Portrait of an Inessential Government Worker
October 21, 2019 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Michael Lewis profiles federal government worker Art Allen: “I’ve only thought about one problem in my life,” said Art, with an odd little laugh, which sounded half like a chuckle and half like an apology for speaking up. “Which is how to improve Coast Guard search and rescue.”

"During the shutdown I’d stumbled upon a very long list of federal workers who had been nominated for an obscure public-service award called the Sammies. Virtually all the people on the list had been laid off without pay and more or less told by their society that their work was not all that important. I wondered what it felt like to be at once up for an award for one’s work, and required by law not to do it. The list was in alphabetical order. At the top was Arthur A. Allen."
posted by Homeboy Trouble (27 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
a very long list of federal workers who had been nominated for an obscure public-service award called the Sammies

Arthur A. Allen's Service To America Medal finalist page.
posted by zamboni at 10:33 AM on October 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

This is one of the things that utterly enrages me about the Republican attempts to destroy our country. There are thousands and thousands of Art Allens out there, people doing important work for not particularly high pay, people who have made our country safer, cleaner, healthier, stronger. And they get treated like crap because Republicans want to make a handful of people richer and more powerful.
posted by tavella at 10:34 AM on October 21, 2019 [63 favorites]

I...sort of want to own Allen's book now.
posted by jquinby at 10:43 AM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

One thing that occurred to me thinking about this story is that if Allen was getting research grant funding rather than working internally, some conservative watchdog would undoubtedly have made hay of the government spending tens of thousands of your tax dollars so that some egghead could measure how surfboards drift.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:59 AM on October 21, 2019 [15 favorites]

I...sort of want to own Allen's book now.

That's the beauty of it - you do own it. We all do. Under US law, federal works are public domain.

Review of Leeway: Field Experiments and Implementation.
posted by zamboni at 11:04 AM on October 21, 2019 [45 favorites]

Of course, it's not always straight forward getting access to it. It looks like the NTRL has something weird going on with downloading PDFs from directly accessed links. Probably cache invalidation or something.

If you go to the NTRL database and search for Review of Leeway, you should be able to download the PDF.
posted by zamboni at 11:08 AM on October 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

I regret that I have but one favorite to add to your posts.
posted by jquinby at 11:11 AM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

posted by sperose at 11:11 AM on October 21, 2019

(Single word aside, this is a fascinating profile and this guy sounds like someone who has really found their niche.)
posted by sperose at 11:15 AM on October 21, 2019

Art Allen is an exceptional human being. And there are tons and tons of Art Allens working in the federal government. This is the perfect way to put it:

“‘And I realize that if I don’t know the answers, no one does.’ People were coming to him because they had nowhere else to go.”

The essence of public service, and also bureaucracy—that the government can fund jobs for people to do things that might be considered a waste in the corporate sector, but that are matters of life or death for some people, even if it’s just a handful of them. I went to a funeral recently of someone who worked for OSHA for decades, and one of his coworkers had calculated the number of lives saved by the workplace regulations this guy helped write, implement, and enforce—it was something like 6,000 people. This guy wasn’t someone who would have won a Sammy, the same is probably true for his coworker who gave the eulogy. I’ve been at cocktail parties where I happened to meet federal employees who’ve done things like escorted kids into a school being desegregated, negotiate a hostage situation, made sure the family of a kid killed in a mass shooting got money to pay funeral costs. These aren’t Sammy people either, just people doing everyday work.

Not that 99% of Metafilter needs to hear it, but keep Art Allen in mind next time you hear someone use federal government employees as a punchline. It’s such an easy joke in most parts of the country, and even in both political parties, but it’s just so wrong.
posted by sallybrown at 11:21 AM on October 21, 2019 [84 favorites]

I'll be interested in how Lewis adds this chapter to the 5th Risk. Great read. Thanks for the post.
posted by zerobyproxy at 11:22 AM on October 21, 2019

I'll be interested in how Lewis adds this chapter to the 5th Risk

Yeah, I bought TFR last year as an audiobook, and now I'm thinking, "how do I get this new chapter?"

