Last week a young woman approached me after a fairly typical policy-strategy session. I had an hour until my next meeting across the street, so we sat talking over stale coffee as the room emptied. Her first name was Laura, same as my daughter’s and close to the same age. Stupidly, I did not get her card and don’t remember her last name.
But I know she reads this blog. That’s how the conversation began. She recognized my name.
Laura is a contractor assigned to DHS. She originally wanted to become a civil servant, but especially because she is not a veteran she thinks this is unlikely anytime soon. I won’t say much more about her background since I cannot ask her permission. But I will say she was articulate, seemed competent, and for her age had a strong set of experiences to complement a BA/MA from good schools.
Laura does not question the veracity of Senator Coburn’s findings. She is at least as appalled and embarrassed too, wondering which family member will bring it up over the holidays. Laura is also mystified. I will have to paraphrase, I do not have audiographic memory.
“I’ve been assigned to DHS for almost three years. I’ve seen money wasted, but only from good ideas that failed. Stupid, silly ideas get shot down pretty quickly. Even potentially good ideas get kaboshed because someone’s worried to try something new or there’s just not enough money for every good idea.”
“We were working on a pretty cold private-public possibility and it seemed there was departmental buy-in, but once Toy Story (her name for the Coburn report) was released the client shut-it-down totally.”
Most of the projects to which Laura has been assigned require significant private-public engagement to make substantive progress. She said, “To even hope to be effective we should be going to the private sector, attending their conferences, asking for meetings, bringing resources — even funding — to co-invest in solutions. I shouldn’t be in DC much. But the best way to avoid criticism is to sit at your desk and write reports or go down the hallway and meet with other feds and contractors.”
She mentioned I was the only non-Fed at the meeting just completed. My identity is fungible. To private sector people I am clearly public sector, while to public sector I am obviously private. To academics I am a practitioner, while most practitioners think I’m as academic as the day is long.
“The real waste, the profound and appalling waste is of human talent squeezed into cubicles and windowless conference rooms and basically told to stop asking interesting questions, much less encouraged to find interesting answers.”
Laura asked me if she should go into the private sector. I asked a few questions: long-term goals, what she really likes doing, amount of student loans… typical stuff. I gave a non-answer about the sort of problems encountered in the private sector. She had to leave before I could come up with anything more meaningful. I’ve thought about the conversation ever since.
Tonight is the beginning of Hanukkah. As I write the sun is just about down.
I am tempted to an extended analogy on the tension between Judaism and Hellenism and the contemporary private-public divide. But I will save that for what I hope is another conversation with Laura. For the purposes of this blog I will, instead, turn to the most traditional story of the festival.
On reclaiming and cleansing the Temple from the defiling and tyrannical Greeks, the Maccabees discovered they only had enough sacred oil to keep the menorah alight for one day and it would take at least eight days to produce new oil. Miraculously the small amount of oil was sufficient. It lasted until new oil was made.
Laura, we often underestimate our own capabilities. This is a particular vulnerability of those who are self-aware, self-critical, and self-correcting. We don’t think we have enough, when we actually have much more than is needed. One of many meanings of Hanukkah is to not hesitate to use what we have, even as we very practically work to make more.
I don’t know the specific impediments that are being thrown at you. But I encourage you to continue asking interesting questions and exploring interesting answers. Do what you can as you can. When one angle is blocked, try another — always remaining self-aware, self-critical, and self-correcting. Listen carefully even to the fearful and angry, they are not always wrong. Continue to make your way, as best you can see the way… especially when self-giving is, as best you can tell, what’s fueling you.
Each day and night use what you have. You may be amazed at how much you have.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness – to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness – to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Allen Ginsberg, “Psalm III”