5.4 Underground Employee Gorilla Networks in Government

The negative impact of government metrics and performance standards drive many employees underground into what I call Underground Employee Gorilla Networks. These networks thrive because they have resources available to them due to the inherent inefficiency of government. (Government inefficiency, metrics, and performance standards were previously explained in Sections 5.2 and 5.3.) These networks are not unique to government, but they are a much bigger problem in government than in business. I have talked with people who had long careers in the private sector. They may have had to work behind the back of a poor manager or a weird employee, but that is not the same thing. Those who have not worked in government can have a difficult time grasping these networks and the work environment that creates them.

I recall attending a meeting early in my career led by our VA medical center’s Chief of Staff. He began the meeting with a rambling talk on what was wrong with VA, and why it should not exist. This was a bit stunning since he was the senior doctor at our facility. A senior executive in a private company might sell his company stock or quit, but it is hard to imagine that he would tell his employees that his company should not exist. Our meeting with the Chief of Staff was unusual only because he said what a lot of us had wondered about ourselves. Imagine how you would feel knowing that Veterans are coming to the VA every day for help, but the bureaucracy is not doing everything it should to help them. In effect, our Chief of Staff was really telling us to do whatever we could to help Veterans even if it was not the way the bureaucracy is supposed to work. Some of my co-workers said he should just quit, but most employees respected him for venting his frustrations with the “system”, and our work environment.

Successful private firms look at their employees as people first so private sector experience alone cannot enable someone from the private sector to be able to see the difference between a government environment driven by metrics and run by positions, from a private sector company that must pay its bills to survive and will try to get as much as possible from each employee—not just enough to meet the position description and performance standards. Everyone in a private company wants, and needs, their company to prosper. Each individual may define success differently, but everyone in the company knows that they do not have any chance of being successful, or having a job, if the company fails. Compare that to government where it is very wise to “keep your head down”. There is zero danger of government closing down. One of the biggest dangers to a government employees’s career is to be caught doing something outside of his position description.

One of the things I liked about working in government is that if I wanted to take charge of a project, I usually could because so many others just wanted to “keep their head down” by staying within the “box” defined by their position descriptions in order to not draw any unnecessary attention to themselves. An Underground Employee Gorilla Network is made up of employees who are working on things in ways that are outside of their official responsibilities. Employees in these networks can work for or against good or poor management. They can be motivated to do the right thing or motivated to benefit themselves first. The employees who are working against poor management ideas want to work to their potential and do what is right. They are responsible for many of the successes within government. The employees who are working against good management ideas are the ones who keep the bureaucracy inefficient, hard to manage, and immune to outside interference.

Companies cannot survive for long if they have various groups of employees working at cross purposes to the company and each other. As discussed earlier, efficiency matters to a business. People working at cross-purposes is a threat to a company’s survival. It is ironic that the inefficiency of the bureaucracy provides Underground Employee Gorilla Networks with the resources they need to survive. Within government there is no official recognition of this phenomenon. An occasional employee gets frustrated by the official position “box” he works in, and, in effect, slips out of it. Then he realizes he is not alone. Others are also performing duties outside of those defined by their position descriptions, often without their managers knowing what they are doing.

One of the problems with getting things done with a group of “invisible” people is that it is not easy to identify them when you have to work with a new office. Those of us operating outside the box did not have any kind of a secret handshake or pins on our lapels to identify each other. We often identified each other by exchanging cynical anecdotes. When I needed help getting something unusual done, and the person I was asking for help said, “Forgiveness is easier to get than permission”, I knew I was in the presence of a fellow network member who was trying to do what was right. I actually sort of loved the complexity of it all: there is the official organization with strategic plans, mission statements, performance plans, metrics, and position descriptions. Some people work entirely in this official plane of government existence. Then there are people who slip (or storm) out of their position description boxes, and either work to get things done for the people who pay their salaries, or work primarily to expand government and to resist efficiency. These people lead dual lives dutifully toiling in the official plane while also working, for good or ill, in one or more of the underground networks.

In the course of developing a better way to approach planning and design of VA clinics, our team came across a primary care physician who had single-handedly created a clinically driven way to approach the design of VA clinics. We were surprised that someone from the clinical side of the organization had taken an interest in what our office was responsible for doing. We were thrilled that others in the organization saw the same problems we did. We were not so thrilled that our two efforts passed like ships on the high sea. Even though we wanted to merge and attack the problem together, we could not. How could we, analysts buried away in the Central Office strategic planning bureaucracy, work with a clinician from the “field” (a medical center)? If we applied genealogical terms to our organizational relationship, we would be fourth cousins, once removed. In other words, far too weakly related to be invited to a family Thanksgiving dinner, and too far apart organizationally to officially work together.

The existence of underground networks of employees working against management is not unique to our federal bureaucracy. We can find the same phenomena in any centrally run organization. I have read that the German army called this, “fuhren unter der Hand” which translates as, “leadership behind the superiors back”. If leadership is doing something bad but subordinates working behind the leaders’ backs push the organization in a better direction that is good. However, German history proves that leading from behind the superiors’ back does not work out very well. Plus, the existence of multiple Underground Employee Gorilla Networks in an organization means that the organization is inherently inefficient. Multiple groups working against each other can result in nothing but inefficiency. All of the gorilla groups use resources which are excess to the official “planes” of the organization.

Cutting funding is part of the solution to government inefficiency. Ironically, cutting funding to reduce government inefficiency can unintentionally take resources away from some of the good work being done by Underground Employee Gorilla Networks. Of course it can also stop the bad work being done by other Underground Employee Gorilla Networks. It is complicated…

JS Kline


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