“I always knew that Phoenix was better than us at playing the numbers game.”
Playing the numbers game….Scientific Management, Operations Research…Leaven them please with the fine yeast of ethics or never, and I mean never, practice them professionally on behalf of a US Government agency. I work for that government, and care about it passionately. I want to feel proud to work for that government. I want to feel like I do well for society. I want to feel like part of the solution. I am sick in my heart to feel like my professional colleagues are part of the problem.
All governments do it. All bureaucracies do it. Every time an unemployment calculation or an inflation calculation gets jiggled; somehow it favors the people in charge of the bureaucracy. If you work for any government agency for a number of years, you will receive a direct order from one of your supervisors to “shade that number a bit”, “stick a little wedge in there”, “take care of the people who take care of you”, or just dial up your own euphemism for blatantly lying on the taxpayer dime. I’ve heard more than one of them in my time as a USG ORSA.*
Some people play a more heartless game than others. As a jealous managerial physician spoke with ironic admiration about the Phoenix VA above, it’s a fine art to make the fertilizer smell like honey from the bees. You know who you are if you actually complied. You got your bonus, Roscoe P. Coltrane, Enus and Boss Hogg** all had their butts covered. Once you've done it; you can forget about being anything other than a joke as a mathematical professional.
You see, VA managers get rewarded for knocking down wait times. It’s where Lean-Six Sigma, Queuing Theory and dishonest statistical pseudo-science get together for a liquored-up three-way. Said one VA Public Affairs office: “We are not familiar with the allegations but will call immediately for an external review as we take all allegations seriously.” And they do take these allegations seriously- very seriously. Here’s what happened next.
“When everyone found out the IG was doing the audit, the word I heard was ‘Make sure nothing is left out in the open,’” the VA doctor said. “And that ranged from make sure there’s no food out to make sure there’s no information out in the open.”
Oh, and then super-genius math geeks got cranking:
“The database had been removed or renamed.” To cover their tracks the doctor said they decided, “Instead of calling it a wait it would be called something like a precedence list.”
And just how did the smart guys “drive a little wedge in there?” Well they scheduled original appointments that they knew were impossible to keep within the allotted weight time that would qualify them for Bonusville. Then, they ran the queuing math or simply checked the appointment book and found out what day was actually feasible. At that point, without telling the sick Veteran in question, they canceled the first job order and banged in a fictitious second job order that carried a phony start date that qualified the facility for their bonus.
This prestidigitation probably appeared harmless to the nameless, faceless bureaucrat who was not seeing VA patients.*** The same could be said for Hannah Arendt’s “Good Germans” who just went around following orders. Hannah Arendt understood the ethical challenges all government employees face. She understood in particular why it stinks some days and can challenge your soul to be the Numbers Bubba. There’s this thing called The Banality of Evil.
If you at least partially followed my path in life, and have chosen to work on behalf of your nation as a Civil Servant somewhere, I respectfully request that you please do the following. When you face that greedy, scarred and unethical executive, who wants you to “make sure you look out for the home team,” face them down and say “No Sir. Not today.” You will lose status; you will lose aspirations and bonus money. You gain the right to pray to your God without feeling like you should go stick your head in a commode instead. Honor is its own reward and it is totally worth it.
*-The time I lost my cool over issues of statistical ethics and told a boss' boss to go simulate a homosexual honeymoon probably set me back two years or so.
**-Gotta’ take care of the Good Ole’ Boys.
***-Or for that matter see the heroic combat veterans suffer needless heart attacks.