Chapter Seven: My Public Service Experience (Federal/State), from Carpe Diem - My Mental Health Experiences

Chapter Seven: My Public Service Experience (Federal/State), from Carpe Diem - My Mental Health Experiences
Dr. David J. Koehn Psychologist Fort Myers, Florida

Dr. David Koehn is a psychologist practicing in Fort Myers, FL. Dr. Koehn specializes in the treatment of mental health problems and helps people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Koehn evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods, most typically being psychotherapy or talk therapy.... more

Chapter 7

My Public Service Life (Federal/State)

A Revelation of Mediocrity

      There are two facets of my federal public life that need to be told. One is working full-time for the Army as a civilian (about nine years) and the other working as a contractor (about fifteen years) with a variety of federal agencies (see Chapter Eight). Each provided me a lens into how federal government worked. I used my background in industrial/organizational psychology as a basis to get involved in many interesting organizational development and operations research projects. Much of my time was spent in the Washington D.C. area with a three year stint in Germany working for Army Fifth Corp in Heidelberg Germany. During my time spent in the Federal government I started out as a General Service (GS) level 13 and ended up at a GS-15 (like a full bird Colonel in the Army), one step below senior executive service (like a General).

      I started off as a cost analyst and attended their 16 week school program graduating with honors.  Once completed, I was assigned the role by senior management developing a contract capability for the organization that had been at a standstill in getting a contract in place for over a year.  Within a month of working with the contracts shop we were able to put in place a contract vehicle the organization could use to support their independent cost analysis for complex systems in the Army.  Up to this time several others in the organization had attempted to accomplish this but with no luck.  Being new I did not know any better and just got it done.  Management awarded me with the Superior Civilian Service Award.  Boy was I proud.  During the next year, I was responsible for its effective execution and learned a tremendous amount about contractors working with a federal agency and its employees.  While having fun doing this project, I dabbled in helping the organization take a look at itself through a looking glass by conducting an organization climate survey.  The results showed a lack luster concern to get work done as well as supervisors just going through the motions.  Both conditions lead to a real demotivating climate to say the least.  This organization survived another ten years but finally was eliminated and incorporated into another office’s work.  As a side bar, during the time there, because of what I was observing, I wrote for that period of time a cutting/disruptive edge article about how women make better managers/leaders than men because the traits required to be effective were shifting to the more soft skills women were culturally brought up to be.  For this insightful article, I received honorable mention for the Nick Hogue award for best article.  I guess while insightful, it was a bit too much to stomach for the male dominated culture of the Army business environment to have gotten ‘the best article.”  The feedback though that the article stirred began to shift their paradigm and begin training men managers the softer interpersonal skills that were needed to be evolved to be effective moving forward.

      Opportunity sprung up from nowhere.  I was offered to go overseas and was promoted to oversee the program/budget systems application for United States Army Europe (USAREUR) as well as develop organizational and cost factor predictive models to be used in out-year and near-term budgeting. While being located in Heidelberg Germany, I became known as Europe’s Total Quality Management (TQM) Guru.  We wrote up a research paper on the different installations’ effectiveness and efficiencies in deploying TQM across Europe.  For this work, I received the outstanding research award by the American Society of Military Comptrollers. While recognized for this work, TQM never got any sticking power at the installations across Europe.  We also initiated an automated budget control system working with the help of a contractor which was called the Standard Army Budgeting Control System (STARBUCS).  The system died a slow death. After three years, the system because of lack of focus and attention was tabled and no longer employed.  The two star general running the operation at the time had the misinformed belief that if is not broke why fix it or change. Obviously his mental mind set sense of logic is faulty. 

      The time spent in Europe was fascinating – it was during the period when the wall came down in Berlin and Desert Storm/Shield was percolating.   I got to know the four star general well, played tennis with him weekly and gained great insight as to what we were doing in the Middle East and making history with the integration of West and East Germany. I also got to know the three star general personally (through my daughter’s friendship with his wife) who became the head of the joint staff after his hugely successful campaign in Desert Shield.  His breathe and insight were transformational into seeing multiple perspectives and being wise concerning blending political and military strategies.  Both their guidance has made a big difference in the way I view macro issues/systems and get things accomplished. 

      Some things were quite fun while living in Heidelberg, Germany.  I rode the Commander in Chief train (called the CINC train) to Berlin and back during the times when the East and West were still separated.  I was able to present to multiple different groups across installations associated with the Army and Airforce on the topic of TQM.  I have pictures of myself at a particular point at the wall in Berlin where there was a wall, where there is a hole in the wall and where there is no wall.  I attended many excellent workshops that influenced my way of thinking about leadership.  One workshop in particular was presented by the Federal Republic of Germany on how their political schema and way of operating their government functioned.  It gave me insight as to how the USA could modernize our democracy (more to come on that in a later chapter).  I visited just about every country in Europe to include Eastern Germany and at that time Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – these experiences gave me a better comprehension and appreciation of the cultures of these countries. 

