The Government Bureaucracy is Even Worse Than Back-Stabbing Academia Apparently

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A newly unveiled resignation letter may contain the most unflattering portrait of federal work life in the modern era.

The “see ya” note from David Wright, a Michigan State University science historian who since 2011 has toiled at improving training at the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Research Integrity, hits all the key themes in the genre of rants against the bureaucracy.

“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,” Wright wrote in a Feb. 25 letter to Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh. “None of this renders the slightest bit of assistance to ORI in handling allegations of misconduct or in promoting the responsible conduct of research.”

Reported first by Science magazine’s insider blog, Wright’s letter estimated that he loved the 35 percent of his job that involved working with “remarkable scientist-investigators.”

But the remaining 65 percent was “the very worst job I ever had,” the professor said. “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. I knew coming into this job about the bureaucratic limitations of the federal government, but I had no idea how stifling it would be. What I was able to do in a day or two as an academic administrator takes weeks or months in the federal government.”

Wright went on to contrast federal service unfavorably even with the groves -- some call them snakepits -- of academia. “In most organizations the front-line agencies that do the actual work, in our case protecting the integrity of millions of dollars of PHS-funded research, command the administrative support services to get the job done,” he said.

In the HHS health secretary’s office, “it’s the exact opposite. The Op-Divs, as the front-line offices are called, get our budgets and then have to go hat-in-hand to the administrative support people in the ‘immediate office’ of OASH to spend it, almost item by item. These people who are generally poorly informed about what ORI is and does decide whether our requests are ‘mission critical.’”

In one example, Wright said, he urgently needed to fill a vacancy. “I asked the principal deputy assistant secretary for health [Koh’s 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.”

Invoking sociologist Max Weber, Wright also accused the HHS unit of operating “a grievance procedure for employees that has no due process protections of any kind for respondents to those grievances.”  

Wright isn’t granting interviews since he departed March 4, though he remains on the payroll using vacation time until March 27. He has been replaced temporarily by OASH veteran Don Wright (no relation), according to the Science blog.

An HHS spokeswoman told Government Executive the department’s policy is not to comment on personnel matters. 

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