Before Phil Schneider came to Washington in the late 1960s and built a career collecting statistics on the federal government, American leaders hardly knew their own strength. That is to say, presidents and their advisers, even as they pulled on the levers of public power and commanded millions, lacked hard, empirical data on their legions’ true size and capabilities. The Democratic and liberal Republican administrations that shaped the era, consumed in the struggles to defeat communism and end poverty and racism, ranked bureaucratic self-knowledge low on the list of national priorities. But governments ignore their inner workings at their own peril, as any student of history knows. Grasping this, Schneider and his colleagues set out to remedy the problem. In the process, they embarked on the largest, most ambitious self-examination in the history of governments anywhere, at any time.
Schneider, who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and statistics before pursuing a career in government, founded and nurtured something called the Office of Workforce Information. The office – part of the White House’s Office of Personnel Management, which oversees human resources for the federal government – orchestrates a complex data-gathering process that involves more than 20,000 people scattered across federal agencies. It keeps tabs on more than one-and-three-quarter-million civilian workers, from well-known organizations like the U.S. Navy to relatively obscure ones like the Merit Systems Protection Board. Although few have heard of Schneider or his office, his product matters. Schneider’s work supplied the raw data underlying key arguments in some of the most important debates of the late twentieth century: Neither the rise of fiscal policy analysis nor questions of any sort about the size of government would have generated much insight were it not for Schneider’s statistics. Affirmative action debates, too, and questions of equal opportunity often hinged on the painstaking data on sex, race, and disability status produced by Schneider’s office.
Upon its founding in 1975, the office housed about 50 holdovers from the U.S. Civil Service Commission’s Manpower Statistics Division. By the time Schneider retired in 1994, it was five times that size, and had come to produce reams of data indispensable to Congress, the media, and others. Schneider had become a foremost adviser to presidents – six of them, in fact, over eight administrations – teaching them and their own advisers, in numbers, what power the levers of authority wielded.
To get a read on this consummate civil servant, I called Phil Schneider in early January at his home in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. The man on the other end of the line was modest and self-effacing, even as he related the story of creating from scratch the entity that catalogues what might be the largest and is certainly the most complex workforce ever assembled.
Schneider, now in his sixties, is a polymath. He teaches philosophy at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., writes on business and medical ethics, and is a licensed loggerhead turtle-spotter with the state natural resources department. He is a former captain in the U.S. Army who holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell, where he studied sciences and philosophy, and a doctorate from Duke. He was a charter member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service, an elite association of career civil servants, and has taught logic and philosophy at George Mason University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere. His writings cover diverse territory, ranging from the automation of federal personnel management systems to ethical theory and the question of glass ceilings in the workplace.
Schneider says his career was about identifying a public need and meeting it. “Everybody in Washington needs data,” he explains. “The data need to have integrity, and to be reliable.” In the Army, he worked for what is now the Civil Service Commission, where his statistical initiatives began to take recognizable shape.
“Our thought was to pull together disparate functions that were poorly managed, or not managed at all,” he explains. It became clear that while individual agency heads and their key advisers typically knew their charges, well-documented information was hard
to come by. Collection methods on personnel, skills, demographics, and other key data were not uniform from one entity to the next. No clear picture of the entire government existed. So Schneider acted. “I pulled together control of the personnel process, documenting hiring and management, how to create standardized systems,” he says.
Schneider is unabashedly positive in his recollections of a career in government. “We were part of Kennedy’s generation, well-disposed toward public service,” he explains. What roadblocks or frustrations may have hindered his progress he does not say. “I left with no regrets. I accomplished what I wanted to.”Schneider even credits his political appointee bosses – nineteen years’ worth – with keeping politics out of his job. “They never interfered with my work,” he says.
What will be the legacy of Phil Schneider in American politics? Our national institutions get the useful, mostly unrecognized analytical tool he built. We are better informed for his efforts. Debate continues, but on a firmer grounding, and new policies are constructed
on the basis of the fresh data produced by Schneider’s successors.
What about Schneider himself? Anonymity and bureaucracy are likely to obscure his personal contributions. If he is followed by less capable people, his office could even end up being folded into another. But Schneider doesn’t worry about that. In fact, he expects a more productive future for government statisticians. The reason: technology. “The advantage of web-based information systems and other technologies will make the future even better,” he says.
When Schneider finished the job he set out to do, he retired quietly to Pawleys Island. The weather is warm there. It’s a couple hours’ drive to Myrtle Beach and some of the best golf courses on the planet. The Coastal U students are bright and stimulating. And the loggerhead turtles are waiting to be spotted. “Paradise,” he calls it.
