Friday, April 5, 2013

The NWS Reward for Employee Idealism - Revisited

Some time back, I posted a Web essay regarding how the National Weather Service (NWS) rewards the idealism and dedication of its employees.  Recent events have pushed me toward an update of that essay.  Nothing has changed fundamentally, however.  NWS management has, by and large, continued to be ignorant of and uncaring about how their counterproductive choices and management decisions can affect their employees negatively.  And the employees have, by and large, doggedly persisted in the face of rampant mismanagement to put out the best forecast products they can, given all the constraints imposed on the process by their managers.

In other words, the employees must struggle to find ways and means to work around the challenges and obstructions forced on them by their managers.  And their reward for managing to accomplish this end year after year, decade after decade?  More of the same nonsense, often redoubled in its inept stupidity!  Many NWS managers continue to live in a bizarro world, where they think their employees are working for them!  The fact is, the vast majority of NWS employees are busting their asses to serve - not their managers, but rather their customers, the American public!  These incompetent managers should be working to help their employees become successful, but most of them clearly demonstrate, day in and day out, that they believe it's the duty of the employees to make the managers look good!

The economy is in deep trouble right now and the government bureaucrats (from the politicians down to the middle-level managers - like NOAA management) have no clue how to make the hard decisions about where to cut their budgets.  So they decide that across-the-board cuts are the way to avoid having to make any difficult decisions.  And that's true - it does indeed prevent them from making any tough choices.  Rather than reward their productive employees and penalize, or even eliminate the unproductive drones (yes, Virginia, there are unproductive drones in the Civil Service!), they simply spread the burden equally among them all.  They thereby penalize the  productive employees and organizations, while effectively rewarding the drones!  I saw this happening when I was still a NOAA employee, and my sources make it clear that this has never changed.  It remains true today.  Why is that?  One obvious explanation is that the people making the selections for NOAA and NWS management positions are either political hacks who have no understanding of what these organizations do and how they really produce anything useful to the taxpayers, or they're clueless careerists who don't really care a whit about the organizations they're pretending to manage.  The net result is the same:  remember the old saying "shit rolls downhill"?

As it stands, my friends at the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) have been unable to fill vacancies in key forecaster positions for quite some time, now.  This works a hardship on everyone in the SPC.  It might be possible, through some questionable practices indulged in by some other NWS organizations, to overcome some of the resource limitations plaguing the SPC.  But they (the SPC)  steadfastly have refused to engage in shady administrative practices, preferring instead to do things "by the book".  Here's the most likely outcome to the process:  as their budget limitations force them to deal as best they can (via legal means) with the cutbacks, someone is watching them, ready to pounce.  If they continue to maintain the high standards of productivity and product effectiveness they've achieved in the past, then someone is bound to say "Well, things seem to be going along just fine with your limited resources!  Why should we restore them? You obviously didn't need them!"  In other words, by making the system work with less support, they may never get back the resources they had before the cuts!  Even worse, deeper cuts might well follow - "If you're getting by so well with less, then we should be able to reduce your resources still farther!"  That is their "reward" for their hard work and sacrifices!!

As I noted in my essay, the dedicated, productive public servants of the NWS - the forecasters and their support teams - are trapped by their own ethics.  They can't bring themselves to fail to serve the public just to make a point!  Until they fail in their duties, everyone in the management chain above them is happy and secure in their positions.  They have nothing for which to apologize or to explain because the workers refuse to allow failure to occur!  And their employees' reward for that inevitably will be more cutbacks, more inept, stupid management decisions, more worthless hardware and software procured by a system destined only to fail until the forecasters figure out how to make the clunky systems actually work, despite their patheticaly bad designs.  Forecasters don't want to look themselves in the mirror in the morning and see the face of failure to serve the public.  So they keep the system from failing, despite the efforts of their managers to screw it up.

But the incompetent, worthless managers likely contemplate their faces in their mirrors and congratulate themselves for having figured out a way to be totally incompetent and still get performance bonuses and promotions for their mismanagement.  Perhaps they feel the stupid ones are their employees, who work so hard making the system work and getting little or nothing positive in return!

This is how we repay our dedicated public servants.  Is it any wonder they often give up and become cynics (i.e., they become what they despise!).


Cliff Mass said...

Chuck...what do you think of the NWS region system? You can send me an email about that if you have a few momements...really interested in your viewpoint..cliff

ron said...
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James Correia, Jr said...

I accept what you are saying. These days few managers can qualify as leaders. Something basic is missing though. Even within large organizations communication at an individual level has been lost. There is little motivation, perhaps incentive, to talk about and/or address perceived limitations. This appears to be a negative feedback where the cynicism catches up. In these situations you seldom can have any one leader kick off a movement of change. You need a group of people, who understand their place, others perspectives, larger issues and have a knack for connecting the right people to solve the fundamental problems. I am assuming there are fundamental problems that when addressed will have a trickle up effect. Is the current structure even geared for this type of solution? Certainly the field feels disenfranchised with good and just cause. I have read, seen, and heard it. They have little to tie themselves together to speak out to. They have individuals to talk to, that at a higher level, themselves talk too little. The organization need not be disorganized for the communication to be disorganized. Command and control hierarchical structures do not work without excellent communication. As such it is hard to offer any substantive steps to solve these issues. Even with the drivel that I have written, I do not fully appreciate the "management" position. And as such we are missing a piece of the puzzle. What connections are broken and why? Who would it take to rebuild them and move the agency forward?

Chuck Doswell said...


The "structure" might implicitly have such a capability, but the "NWS culture" does not. If you read my Web essays on this general topic, written over about 15 years now, it's not about the structure - it's about the folks at the top of that structure and their attitudes toward their employees. It isn't an accident that so many NWS managers are ex-military. I see the stamp of the top-down military style of leadership everywhere. This needs to change before any hope of rebuilding the agency has much traction.

Don Baker said...

Interestingly, a couple months ago I was talking to a younger forecaster about trends in the agency from my perspective, and I actually used a phrase similar to the last line of your essay, i.e., "I've become what I disliked when I was your age". Some of the reasons for that are my own doing, to be sure, but others have to do with the aforementioned trends as I see them.

Chuck Doswell said...


Your question is somewhat off-topic. I'll send this by email, too. In brief, if the system of regional offices with their own quasi-independent bureaucrats might have been useful decades ago. In the present, given the fiscal issues the NWS must confront, they're simply another layer of mostly useless bureaucracy that should be targeted for elimination.