That said, I sent the link to this article around to a bunch of coworkers this week; any attention to civilian staff within a military organization is a pleasant surprise.

I was also surprised to learn that USCG has (or had) an oceanographer on staff: I don't think that's commonly known in the agency. I hope they replace him with someone else who can develop equal expertise.
posted by suelac at 11:43 AM on October 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

aaaaah that bit about the survival suit manufacturer just wildly, egregiously lying to the capsized fishermen's families is fucking infuriating.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:08 PM on October 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

I hope they replace him with someone else who can develop equal expertise.

From the sound of the office visit, they aren't replacing him at all. See my above note about my rage about Republicans destroying government service.
posted by tavella at 12:16 PM on October 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

From his Service to America Medal nomination, emphasis mine:
In the late 1990s, he began leading development of the first version of SAROPS [Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System]... SAROPS 1.0 went online in 2007. The current version is credited with saving about a thousand lives a year.
I'm basically spitting mad right now. How many lives has Donald Trump saved? Mitch McConnell? Any single one of those pusbuckets who rant about lazy bureaucrats and wasted tax dollars?
posted by martin q blank at 12:19 PM on October 21, 2019 [25 favorites]

From the sound of the office visit, they aren't replacing him at all.

The public service generally sucks at succession planning. For singles like Allen, it's really tough. How do you find another person like him? Generally you can't. The best you can do is build a team to do a similar job.

NOAA does almost exactly the same job on ocean debris and spills --- they have people with very similar skill sets. One of my favourite things they came up with was the so-called tarp count in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. They needed an estimate of the number of houses that hadn't been searched. They ended up counting the number of blue tarps on roofs as rough measure of areas in the city where people were actively working on recovery, and so had been searched. Searchers could then be tasked to check on houses without tarps on the roofs to see if there was anyone there that needed a rescue.

Much of disaster modelling is improvisation. There are oceanographic, behaviour and effect models , but it's often the case that the modelers are asked for something no one has a model for like mustang survivability. And then you have to pull together what you know and what advice you can get from the experts you can find and make your best guess.
posted by bonehead at 12:40 PM on October 21, 2019 [16 favorites]

That was an awesome article.

Though Art hasn't been replaced, surely there are people maintaining and enhancing SAROPS?
posted by sjswitzer at 12:47 PM on October 21, 2019

This story reminds me so much of my dad, who worked at NIOSH for nearly 30 years. He was an mechanical engineer whose specialty was push-pull ventilation. He became an international expert on the subject - he chaired committees, wrote papers, organized conferences, all of that. Even after he retired he continued to work on papers and edit manuals to nearly the day he died. There's now even an award named after him.

I knew at some level that the work he did was important - its indoor air quality - but to me, a decidedly non-engineer, it always seemed somewhat abstract. Then at his funeral one of his long time colleagues pulled me aside to tell me a few stories about my dad.

One story is a pharmaceutical plant that made birth control tablets. There was so much tablet dust in the air that eventually the some of male workers began to develop breasts. The plant, of course, didn't want anyone from NIOSH in their facility. It wasn't until after some of the workers complained to their congressman that my dad was allowed in the plant. He designed a ventilation system, they installed it, and there were no more problems with breathing birth control dust all day.

Another story my dad's friend told me was a shipbuilder in New England. They were varnishing boat hulls outdoors, but the fumes were still so bad that workers were getting sick, a few were even hospitalized. Apparently some academic PhD types told them that you couldn't solve this problem because the work surfaces were too large, it was outdoors, etc. My dad, who now had spent more than 20 years on this very type of problem, came up with a solution where jets of air were blown across the hull, pushing the vapor away.

