Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Clout Club Never Dies


This from Tuesday's Chicago Sun Times jumped off the page, because during one of the few part-time/short-term/no-benefits gigs I have managed to pick up since 2009, I caught a corner of this program for my then-employer:
Hard to give governor’s 2010 anti-crime program the benefit of the doubt
EDITORIALS March 11, 2014 7:24PM

When a government program is botched from the outset, everything about it becomes suspect.

If money from the program flows to an elected official’s husband, you have to wonder — even more than you might usually wonder.

If a teen hired by the program gets caught up in a murder rap, you can’t help but wonder why that teen was ever hired.

When a government program is poorly executed at the outset, as was an anti-crime program set up by Gov. Pat Quinn, the benefit of the doubt fades fast.

In August 2010, just before a tough election that pitted Quinn against Republican state Sen. Bill Brady, the governor announced the launching of an ambitious anti-violence effort. He was responding to a very real problem — that was one bloody summer in Chicago — but the $55 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program his administration quickly launched in October 2010 was rife with problems, according to a scathing audit released late last month by the state’s auditor general.

The auditor called it “hastily implemented” and cited “pervasive deficiencies” in “planning, implementation and management.” Researchers evaluating the program weren’t even asked to gauge whether it had any impact.
From top to bottom, the problem with the NRI wasn't just that the program was a goddamn mess.

It was -- like many an IT project I slogged through back in the days of old -- depressingly clear from a mile away that it was wired to be a goddamn mess from the start.  The people at the top appeared to be sincere, but had no idea what they were doing.  The cost-controls were zilch.  The project plan was "throw a buncha stuff at it and hope it works out".  There were dozens of complex moving parts, all on different schedules, all run by different people, none of whom appeared to be talking to each other on a regular basis.  Staffing was a nightmare, with everything sub-sub-contracted out as far as possible to spread the money around.

And money was the thing.  

Money and deadlines.

Thanks to the the Great Recession, by 2010 social service organizations of all kinds had been decimated by massive, muscle-and-bone cuts to at all levels. and it was into that resource-starved environment that this a brand-new $55M grant arrived.


New Money!

And deadlines. No concise objectives or well-defined outcomes, but lots and lots of deadlines each of which came with severe penalties.

So here's a pro tip for you kids out there:  When a project combines 1) no clear plan and no overall leader, 2) a high public profile and 3) lots of drop-dead for the exit as soon as you can plan your escape because

  • The thing is doomed.  Doooomed I say.  And
  • As sure as God made John Wesley Dean III, the first thing that will happen after the Big Project fails due to incompetent management is that management will go looking for scapegoats among the rank-and-file. And when that happens, you would do well to remember the wise words of Amarillo Slim: "If you’re at a poker table and you don’t see a sucker, it’s you.”

The organization that hired me on as a contract/temp had been hemorrhaging middle-managers for years and so when I arrived they literally had no one else to throw at their portion of this mess, so into the thresher I went as a placeholder until they could hire someone on to take up the task permanently.

Unfortunately their internal hiring procedures were so staggeringly complex and awful -- so completely set up to make sure virtually no one ever got hired as a full-timer -- that I ended up getting stuck with the job.  And right out of the gate, what was supposed to be a 3-day orientation to get all the dozens (hundreds?) of people who had been (often involuntarily) committed to the enterprise suddenly ballooned into (as I recall) nearly two months of full-time, all-day...stuff.


Just...stuff.  It appeared that the people running the thing had just pulled random proposals and white papers that had been gather dust on their shelves for years and tossed them into a pile and, bingo, that was the program.  So for two months we had seminars -- many of them very interesting -- on everything anyone could think of.  

After which the organization for which I worked lost its portion of grant because, in that intervening two months, no one had managed to win the Human Resources Hunger Games and actually get hired to do the job for which I had been seat-filling.  For awhile after that happened it was clear I was being suited up by the company to take the hit for losing them their share of the cursed money from this doomed program, but at this point in my life I know enough to cross every "t", dot every "i", and to document the Hell out of everything.

But eventually my contract ran out, and the people who ran the Human Resources Hunger Games explained to me that, despite the fact that everyone I worked at this shop was begging them to hire me (because I happen to be really good at what I do), it was just impossible because, um, er, uh....

This was not the first well-intentioned project designed to help genuinely needy people which I have seen ruined because it's planning and execution were handed over to political friends instead of competent professionals.  

And it probably will not be the last.

You want to know how to corrode people's faith in government to the point where they finally throw up their hands and say "Fuck it!  Just let the private sector run everything!"?  

This is how you do it.


Kathleen said...

Beautifully written as always, DG. The irony is that, guess what? Private Enterprise is just as screwed up as any government organization when it comes to development. Trust. Me. The "Set Up For Failure Siren Song" that lures many of us contract/temp types is hard to ignore, though, when one needs a decent paying job. They love the smell of scapegoats in the morning.

Anonymous said...

This is of course why the whole economic system needs to be replaced.

Anonymous said...

Driftglass, I'm confused -- you worked on this program yourself?