centers to just three. His first institute would focus on biomedical research. The second would look at outcomes-measurable improvements to people's health. The third would address costs.

"We all understand that what we want is life extension and we apparently want it at the lowest possible cost, and that's not unreasonable," he says. "How can science be a driver of those two outcomes?"

-Rebecca Carroll

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