The Curse of Optics for the White House

White House visitors this past week have not found the optics very good. A makeshift barrier of bicycle racks stands five feet in front of the White House fence to further discourage fence jumpers. The impetus is, of course, Omar Gonzales, the man who jumped the fence and made it almost to the Green Room before being tackled by a Secret Service agent. Although the optics of the bicycle rack are not good, true ugliness may lie in optics of a different sort.

The term “optics” is all too familiar to those who have held positions of responsibility within the federal government. It refers to actions taken not because they advance important goals, although they may, and not because they are cost effective, although they can be, but rather because of appearances they disguise or create.  President Obama’s meeting with the head of the CDC to discuss ways to prevent the spread of Ebola within the United States is a good example. There is no Ebola crisis within the United States; the CDC knows exactly what can and should be done to prevent Ebola from spreading on the few occasions it will arrive here, and these steps are unlikely to require additional Presidential authority, directives or legislative initiatives. But Americans are afraid of Ebola, and it would not look good for the President to appear uninvolved or unconcerned, even if this means spending less time on matters that actually demand Presidential attention. The change following the meeting—screening passengers as they land for Ebola contacts and taking their temperatures—seems also to be motivated more by optics than by disease prevention. Passengers wanting to enter the country are unlikely to admit to Ebola contacts, and it would be the rare case where an Ebola related fever presented itself between the time a passenger was screened for fever before embarking on his flight and the time the plane landed. Any Ebola carriers will most likely be like Eric Duncan, who appeared healthy when his flight landed. Still the new screening protocol makes it look like we are actively combatting the (almost non-existent) Ebola threat. In today’s political environment, it is this appearance that most matters.

Appearances are also crucial to understanding what has followed upon the Secret Service fence-jumping fiasco, including the ugly adjunct to the White House fence it has spawned. Whenever something goes seriously wrong, the agencies most responsible, and often the White House itself, feel they must be seen immediately as acting to correct the situation. It is of no moment that Gonzales was the first fence jumper to make it inside the White House, or that he would not have made it that far if the front door to the White House locked automatically upon closing, which it now does. Unlike the bike rack barrier, changing the front door lock doesn’t lend itself to pictures which tell us that the Secret Service recognizes the importance of its mission and the urgency of the situation. It doesn’t matter if the Service has always recognized its mission and that the situation is not especially urgent. Particularly instructive is the fact that it took an intrusion into the White House to lead to the new barrier and changed lock. Gonzales is not the first person to reach the White House lawn by climbing over the fence. During the decade preceding his effort at least ten people managed to surmount the fence. Why did none of these intrusions lead to rethinking it’s the White House’s vulnerabilities? It is, no doubt, too cynical to suppose that it is because the occasional fence jumper made the Secret Service look good rather than bad because each was stopped by alert agents before they could get very far. But it is fair to say that these other incidents did not sully the image of the Secret Service, and so were not taken as a call for urgent action. Yet the need for changes in perimeter protection is no greater today than it was following each of the past incidents.

Optics may also explain the rise and fall of Julia Pierson as Secret Service Director. She was named to her position after the agency was rocked by a scandal involving the stereotypically macho behavior of engaging a prostitute. She was chosen, we were told, because the agency’s culture had to change. Optically the picture was perfect— a woman at the top seems incompatible with the masculine vices of sex and drinking. But if the goal is culture change, why would one choose a leader, man or women, who for decades has been part of that culture and thrived in it? While optics was not the only factor explaining Pierson’s appointment—indeed Obama’s first choice was a man—it is hard to believe that it did not play a role. Had the Service’s Deputy Director been a man, elevating him to agency head would have elicited cries of “same old, same old.”

Pierson’s leaving also reflect the situation’s optics. There is no reason to believe that any of Pierson’s decisions and policies played a role in the Gonzales intrusion. Nor in the news that followed did we learn much about Pierson’s stewardship of her agency. For all we know, she was able to promote culture change, and despite its publicized lapses the Secret Service may, thanks to Pierson, be better equipped to protect the President. However when Pierson, on national television, fared poorly before a Congressional Committee, her fate was sealed. She simply didn’t look good. True, her forced departure could be justified by the greatest failure under her watch, the presence of an armed man in an elevator with the President, and by her personal responsibility for failing to inform the President. Yet but for the fence jumper, even when the President learned of his protectors’ terrible lapse, she might have kept her job. She was, after all, not on the elevator.

A concern for optics is not all bad. Images presented matter. If the nation feels reassured by Obama’s meeting with the head of the CDC, and if the CDC’s employees are inspired by the attention the President is giving the agency and their important work, his meeting with the CDC head may well have been the best use of his time. But too often actions taken for appearances are costly, creating largely pointless bureaucratic hurdles or otherwise interfering with an agency’s mission.

