In 2003, the investigative board reviewing the Columbia space shuttle explosion pointed some of the blame at a "culture" of lax safety at NASA. "There's good culture and there's bad culture," said Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the panel. "You can have a culture of safety, and you can have a culture of openness, and you can have a culture of honesty, and all that kind of stuff. Culture is not a bad word. . . . Culture is the way that the organization habitually acts absent rules. In other words, this is the way that people kind of intuitively act, regardless of what the rules say."
Despite Gehman's neutral definition, the culture at federal agencies is rarely described in positive terms. Invariably, when a management problem surfaces in the federal government, the culture gets some-or all-of the blame. Over the years, government errors have been attributed to a culture of fear, a culture of secrecy, a culture of complacency, a culture of mistrust, or a culture of arrogance, to name a few. Sometimes, the blame is placed simply on an agency's "culture," with no further explanation of the problem. Officials nonetheless promise to change the culture and solve whatever management problem has surfaced.
Organizational culture is a fuzzy concept, with an emperor's-new-clothes quality to it. That's especially true when trying to describe the culture of an organization as varied as the federal government-home to the Marine Corps, IRS, Forest Service, NASA, U.S. Mint, FBI and dozens of other agencies with disparate missions, occupations and operating environments. Still, when asked by Government Executive recently whether there is a governmentwide culture, a dozen current and former managers said yes. When asked what the characteristics of that culture are, their responses revolved around one main fact of government life: politics.
That politics would be the root of government culture is no surprise. Culture, it's said, starts at the top. The top of government is filled with politicians.
That fact leads career subordinates to act accordingly. "Do not get out in front of the secretary/director." That's one key rule that one former federal executive said governs behavior. Another is the understanding of operating in a fish bowl and the realization that their actions might appear on the front page of The Washington Post the next day. (In fact, executives ask themselves, "How would this look if it appeared on the front page?")
Politics, managers said, trickles down through the bureaucracy as fear. "The fear is the fear of powerful others [managers, Congress, stakeholders] that might be displeased about anything at any time," explained a federal management analyst. "Fear that careers will be affected, programs will lose funding, one will be marginalized and therefore will not be able to apply one's abilities to any effect. The cultural effects include indecisiveness, suppression of surfacing issues, little open dialogue and withholding of information."
If politics is the root of government culture, then it's interesting that politicians are forever promising to change that culture. What's even more intriguing, though, is that they always talk about how hard it is to change it. They frequently point out that culture change takes years. Seven years is the most frequently cited length. Rarely does a political appointee keep his or her job anywhere near long enough to see it through.