Merlins and Alfarabis
In another era or country, Phil Schneider might have ended up with power and wealth or celebrity by virtue of his government service. Indeed, the pursuit of wealth and influence is what has driven most people who have entered politics, in most places around the world, throughout human history. The ideal is someone like Confucius or Alfarabi, purveying wisdom at the seat of power, a Merlin advising Arthur, pursuing fame and lasting reputation in harmony with the good of the realm.
On the opposite end of the moral spectrum, one thinks of the kleptocratic cabal inside so many governments in the nonindustrialized world today. Take Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who packs his regime with relatives and sycophants who siphon revenue and pervert government for private ends. Air Marshal Perence Shiri, the London Telegraph reports, is the latest Mugabe clan member to corrupt public trust for personal enrichment, this time by turning the country’s corn reserves into a patronage tool for loyal party cadres.
In America, we produce Phil Schneiders all the time and hardly notice; even our unsavory characters are generally several orders less offensive than what passes for acceptable rule in many, more ruthless countries around the world. There seems to be something
inexplicably benign in America’s culture of public service. Could Phil Schneider be any more different from Mr. Shiri?
For conservatives who lambaste big government and the mentality of the employees it fosters, a taste of Shiri and the Mugabes should provide a useful vantage for comparison. Schneider builds something more sophisticated than the totality of the Zimbabwean government from which Shiri feeds. And then, when his work is finished, he goes away. He settles for a comfortable, modest government pension in a sleepy Southern town. He doesn’t raid the country’s food supply.
A Thousand Schneiders
When Government Executive magazine recently profiled Bill Rivers, a retiring 33-year veteran of the General Services Administration, a federal supply and management clearinghouse, it opened a window into the life of another little-known civil servant of real significance. Like Schneider, Rivers did something wholly unprecedented. He built and managed the largest civilian land armada in history. The fleet numbers 185,000, or about a quarter of all vehicles the U.S. government uses, and is the most sophisticated fleet of government vehicles ever assembled.
To understand the scale, consider one of the most celebrated armies of all time, Caesar’s, which conquered Britain with five legions, or about 25,000 soldiers. Divided among these soldiers, Rivers’s fleet would offer each about 7 vehicles – a choice between bullet-proof limos, trucks, and ambulances. A marked improvement over phalanx and Fortuna.
The fleet services the Pentagon, the Interior Department, and the Postal Service, among other agencies. It owns Washington’s myriad black government sedans and the many other motor vehicles driven by federal personnel around the world. Like the GSA itself, Rivers’s charge grew by leaps and bounds over the years. The fleet tripled in size during his three decades, adding clients like the U.S. Marine Corps and Amtrak to its ranks.
Reflecting on his career, Rivers, like Schneider, is self-effacing. “It’s been fun,” he told Government Executive. “It’s good people and interesting work, considering I’d never heard of the organization before I joined it in 1970.” Rivers built something massive and useful with taxpayer dollars that belonged neither to himself nor the agency he worked for. Now that he must leave his accomplishments to colleagues, does Rivers appear to be concerned about his legacy? Seemingly not.
“I think it’s grown into a great organization,” he said of the fleet and the GSA. “There’s a much higher quality workforce and work environment in the government than when I started in 1970.” For himself, Rivers gets a decent government pension, generous benefits, possibly some consulting work. No complaints, it seems, from the greatest civilian fleet-master in history.
The anonymous architects of American government like Schneider and Rivers deserve more from American conservatives. The popularity of Ronald Reagan’s famous one-liner about big government suggests something is amiss in the state of conservative attitudes. “The closest thing to immortality on this earth,” Reagan famously quipped, “is a federal government program.” Reagan was right about the programs, to be sure. But what about the people who found them? Reagan doesn’t speak to them and their praiseworthy qualities in the slightest. Conservatives who lambaste big government should be mindful of these positives as they point out the inefficiencies and abuses that accompany government’s expansion.
If Irving Kristol is right to point out that “people have always preferred strong government to weak government” – and I, for one, believe he is – then here is an unanticipated positive to contemplate. Though loathe to admit it, conservatives know Americans are fortunate to have such a benign culture of public service. With lesser men, the rapid expansion of government that began in the 1960s – and continues even now under a conservative Republican government -might have been much worse. Think Zimbabwe.
Brendan Conway is managing editor of The Public Interest, a fellow in reporting at the National Journalism Center, and associate editor of Doublethink.