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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Learning from the Past:

It Rarely Happens at FCC


I attended Comm. McDowell's talk to the FCBA yesterday as it marked a welcome change from the ancienne regime. In his talk Comm. McDowell said,
"Many of our most valued team members are nearing retirement age. We need to do more to recruit and retain highly-qualified professionals to fill their large shoes. I hope our next budget will give us adequate resources to address this growing challenge."
This was a noncontroversial statement similar to statements made by many others. But what struck me that here, as in many other issues, FCC never seems to want to address the root cause of the problem and possible long term solutions.

Why are so many people at FCC nearing retirement age?

(This is similar to the key social problem in Japan called the "aging society". People all over the world get older, so this is not a new phenomena. The population in Japan is decreasing because for more than 20 years the birth rate is one of the lowest in the world and there is virtually no immigration.)

FCC is having a staffing crisis due to retirement because during the Reagan Administration there was virtually no hiring of entry level career civil servants. I was in the military at the end of the Vietnam War when the military had to downsize similar to the downsizing at FCC in the 1980s. But the personnel managers in the military knew that they had to still keep recruiting privates and lieutenants even though the force size was decreasing. Why? A personnel system is a big pipeline with people going in one end and coming out the other end. One wants at a given time a certain ratio of colonels to lieutenants and GS-15s to GS-9s. If one cuts off entry level hiring for a short period there is no major harm, but when this is repeated year after year it inevitably leads to a misbalance of ages and work experience in the staff. That is the root casue of the present staffing problem at FCC.

During the Reagan era input was cut to essentially zero. No one wanted to make hard decisiosn about pruning the existing staff so it continued to move through the pipeline with no new input. Because there was virtually no outside hiring, middle management jobs were filled almost solely from within without the benefit of the real competition that is the theory of the civil service system. While this was viewed favorably by those lucky enough to be eligible for promotion, the lack of personnel Darwinism further weakened the staff pool.

To save money even more, the Commission refused to pay relocation costs of non-Washington employees to move to headquarters. This cut off an historic flow of people with practical handson experience dealing with licensees and problems in the field in the former FOB. Historically, these FOB alumni in policy positions added a needed touch of reality to policy deliberations. (Sadly, this false frugality in forbidding relocation cost payments continues today. Is it legal? I am not sure.)

Training funds were also cut during this period. Most government agencies that employ engineers offer master's degree programs. FCC stopped doing so in the Reagan era and only began again under Chairman Powell. Thus for 20 years there were few, if any, FCC engineers getting the advanced training they needed to follow technological trends.

The root cause here is yo-yo budgets that lead to massive mood swings in personnel policies with no attention to their long term implications after the incumbent chairman leaves. FCC needs a long term personnel policy with enough flexibility to deal with budget problems. It needs to sell OMB and the appropriations committees on such a strategy to ensure long term staffing requirements are met. What is the optimal size for FCC? I don't know. But turning off hiring and training for years at time does not lead to a better agency.

1 comment:

Anonymous Coward said...

Yeah, I agree Michael. BUT!

I mean its laughable that McDowell says this when the immediate cause of this was his man Martin. What did McDowell do to stand up to Martin for the past 4 years?

In 2005, the new FCC building at the Potholes was filled to the brim. Only 6 years old? it was assumed that the new digs had plenty of room. But at about that time, FCC staff overflowed from Portals II into Portals III - the Wireless Bureau overflowing into the 6th floor of Portals III - with the resulting secret passage way from Portals II to Portals III on the 6th floor.

Now.... Now half the offices and cubicles are empty. The Bush-Cheney-Martins waged war on the civil service. They made life miserable for staff with institutional knowledge - and that staff, by and large, left. The staff that remained was moth balled, and their expertise stagnated. Engineers with Internet expertise (a rarity inside the FCC) were reassigned from your old office to the Parking Security Bureau. Middle Management made life hell for people, and analysis based on empirical fact and evidence resulted in punishment.

I agree with your argument - but also the immediate reason the FCC has an institutional knowledge crisis with staff is the Bush-Cheney-Martin war on civil service. Was McDowell part of the solution or part of the problem?