As everyone in every organization knows, the views from the top and the bottom are different. The same is so in the federal government.
From the top, officials look down and see a bureaucratic jungle unresponsive, entrenched, self-protective, slothful, pawns of unbiquitous special-interest groups that affect, if not control, legislation. A senior White House aide looks at a chart of a key government agency taped to his office wall, gestures vigorously toward the hand-lettered names of high officials on it, and says decisively, "We're going to clean them all out."
From the bottom, workers look up and see more regulations, more programs, more paper work, more hostility from politicians and public. They see presidents and Cabinet officers come and go. It really doesn't make any difference who's on top, they almost always will say: they are the government. They still have their work to perform, and that work has become increasingly complex and frustrating. They are drowning in a sea of paper, fighting merely to keep up.
A new employee, four months on the job dealing with citizen's claims in a district office, recites the various forms needed to file one case - the 401 and 85-10 and ID info and tie-up RC and the a-27, b, d, and c, among others.
Inarticulately, but accurately, she defines the problem: "There's a lot of rules and regulations because people write laws and file lawsuits and stuff, and if you got rid of the rules and regulations you could get rid of the paper work but you can't get rid of the dules and regulations because people have made them. So really, it's like an unending cycle. There's nothing you can do."
Catch 22, real life, every day, every office. To read regulations that come out of one department alone - HEW - each week is equivalent to wading through twice as many words as "War and Peace." Words, it hardly needs to be said, that lack the clarity of a Tolstoy. Words, in fact, that are almost incomprehensible if you do try to wade through them. Who can master them? No one. Who even tries?
From the top, a new Cabinet secretary comes into power determined to move aggressively and quickly. He's going to reorganize his department and set, he hopes, a new tone for a new administration. The enterprise is carried out in meldodramatic secrecy. One of a handful of trusted advisers describes the process as akin to receiving sealed wartime orders to be opened only at sea. Preparation of charts for the reorganization is even secretly shepherded out of his department, and done at the Pentagon, through a private and personal arrangement with the Secretary of Defense.
Why? Because they beleive if word of the plan leaks it will be blocked by the bureaucracy and the special-interest groups that want to maintain the status quo.
From the bottom, where the repetitive, grinding work is performed, those far-off decisions in Washintgon aren't the immediate concern. The problems are more mundane - and more critical. They involve such seemingly simple things as obtaining file cabinets and qualified clerk-typists. Neither is easy to come by. The harassed office managers wind up fighting within the bureaucracy itself. They often lose.
"We have these old claims," one says, "and we have thousands and thousands of these folders. So I ordered 12 file cabinets about a year and a half ago. I still haven't got those cabinets. You can't get supplies.
"I'll tell you very confidentially how we get around it. Not having those cabinets probably cost the government a thousand dollars each, because what happened was we had put the file in cartons, but we have to go looking through them. Well, you know how much clerical time can be lost when these things get all mixed up.
"So frankly what I do, even if it's not strickly legal, is work out a deal with a guy. You say, 'Look, I'm not allowed to buy, I'm only allowed to rent, but when the rent price reaches the purchase price it's mine. Okay? But why should I have to do that? . . .
"I can't understand the claimants yelling at me, the Germans shooting at me, but my own government, why are they doing these to me?"
now file cabinets and clerk-typists and frustrated employees like the one who says he reaches the point where he throws a case into the trash can ("that's one case you don't have to worry about") may not seem matters of great moment in the world of Washington. Or even, to be more lofty,about democracy and government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens and society.
Yet that is waht this story is all about.
In time, both top and bottom express the same kinds of fears and frustrations about how government works. They are both captives of the bureaucratic machinery of which they are integral parts and which they themselves help to dobuild. Who is to blame? Everyone and no one US THEM . This is true even of the best of them.
That's the lesson of the one government agency that directly affects the lives of more Americans than any other - Social Security.
When Jimmy Carter was preparing to launch his presidential campaign last summer, he received some advice from a man with long and distinguished government career. People will judge the federal government - and the next administration - by their personal experience with those few huge agencies that directly touch their lives, the analysis went.
"They are Uncle Sam in every town, village, and city in America. If the employees of those organizations are friendly and considerate and the organizations give good service, that will mean to most people that government can make things work. If those organizations are unresponsive, bureaucratic, and make mistakes then that * is the impression that the ordinary citizen will have of his government."
