Government Prioritization Fail: Adding Staff When It Is Least Essential

Matt Welch has a good article here about a self-refuting NPR piece, which was obviously supposed to be a scare story about the loss of Sequestration money but turned out to be an illustration of just how stupid the sequestration panic was.  It's funny listening to the podcast of this episode as the NPR hosts desperately try to support the Administration position.

But one thing I thought was funny was this bit illustrating pre-sequester government staffing prioritization:

NPR's David Greene brings on Yvette Aehle, director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany, Georgia, to talk about the terrible danger that passengers will face now that Aehle's airport stands to lose its air traffic controllers:

AEHLE: Well, I don't really want to say anything is less safe. It's just a better opportunity for people to listen and to be heard and to understand where they are. And also, I'd like to point out that we don't have 24-hour tower coverage here currently. Those air traffic controllers are only directing traffic between 8 am to 8 pm seven days a week. And most of our heavy traffic is outside of those hours.

So the government chooses to staff the control tower only half the day.  But they choose to staff the tower during the 12 hours of lightest traffic, presumably because the employees wanted day jobs rather than night jobs.

As an aside, I will confess that my business of running public parks benefits from this.  The biggest management load on parks is obviously on weekends and in the evenings (in campgrounds).  Most employees of public agencies only work weekday days.  Its incredibly typical that public parks employees will take their vacations in July and August, by far the busiest months.  One advantage  (other than the obvious cost advantage) we have over public operations is that public agencies can't or won't ask their employees to work weekends and defer their vacations out of the summer time.  We are perfectly happy to hire people with very clear expectations that the job involves work on weekend and holidays.

I will give you my reminder of how to understand most government agencies:  Ignore the agency's stated purpose, and assume that it is being operated primarily for the benefit of its employees.  One will very often find that this simple heuristic is far better at explaining agency decisions than relying on the agency's mission statement  (this does not mean that there are not dedicated individuals in the agency truly, even selflessly, dedicated to the stated mission -- these two notions are not at all mutually exclusive.  Government agencies do not act badly because they are full of bad people, they act badly because their incentives cause good people to do stupid things).


  1. terrence:

    Your post reminds me of the quote from Ronaldus Magnus (Ronald Wilson Reagan) - “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth."

  2. MingoV:

    "... Government agencies do not act badly because they are full of bad
    people, they act badly because their incentives cause good people to do
    stupid things..."

    I worked at two state-owned medical centers and a VA medical center. And, like everyone else, I've dealt with many government employees in my private life. My view is vastly different. Many of the people in government positions chose to work for the government because it was a great environment for lazy, stupid, and/or bad people.

    Working for the US Post Office is a goal of many: very high pay for the work, incredible benefits, and low workloads. (My brother-in-law Fred could do his route in five hours. His supervisor told him to slow down. Fred was paid while watching a movie at the mall every afternoon.)

    Mean-spirited people with a yen for lording it over others take jobs as county clerks or DMV clerks or benefit screeners at the VA.

    Nurses who don't want to work hard get a job at the VA. Amazingly, the VA nurses bitch about their workload despite having a nurse to patient ratio 1.5 times higher than any private hospital in the same city.

  3. Roy:

    Coyote's analysis hits the mark despite on probable error: it is very, very unlikely that the airport's highest traffic load occurs at night, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. Put conversely, the airport probably has a staffed tower during its higher traffic hours. However, even if not so, writing as a private pilot who has flown into and out of a number of uncontrolled airports with high traffic, the experience is safer than a freeway interchange merge process because of the radio contact.

  4. marque2:

    It depends on the airport. Some are mostly for cargo and mail, and they get more use at night

  5. Corky Boyd:

    The day shift coverage is more likely a one size fits all mentality of the FAA. Actually, the administration is shutting these towers down to please the union bosses. The closed towers are contract operations with non-union controllers. NATCA, the union for FAA run towers, sees them as potential strike breakers, which is indeed what they are.

  6. DaveJ:

    I could easily be wrong, but 'most of our heavy traffic' can easily be a reference to the size of the individual aircraft, not the quantity of aircraft.

  7. Jim Hodge:

    The Jim Hodge Allied story has a number of considerations that every business owner should consider.

  8. coregis:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your premise. I was once the interim manager for a small, very disfunctional city. After two months on the job, I told City Council that it appears that the purpose of the city is to provide jobs and benefits for employees and retirees and the secondary purpose is to provide public services. Nobody disagreed. It is important to treat employees with respect, and to pay them appropriately; however, the goal of the agency is not to provide for the employee, it is to provide for the residents (consumers) of the agency.

  9. Ted Rado:

    Come on guys! Be nice to the USG. They are doing beautifully at demonstrating that the competitive free market does an infinitely better job of allocating resources than the IDIOTS is Washington. I have every confidence that the USG will continue to spectacularly amplify on this point. Only those who believe a nation of deadbeats led by idiots is a good idea can possibly think our USG is doing a great job.

  10. Craig Limesand:

    A town near me recently tried to raise utility taxes. The stated purpose of the hike was to prevent having to lay off any city employees.

  11. mahtso:

    "I will give you my reminder of how to understand most government agencies: Ignore the agency's stated purpose, and assume that it is being operated primarily for the benefit of its employees."
    So if an agency fires the park rangers and others, then hires the blogger's company to replace the fired workers, I should assume that was not for the benefit of the public?

  12. JimR:

    Jerry Pournelle has been saying what you say in your conclusion for years. He calls this The Iron Law of Bureaucracy.