January 19, 2006


from - RSA

One of the consistent themes in the scandals that are now overtaking Republican politicians is that, without oversight, they'll not only pick your pockets but try to steal your pants. A good deal of what I do for a living is paid for by federal and state funding, and so I'm sometimes a bit surprised at what it's possible to get away with at high levels in government. Here are a few examples of (perfectly reasonable) oversight in my work:

  • I have to keep a log of long distance calls I make from my office. No personal calls are allowed, and if such were detected in an audit, I could be fired. (This has apparently happened in my university, though not to anyone I know.)

  • I have to submit a justification for travel if it's paid for from public funding. At a minimum, it is reviewed by my department head, my department's bookkeeper, and my department's contracts manager. My expenditure records are available to whatever government agencies have contributed funding. I am unlikely to be granted approval to travel to Scotland and play golf at St. Andrews based on a claim that I'll be meeting with the UK Prime Minister.

  • There are some categories of expenses that I simply can't charge to my grants, under normal conditions: membership fees in professional organizations, journal subscriptions and the cost of books, even (for some funding sources) everyday secretarial and technical support. This isn't an oversight issue per se, but it's a set of fixed, known constraints to prevent abuse.

These are just a few of the relatively minor constraints on my work. I'm sure that everyone working in a large organization can think of similar examples of oversight. (In a previous life I worked for a defense contractor and had to account for every working hour of my day, via telephone to a computerized billing system.) What's noteworthy is that the rules governing what I do are pretty straightforward and transparent, so it's easy to see if I'm following them. I have to wonder why it is so difficult to tell if high-level public officials are breaking their rules, and to get rid of them if they're not.


Posted by RSA at January 19, 2006 12:09 PM
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