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Flyzik gets NYTed

Just in case you may missed it, the lead story in the NYT's Sunday edition was about the turnover at the Homeland Security Department – something they called the "revolving door."

Former Antiterror Officials Find Industry Pays Better [NYT, 6.18.2006]
At least 90 former officials are now working for companies that collectively do billions of dollars' worth of domestic security business.

Here is how Slate.com's Today's Paper's described the story:

The top story in the New York Times is the exodus of top Department of Homeland Security officials to the private sector and the loopholes that allow them to lobby the government soon after their departure…

While the revolving door from government to industry is old news in Washington, the Homeland Security exodus appears to be unique in its scale: More than two-thirds of the department's most senior executives have moved on to the far bigger paychecks of lobbying and consulting firms, the NYT reports.

The law forbids government officials from lobbying their former department or agency for a year after their departure. Homeland Security officials have shrunk that timeline by a variety of methods, many not unique to that department. But the piece identifies one key rule change, "created in late 2004 at the request of senior department officials, when the first big wave of departures began." The department was divided into seven components for purposes of the lobbying laws, so now a former official can lobby DHS officials right away, as long as the lobbyees are from one of the six components the official did not work for before.

I just finished the editorial for the 6.26 issue on this subject because these stories strike me as unfair. It seems that it is journalism a la Michael Moore – and I say that with deference to the NYT and to the reporter on that story. Both are duly respected with good reason. And they are right to look at DHS, which is fraught with problems. But does anybody really think that DHS is broken because of the issues addressed here?

The crux of the story is that people are leaving government to higher paying jobs in the private sector and that vendors are in the business of making money. Furthermore, people are working in their area of expertise. Are either of these points shocking to anybody?

And when you delve into the details of the story, it just doesn't seem to hold water. For example,

The chart that accompanies the story lists 94 former homeland security officials now working and industry and who they are working or lobbying for. Among those people is Jim Flyzik, the former Treasury Department chief information officer who worked for the pre-DHS Office of Homeland Security in the White House. The NYT lists Flyzik as working for the Flyzik Group and for Unisys.

Flyzik told me, however, that he does not work for Unisys nor is Unisys a client. "I am on a Security Leadership Institute that is 'sponsored' by Unisys," he said.

To be honest, I was surprised by some of the comments on the story. William M. Arkin, who writes the WP.com's homeland security blog, said:

I have been uncomfortable with the dominant models for reporting the story: a straight government ethics and kickbacks/influence peddling theme, which offers no broader lessons; a following one individual or set of individuals -- homeland security officials in the Times series, as an example -- eminently worthwhile but an endless Niagara; or with an assumption that this is uniquely a Republican or Bush phenomenon theme, which is dead wrong, and offers the wrong lesson.

I do think to understand the Washington revolving door story, one has to follow the money. It is the lure of a big payday that even the most ethical public servant can't resist.

The New York Times couldn't say it directly, but "government service," even after 9/11, even in homeland security -- THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD to its occupants -- has turned into a ticket.

Again, does anybody really believe that the problems at the Homeland Security Department are really the result of this issue? DHS has big problems. If anything, people are leaving because they are frustrated that they can't get stuff done.

I am not discounting ethics at all. Ethics are essential - particularly for the government, which is dealing with the public's money. But its seems unfair to give these important ethical issues the Michael Moore treatment where we pull a few facts and roll our eyes and suggest that something is wrong.

The simple fact is that agencies are increasingly dependent on industry for systems and those systems are increasingly complex. If people want to have a debate about whether government work should be done by vendors, that seems like a good debate to have. But this ethics fever makes it difficult for industry and government to talk about needs and requirements.

Perhaps most important, it seems unfair to paint the important work being done in both government and industry with the overly broad brush of being unethical.

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Jun 21, 2006 at 12:15 PM


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