      During my first year in Germany, my second oldest brother taught/mentored for three months at a time over a twenty year period at Stuttgart University in a teacher/student exchange program.  My brother was the Art department head at Eastern Oregon College.  He lived with his wife and youngest son in a little town called Rosswag where they were completely enculturated.  He set up his own pottery making operation outside the house where neighbors would stop by and chat.   His son attended German school and over a period of time my brother, his wife and son became conversant in German.  For his fiftieth birthday the townsfolks had delivered to his house using a wheelbarrow fifty different home brewed beers. Over the three years I was in Germany, we got to be very close to each other.  How ironic, in the States he lived on the west coast and I lived on the east coast and rarely had a chance ever to see each other.

      While living in Germany, I played on a German tennis team where two Americans could be part of the team. The team represented a given town.  In this case the town was Ludwigshafen.  Interestingly, is the format and events that occur around how matches that take place.  Six singles and three double matches are played with the singles matches happing first and being completed before the doubles begin.  Typically, the teams wait until the singles matches are completed before deciding how their doubles teams will be formed.  After all matches are completed both teams meet at a local pub and restaurant and bröst each other regarding the results.  The kids and wives attended.  Bottom line, our team made it to the final round and played at home a team from Stuttgart for the championship where the whole town showed up for the match.  We won!  Sadly, here in the USA in team matches played, you barely know who is on your team with little if any interaction occurring once the match is completed.  Out of this positive display of brotherhood, grew an opportunity for me to stay in Germany where one of my tennis team members introduced me to the senior leadership at Alcatel-Lucent S.A., a French global telecommunications equipment company, who had an operation located in Manheim, Germany.   After extensive interviewing with them, they wanted me to take over the implementation of TQM across their company – the caveat was that I would be initially hired as a contractor for a six month period of time at twice the money I was making in a year from the Federal Government.  As a side note the business language in Germany was English, so language would not be a problem in communicating.  I had a great German support group and I was a popular and a well-respected team tennis member.   After deeply considering the decision for a good amount of time, I decided not to take the job.  Even today, I often think what might have happened had I made the decision to take the job.   How my life and my wife lives may have been so different.

      Some other things were difficult to swallow though.  See John’s Attitude to follow.



      John was an employee who worked for me while in Europe.  He had been working there for six years and was coming up on his tour time ending overseas.  He wanted to again extend his stay for another three years.  The problem was that John did not even do the basics of his job and looked at his experience as a “fun” vacation.  I discussed this with senior leadership who agreed to back me in not extending his stay and having to move him back to the States.  When John found out from me that he would have to return to the States, he was majorly upset and stated that his work really made no difference and why should I care that he did well.  He filed a complaint and senior leadership wanted to cave in and just give him his way because of the effort it would require on our part to justify our action to send him back.  This response exasperated and frustrated me but I still prevailed to move forward and John did go back to the States.

      Unknown to me at the time was that he began a plan of counter attack to get back at me.  He and his close friend who also served as my administrative assistant (who was called on the carpet for abusing his wife), set in motion that I was involved in a clandestine illegal operation with a pre-existing contractor.   The Inspector General’s office contacted me and interviewed me as well as the suspected contractor.  The situation involved our relationship in pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities outside of business hours with those European countries that no longer were a part of the communist block by attending a conference together there.  After much interplay and interaction with the government investigators while they found no wrong they felt the situation bordered on giving the appearance of a pretense of impropriety.  The Assistant Secretary of Resource Management stepped in and squashed the accusation and found no evidence of either a conflict of interest or pretense of impropriety on my part.  The case was closed.  This situation caused me much angst and taught me a valuable lesson on being too open and honest with those you work closely with as well as watching your “peas and cues” in whatever you were doing while working for the federal government.   In my judgment, the Federal Government cares less about quality and more about what appears visibly politically correct.

      Most major processes in the Federal Government are broken, poorly linked and ineffectively/ inefficiently run.  The first process, the acquisition business from research to design to development to execution to maintenance are badly integrated and not funded properly.  The acquisition managers (typically military officers) are more concerned with short term results at the expense of long term value because they want visible results that impact their career positively.  After a short stint managing the program, they leave the program to move on to another job with the sustainment wellbeing of the system being put in jeopardy as to whether it ever will be executed. 