Max Stamler would agree with that judgment and its implicit challenge. He's a bureaucarat, who ent and its implicit challenge. He's a bureaucrat, who ks from the bottom looking up. Over his years with Social Security he's witnessed stunning changes in the role of government and public attitudes about it.
"I've learned one thing," he says, "it's that I don't feel the people on top know more than I do. Maybe it's because they are so high up that they don't see the obvious things."
Another personal lesson: "If I were President, I'd put the decision-making as close to the people as the guy who's going to get punched in the nose if it doesn't work."
Max Stamler knows something about that feeling: from where he sits, in his midtown Manhattan Social Security office, each day is an endless struggle. He oversees some 150 employees who in turn serve 90,000 of the most diverse cross-section of the citizenry, everyone from bankers and brokers to junkies and mental patients. A quarter of a billion dollars in benefits is processed each year out of that office alone.
Until very recent years Social Security stood as the brightest ornament in the ever-expanding federal establishment. It was the best, the elite, a model of what government could do for the citizens it serves. Social Security no longer enjoys that reputation, but it still touches more and more people personally. And more and more is being asked of it.
As Stamler correctly says, "We are the government, as far as the people are concerned.We are the United States government."
What Stamler will also tell you is that working for the government t*oday bears no resemblance to the government he knew: "Here's an agency that needs to get the best possible employee," he says, in disgust. "Here's a system that almost dooms you to the worst."
When Max Stamler joined Social Security just before World War II, the agency was paying out some $15 million annually in benefits. Today, overall Social Security benefits amount to $106.7 Billion a year - and are rising. Yet the system faces critical financing problems in the years to come, problems that threaten its very existence. (More on that on another day.)
Back when Social Security came into being the entire federal civilian work force numbered only slightly more than 100,000. Now Social Security alone fast approaches that number: Stamler is one of 84,000 employees working out of 1,300 local offices around the country.
More figures, almost meaningless in the mass, but not in what they represent to individual human beings: 1 out of every 7 of us now gets a Social Security check each month. That's 36 million people, young and old, sick and disabled, retired and alone, receiving billions of dollars month after month.
What's remarkable is that Social Security carried out its mission so well for so long. In fact, its very successled to its present problems - that and the insatiable demands placed on it by everyone, from every side: from politicians and presidents and people in general.
In the early days, the mission was simple. Deliver the right check in the right amount to the right person at the right address, and on time. Social Security did everything asked of it, and did it superbly. And Social Security kept getting more and more benefits programs assigned to it and more and more complicated personnal records to process and maintain.
The roll grow longer and gets more complex.
Payments for half a million sufferers of black lung disese, now running at $79 million a month . . . for 835,000 young people drawing survivors' benefits, much of that billion dollars a year going to finance higher educations . . . for million of Medicare claimants, the largest government health insurance program, $22 billion a year.
All were moving along, all seemingly going well, until Social Security came face to face with a real crisis it couldn't control. Looking back on that time three years ago, agency officials say the danger signals should have been clear. The agency was overconfident, suffering from what one person calls "organizational menopause." And its crisis came at a time when its work force was changing, when public attitudes about government were becoming more cynical, and yet when greater demands to administer more difficult programs were still being placed on government agencies like Social Security.
But that's hindsight.
Three years ago Social Security began administering another massive program, one that put the agency for the first time in the federally subsidized welfare business. The program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI), gave the agency responsibility for another 4 million people. These were drawn from the aged, ple - the aged, the blind and the disabled on state welfare rolls.
Almost everything went wrong. Many of the state and local welfare rolls turned out to be hopelessly in error; case after case had to be reconstructed from scratch. Dealing with the new claimants themselves often came as a shock. In all of its experience, Social Security had dealt only with those who had paid their money into the system through payroll taxes. Those, in other words, who had earned their benefits. Now, picking up the welfare load, they were dealing with the core of the urban poor.
The program itself was supposed to be simple to administer. Thus, the claim in Congress. But the law implementing it had nightmarish elements.
States were given the right to supplement the basic eligibility requirements in ways that often created imppossible situations. For example: In taking meals twice a day in a restaurant, he'd get extra money. but when he stopped having two meals in a reataurant and started cooking at home, the financial grant would be adjusted - up or down.