I know none of these examples are as dramatic as a rescue at sea, but I wonder how many people my dad saved from chronic or even fatal illnesses. There are tens of thousands of other people working in every part of our government who are just as dedicated to their field as my dad was to his.

Next time there is a government shut down, the only workers who should be considered inessential should the the president and congress.
posted by codex99 at 1:24 PM on October 21, 2019 [100 favorites]

Next time there is a government shut down, the only workers who should be considered inessential should be the president and congress.

I would buy this bumper sticker.
posted by sobell at 3:39 PM on October 21, 2019 [21 favorites]

The public service generally sucks at succession planning

It's often not much better on the private side.

My father does GPS related engineering for a defense contractor, and last year he was assigned a 24 year old new grad so he could mentor and train the next generation of embedded systems software engineers.

Well, just seeing my dad working closely with a 24 year woman caused giant meltdowns in his management org, since previously this would never ever ever happen unless the older engineer was planning on retiring immediately. The lesson of "gee, maybe we should share the knowledge a bit before the dude with 40 years of experience decides to hang up his guns" never sunk in, even though it seems like every other year someone would come back as an eye-wateringly expensive contractor after being retired for only like 12 months.
posted by sideshow at 4:31 PM on October 21, 2019 [11 favorites]

I really had a hard time reading Lewis' book (mentioned above) The Fifth Risk. This is in the same vein. I'm simultaneously lifted up by how dedicated some people can be to just making things better, and crushed by the indifference towards those people evidenced by our leaders and often society in general.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:31 PM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is a great piece, and I share all of the frustrations people have articulated already about the disrespect for public service workers.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:24 PM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

>From the sound of the office visit, they aren't replacing him at all.

Hi! I've been nonessential the last three shutdowns! In our agency, the first people who weren't replaced were in personnel. In theory, every vacancy in our unit will be filled, but there's no one in personnel to put through the paperwork to start the hiring process. Right now, 50% of our scientist positions are vacant with no sign that any of the paperwork to refill the positions is getting done. 30% of our technical positions are vacant as well. As the article notes, we are an aging workforce: in the next few years another 20% of the scientists and 16% of the technicians are due to retire. Unless something positive happens soon, our unit will be depopulated and the [important] work we do will be slowed to a crawl, with most of the institutional memory of how to do this stuff lost.
posted by acrasis at 6:35 PM on October 21, 2019 [11 favorites]

I spent several years working for the City of Chicago, as well as other positions that put me in contact with workers at multiple government-related agencies and I met so many people with Art's dedication.

I am so pro-government/public service that the first time I heard the phrase "good enough for government work", I assumed it referred to work done to the highest standards.
posted by she's not there at 9:28 PM on October 21, 2019 [10 favorites]

"It was nice that the Taiwanese coast guard wrote poems about him. But that sort of thing rarely happened here, in the United States. "
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:22 AM on October 22, 2019

"good enough for government work"

The irony to me is that this frequently refers to private contractors deliberately half-assing deliverables for government-let contracts. Government agents are often required to accept terrible work because they have almost no real tools to go after under-performing contractors. And certain contractors take full advantage of this. Imagine what a Trump Contracting Co. would do if you told them no one will ever be able to sue them for non-performace, as long as they deliver something. Quality is hard to put into an RFP, so often people don't try to enforce it beyond superficial minima. And remember, low bid wins the contract. Cronyism and even quid-pro-quo corruption (take early retirement and come work for us!) are real problems too.

The end result in government is often that if you want something done right, it has to be done by government employees.
posted by bonehead at 8:23 AM on October 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

I was made redundant by my last company after being there for many years.
I decide to do contract work instead.
My third contract was - at that same company doing exactly the same work and at double the rates. It was a three month contract that was extended many times to last several years until I decided to retire after a serious illness.

I was still accepted by the "permanent" staff as the person to turn to if there was a problem.
posted by Burn_IT at 8:45 AM on October 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

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