      The second mega business to be discussed is the programming and budgeting operation in the Federal Government called the Program, Planning, Budgeting, and Execution System (PPBES).  This resource management process is also broken and at times is laughable because they fund parts/elements of system to which the system itself is already cancelled.  Another dysfunction that happens over and over again is at year end if there are monies not spent, the agencies spend it anyways on anything because the operation centers are afraid if it is not spent, their follow-on budget allocation will be reduced and “that just cannot happen.” 

      The third mega business, the contracting world is more concerned about being “penny wise and pound foolish.”  Their checks and balances to eliminate errors on small contract awards is so overly cautious that huge amounts of time are spent from making mistakes on them that little time is spent at scrutinizing large contracts involving major weapon systems or IT systems.   Their inability to manage their time well and prioritize as well as spend time on where you will get the “biggest bang for the buck” causes them to make numerous faux paus causing huge errors which in their mind they are attempting to avoid.  The contracting world is supposed to be the honest broker in awarding contracts and monitoring the federal government agencies’ evaluation of who is selected as the best to be awarded the contract.  The process is set up to give to those who already have demonstrated past performance whether or not that past performance is of quality makes little difference.  “Newbies” who have innovative and creative solutions are often left in the dust and are not given the opportunity to make a difference.  The big white elephant in the room is that those contracting officer representatives, COR, (agency personnel assigned to coordinate the evaluation and the contracting officers, CO, (contracting personnel assigned to make the award) are more inclined to ward contracts to those they know and who they might want to work for once they leave their Federal work job.  Such beneath the blankets behavior is rampant.   These aberrant behaviors are quite an injustice and truly not in the best interest of the American public.

      All three of these aforementioned Goliath and complex processes continue to operate in these dysfunctional ways over and over again.   Many senior leaders know these atrocities are still occurring and continue to be supported, reinforced and enabled.  We could describe this business as a debacle – doing the same thing over and over again knowing it is wrong!  In Einstein’s mind it is defined as one type of insanity.




      Working in the DC area is difficult to maneuver around and get to and back from work.  Many workers try to set up car pools so they can use the express lanes and decrease their time dramatically to and from work.  I too did this and pooled with three other guys – John P., John F. and Bob S.  We had many fun times talking politics, work, and discussing personally interests.  The crazy thing though, all three died from different causes within a five year period of our carpooling together.  John P., a young thirty some, self-motivated, caring human being accidentally rubbed against his inside thigh and cut open a mole he had as he was getting out of the car door to go into work.  His comment was, DAM, I better go get this checked out and taken care of.  He did and found out he had cancer and battled it for two years before he died.  The interesting thing is prior to his death he married his love and she was inseminated with his seamen while he was on his last legs.  At company picnics, his wife would show up with their child.   Their boy looked just like John P.  Quite a tribute to him and what a decision he and his wife made knowing he would not be there for their child.  John F. was a retired Lt. Colonel who was in the Vietnam War, feisty in character, diminutive in size, in his late forties, and well informed as to political events of the day.  He died of complications from a stage 4 cancerous lesion on the back of his neck that he waited too long to address.  He fought hard, died once on the table and was brought back to life.  He further tried to prolong his life by having the surgeons amputate the left side of his body (arm and shoulder) only to succumb four weeks later.  The sad truth is that the Veterans Affairs (VA) as well as Department of Defense (DoD) denied that his cause of cancer was due to Agent Orange.  This was reversed two years after his death but I do not know if his two young teenage daughters at the time ever attempted to get compensation.  As a side bar, he had married (second marriage) a good friend of mine who I knew well from my days at Notre Dame where her husband at the time was getting his doctorate in English.  She died unexpectedly three years later in her mid-fifties from a rare form of blood disease that affected her heart.  We stayed friends right up to the end.  Bob S., mid-fifties, nice man, heavy smoker, getting ready to retire, and doing what he had to do to get through the day, and the last of the three to die, died of lung cancer one year after his retirement.  All three felt pressure from work, found the DC area highly stressful and none coped well with the stresses they experienced. There is little doubt their immune system broke down and each met the kiss of death with broken physical-medical conditions.