"Well, that's monstrous," says a Social Securety administrator. "From the standpoint of the federal government administering it, that's just a monstrous thing to attempt to do. It's inherently bad, but it's even worse - because here's Congress saying don't you dare make a mistake in the process."
Social Security strained and began paying its welfare checks, but for the first time it failed. "All of a sudden we wake up and find all hell'sbroken loose," the agency executive recalls. "The press, the Congress, the advocacy groups of the poor are raising hell because we didn't get those checks delivered on time to those people.
"And here's an agency that if it never did anything else right it had a 40-year record of delivering checks and delivering them on time - by the hundreds of millions."
At local offices mob scenes occurred as welfare clients filled the corridors, halls and massed outside. There were threats and violence - and finally armed guards. Social Security people began working around the clock, 30,000 of them try to bring order out of the program. A decision was made to get those checks out - fast. "It was pay now and ask questions later," one person says. "Because here was a program directed toward humane treatment of people, and here was an agency whose basic mission was to put cash in the hands of people."
After intensive efforts for more than a year, and great strains and pressures on personnel, Social Security thought it was winning its battle. Then came the greatest shock of all. It became painfully clear that a great deal more money was being given to people than they were entitled to. And a great deal of money was going to people who weren't eligible in the first place. There were massive over - and under - payments.
In its first two years of administering SSI, Social Security overpayments totaled about $2 billion.
Error rates was running between 10 and 25 per cent. The program was unmitigated disaster. Take the reaction of the state agencies which reported to Congress on the program's impact. The first three alone, in alphatical order, tell the story:
Alabama - "The sheer size of the program has drained our leadership, stretched our resources to the breaking point and forced us into a continuing battle for administrative control."
Alaska - "This was an absolute disaster."
Arizona - "Operations instructions were hurried, inaccurate and subject to constant change. Today, some 2 1/2 years from date of enactment, our operating manuals remain without subject indexes."
But the greatest impact has been on Social Security itself, and particularly on those local offices in the great urban areas where employees deal most directly with the public. Until Social Security began administering its welfare program armed guards had not been posted inside those district offices. Today, three years later, they are still there. They have become permanent fixtures.
In the New York offices of the Social Security administration the stories become familiar: the job is one frustration after another, and it's getting harder. There isn't time to keep up adequately with the changing manuals issued to explain the changing programs. Dealing with the public these days can be difficult: drug addicts and mental cases, occasionally abusive or threatening, sometimes shouting, sometimes throwing paper in the faces of employees, are not uncommon. Personnel turnover is high, good replacements are harder to come by.
Office managers find themselves exploding in anger - not at the public, but at the government itself, a government that imposes intolerable burdens on its work.
"If you were to ask me what are the largest barriers you have to overcome in order to do an efficient job," one said, "you know what my answer would be? The Civil Sercive Commission and the General Services Administration. These agencies, the Civil Service Commission and the GSA, they do not serve us. They're there to block us. It's like they're in business for themselves. And their sole preoccupation is to keep themselves in power without rendering services."
Then you will be told one horror story after another about problems in hiring clerical workers or getting office equipment or leasing new space.
"You just don't have the time," says Richard Ferguson, the Harlem office manager. "For every demand that you satisfy there are three which are made in addition. you find that you're really going backwards. You're not relly keeping up. Sometimes you think you are, others times you're just overwhelmed. I just don't see where you can keep up this kind of pace under these kinds of conditions and still be effective."
Ferguson, a soft-spoken man, who carefully masks his emotions, told of spending months trying to untangle a problem. Cabinets, again. A shipment arrived damaged and unusable. They're stillsitting there, with no replacements in sight. He finished telling his story, was silent a moment, and then calmlyoffered a kind of soliloquy:
That's the frustration when you're in the government dealing with the government. I'm ordering this stuff because I need it, because it helped me to do my job better, but . . ."
his voice trailed off.
Several weeks after that conversation new word came down from Washington. It ih Ferguson's Harlem office hard. In a reorganization move directly affecting Social Security, the agency would be given a new program - aid for dependent children. Another welfare program had been assigned.
Ferguson's employees were more than upset. "I had to reassure them it doesn't mean anything to us right now," he says he told them at a staff meeting. Thenhe added, in his same quiet way: "You know I'm sure that any office that went through the trauma we went through in 1974 would feel the same way."