      Okay, now that we have denigrated the major work in the Federal Government as well as described some sad stories, back to my status as a Federal employee.  After my tour ended in U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR), I was offered an opportunity to be the senior analyst guru for the Department of Defense working for a newly developed organization called The Defense Business Management University (DBMU).  DBMU was to emulate and mirror image The Acquisition University which already existed and was well cemented as an operation with levels of certification in place for the acquisition personnel.   During my tenure there, we held many focus groups over a two year period to define the curricula that made sense for employee’s assigned to a resource management role (analysis, budgeting, accounting, planning).  Due to changing of the guard at the senior leadership level in the Department of Defense, DBMU was shelfed and finally eliminated as a program.  All efforts were refocused on The Acquisition University to integrate resource management functions into their operation.  While a seemingly rationale thought, this integration of resource management never happened.  Prior to its demise and “tons” of money and effort expended at DBMU, I was wooed away from the Federal Government to begin my journey as a contractor.  More to come on my contractor role in Chapter eight.                               

      As a prelude to the next chapter I wrote an article about dysfunctional organizations that I would like to share with you.  Here it is….                                                                                                             


Laughing Out Loud. Crying On The Inside

“A Paradox - Why Dysfunctional Organizations Thrive and How to Survive Them”


David J. Koehn, Ph.D.

  Do you ever feel lost working in an organization?  Do you feel like you do not belong there?  Do you find it difficult getting up in the morning and going to work for an organization that does not appreciate you?  If you resonate with these questions, read on as to how to deal with these negative feelings?

  Early in my career as a psychologist I observed and worked with people who were neurotic, psychotic, and developmentally disabled.  While these people carried complex burdens, most were still able to somehow cope with their maladies and survive, albeit not typical of what society would recognize as being normal coping behaviors.   Their behaviors were often self-destructive but they found ways to adapt and get through their day and the daily grind by reducing their emotional/physical pain, stress and anxiety.  

Today, many organizations that exhibit similar behaviors are known as dysfunctional organizations.  You may have witnessed signs of these organizations across multiply industries.  Have you ever observed or experienced any of these absurdities or travesties?

  • Client service personnel mistreating or abusing patients
  • Doctors too drugged up to know what level to get off of the elevator to provide service
  • Organizations who do not care about their employees and treat them as commodities
  • Companies who have no strategy, marketing plan or substantive value proposition and do not care to have them
  • Firms putting poor quality products into inventory and then selling them to some other unsuspecting company
  • School counselors taking advantage of students
  • Discipline policies teaching staff how to use a paddle to provide punishment
  • Consulting firms, large and small, that provide the bare minimum and less than adequate service to government agencies
  • People stealing goods from the firms they work for or attempting to buy jobs from superiors
  • Personnel doing more of their personal work than the work of the company
  • Management letting unions dictate to the company so that poor quality performers get supported.

      Such crazy making experiences are a small sample of those I have seen throughout my thirty six year career across the health and human service world, manufacturing, public education, nonprofit, consulting, and federal/state agencies.  The question that befuddles me is why these organizations that are so dysfunctional stay afloat, especially since they do not exhibit anything that I have learned and read about necessary for becoming high performing organizations.  In fact, they do the opposite of what you would expect of high performing organizations!

      To unveil the mystery of why dysfunctional companies thrive, we need to look at what constitutes new science principles.  A good resource is Meg Wheatley’s work on “Leadership and New Science”. In particular, all organizations are living systems.  Organizations are made of people relationships that are interrelated through formal structures and informal networks.  They are not inanimate objects but biological systems and thus qualify as living systems.  The key factor of a living system is that it is self-organizing, constantly adapting and finding ways to exist.  Thus, while negatives abound in dysfunctional organizations, they find some way to adapt and to survive, albeit sub-optimally.  If they survive “crazy making” and operate sub-optimally then what facilitates their sustainment and subsistence?

      Answering this question will almost appear blasphemous.  We must look to the customer’s willingness to tolerate mediocre even subpar performance.

      Let’s examine the federal government and the companies that provide goods and services to the federal government in testing out this premise of customer acceptance of mediocrity.  Some conundrums that provide evidence are:

  • The Federal Government typically advertises for “A” standards, pursues “B” capabilities and but accepts “C” level competence.  Since customer demands are low, consulting firms deliver poor quality services and their “cash cow” continues to pay.  There are no incentives to do any better while the money keeps coming in.
  •  Solicitations typically have little to do with competition, but more on what relationships the contractor has previously developed with the targeted federal agency.  Many solicitations, often written by the bidding contractor, are won by them; no surprise.  Most procurement evaluations offer no useful guidance to the losing contractor.  For both small and large systems integrators that lose bids, protests are unusual because they know they more than likely will get the next one -- so the game goes on.
  • Society would rather see the indigent be ostracized and kept out of harm’s way.  Federal and State Governments that fund nonprofits and other health/human service agencies do so at a “bare bones” level.   The “big white elephant” that does not get openly discussed is why this is accepted.  The primary reason surrounds society’s attitude of caring more about themselves than helping those in need, especially those who they think can never be contributing members of society.
  • Commercial ventures small or large demonstrate questionable ethical behavior while pushing the envelope towards decreasing quality to increase profitability.  Many customers get “hoodwinked” into thinking they are getting an acceptable product or service through manipulative advertising.  This appeals to their emotional decision-making.  An excellent on emotional decision making is Jonah Lehrer’s treatise on “How We Decide.”  Intriguingly, our federal government came to the rescue of our financial and auto industry through bailouts without requiring major changes in their performance culture.
    • Congress operates purposely as a strong bureaucracy with all the associated foibles of risk avoidance, slowness and myopic interests.  It at best reinforces mediocrity. Our democratic process requires a transformation.  We need to reconstruct and modernize our form of democratic government.  We need to take a look at other democracies, for example, how Germany operates -- Feds determine policy, the States set budgets; people are selected some based on their own popularity vote and/or others are placed by the winning party by their subject matter expertise to deal with issues of the day. Without a dramatic shift towards a more modern version of democracy we cannot expect anything more than ongoing inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

      Given these conundrums, dysfunctional organizations still survive and maintain themselves. Kegan and Lahey’s work on “Immunity to Change X-ray” illustrates just how difficult it is to produce positive change.  It’s like they have one foot on the brake that represents their dysfunctional commitments and the other on the gas pedal that represents good intentions.  They may neither grow nor prosper but they can “hang in there.”  Upon reflection, the dysfunctional organizations I have worked for or with are still in existence and still operating like they always have -- dysfunctionally.  Now that we understand the basics of why dysfunctional organizations survive, let’s turn our attention to what we can do as individuals if we find ourselves caught in this debacle.

      There are always things you can do if you find yourself caught working in a dysfunctional organization. Things you can do to maintain your sanity, positive energy, enthusiasm, passion for excellence and/or physical well-being are:

  1. Have daily dialogue with colleagues outside the organization who can help you cope with the crazy making.  Encourage them to remind you that it is not about you!
  2. Make sure you have outside interests and hobbies that help you maintain a perspective and a sense of balance
  3. Start a job search before you lose your job.  Only apply to organizations that meet criteria for being a “high performing” organization.  Some of the key criteria to consider are those organizations that:
    1. Know how to balance and link investment excellence and operational excellence.  See “Taming the Ticker” by Al Naqvi for a good resource on this topic.
    2. Concentrate on people development (coaching, leadership, education, on-boarding)
    3. Have a business domain (specific type of industry) that interests you personally and supports products and services that reinforce your professional capabilities (abilities, knowledge, and skills).
  4. Do not short-change yourself and accept something less.
  5. Do physical exercise at least three times a week if not more to minimize the negative stress that is wearing on you.
  6. Do not “bad mouth” the organization at work.  Find something positive and talk it up.  Be friendly to others in the company; they too are probably frustrated.
  7. At least once a week, do reality checks on what’s happening in the organization.  Offer one positive idea to senior management per week.  Seek them out and do not let yourself get isolated even when they make it difficult to interact with them.
  8. Within the organization, find others who share your perspectives on high performance.  Percolate ways of slowly introducing these ideas to others in upper management.
  9. Be on the watch for burn out where you become emotionally drained to the point of exhaustion.  Be careful not to fall into the trap of rusting out where you feel disenfranchised or hopeless.  Find an outside mentor to keep you positively focused, emotionally and spiritually centered and self-motivated.

Leaving one dysfunctional organization for another is not helpful.  Going to a new organization that is high performing is wise.  Making your current organization into a functional organization is challenging.

There is no doubt that no one wants to work in a dysfunctional work environment but given the number of dysfunctional organizations you will probably find yourself working in one sometime in your career.  Using some if not all of the aforementioned nine points will help you cope with the situation. You will more than likely not be able to change the dynamic of such an organization and morph them into a positive organization without first transforming their leaders Robert Quinn’s work on “Building the Bridge as you Walk on it” treats the dynamic of leadership development well.

Such a transformative effort is an enormous undertaking and has risks to your survival in that organization.   To those that undertake such an effort, my respect goes out to you.  An honest conversation with your leadership is needed to determine the temperature gauge of their willingness to make the daunting changes to grow and to prosper, not just exist.  Based on a positive reading, get them to sign a commitment specifically outlining their game plan going forward.  Without it, you will be better off starting your job search again and find nirvana, if you can.  Good luck and happy hunting no matter which course or path you choose.   

      While this article was written some twelve years ago, it still holds true even today as I discuss with my colleagues who are still fighting the battle to survive this selfish cultural work ethic on the part of most companies and federal government.