The examples I am personally familiar with may seem trivial, but collectively they hamper effective government. Thus I was in the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) at the Department of Homeland Security when the Inspector General’s report on the illegalities and excesses of the General Service Administration’s $830,000 West Coast Regional Meeting hit the news. Almost immediately new rules pertaining to travel and conference hosting were put in place across the federal government. Restrictions were severe and carried the message that the Obama administration was intent on not wasting the taxpayer’s money. No one, however, asked whether the new restrictions cost more in activities discouraged, lowered morale and inefficiencies created than they saved in dollars not spent. For example, permission to send multiple representatives to conferences and meetings became harder to secure. I heard it suggested that multiple attendees were not needed because whoever attended could tell those who stayed home what had transpired. This was nonsense, particularly for the science and technology-focused conferences that S&T Program Officers regularly attended. These conferences have multiple conflicting sessions so no one person could report back on everything and Program Officers in the same general field have different specialties and needs for different information. Moreover, off-line conversations share important information about field development and establish valuable relationships. These benefits cannot be attained by proxy. But in the wake of the GSA scandal, DHS and OMB valued the optics of a restrictive travel policy more than the benefits that could be achieved by wider conference attendance.

Food is a particular obsession of the optics police. Even before the GSA scandal, care was taken to ensure that government workers (I will call them “Feds”) did not feed themselves or, in most cases, others, at taxpayer expense. It would not look good. When I and others attended meetings in foreign countries or at foreign embassies, there was invariably, depending on the time of day, coffee and a snack or a meal appropriate to the hour. When the foreigners who had hosted these meetings were invited to meet on U.S. turf, if they were served coffee or offered food, the chances are that the U.S. attendees had paid for the food out of their own pockets. When Feds engaging in grant oversight attended meetings hosted by their grantees, if sandwiches were served to facilitate a working lunch, most Feds I’ve known insisted on reimbursing their hosts for their sandwiches to be sure they did not run afoul of rules that specified when food could or could not be accepted. This was true even in local meetings where meal costs are not reimbursable. Perhaps the most counterproductive manifestation of the no-food fetish that I saw occurred when, after the GSA scandal, coffee was no longer provided during breaks at the annual conference that brought to D.C. representatives of DHS Centers of Excellence, each the recipient of a multimillion dollar grant, so that they could share ideas and report on their progress. The “no coffee” directive resulted not just in sleepier attendees but also in the subversion of breaks that had been purposely scheduled to stimulate informal interaction. Rather than mill about and talk, many attendees were instead standing in line for coffee at the conference hotel’s Starbucks concession.

Much has been made of the low morale of many government employees, the departure of experienced employees that low morale precipitates and the costs imposed by the slacking off of disaffected employees and high rates of turnover. No one seems to connect these with concerns for optics and the appearance of not wasting taxpayer money. But think about these issues from the perspective of the government worker, who embarrassed for his country, the world’s richest, pays out of his own pocket so that coffee and donuts can be offered to visitors from a foreign embassy. Or consider the Fed who while placing $10 in a basket to pay for a sandwich cannot help but feel the implicit accusation that if a grantee were to pay for his lunch, his oversight might be biased. Indeed, in terms of taxpayer interests even the outrages of the GSA Western Regional Conference might have been cost justified, for the good feelings the over the top effort engendered among staff might have contributed to higher morale, lower turnover and greater efficiency among GSA’s Western Region staff and so saved far more taxpayer dollars than the conference, with all its excesses, cost. Private industry is not above paying for luxurious bashes on just this theory.

The concern for optics is most damaging when it trumps sound policy or when optical improvements are offered to reduce the pressures posed by challenging problems. It is, for example, difficult to reform the Secret Service but easy to signal reform by appointing a woman as its head, and it is difficult to determine the best acceptable ways to secure the White House perimeter, but easy to set out hundreds of bicycle racks.

As with so much else that is problematic in government, the concern for optics calls to mind the observation of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The government and agencies within it must concern themselves with optics because its opposition will treat anything that looks bad as reason to condemn it no matter what the underlying situation. We the people cooperate by our willingness to take symbols at face value. Seldom looking beyond the image, we disapprove of government when the optics are bad and treat high profile but largely ineffective actions as if they accomplish something.

When President Obama declines to visit a border town where Latin American children are crossing into this country, he suffers because it appears to many that he is doing nothing about the problem and he doesn’t care. When he meets with the head of the CDC to talk about Ebola, he is on top of things and working to safeguard our health even if his involvement changes nothing. It hardly matters that three months later our government’s initiatives seem to have helped stem the border crisis, nor will it matter if three months from now new screening procedures have found no one with Ebola to quarantine. Most likely the optics will remain bad on one and good on the other. It is no wonder that those in government are concerned not just with what they do but with the optics of what they are doing, and it is no wonder that a concern for optics will on occasion trump sound policy and rational management. The tragedy is that we all pay the price. Walt Kelley, Pogo’s creator, again gets to the heart of the matter, “Herein can be found that rare native tree, the Presidential Timber, struck down in mid-sprout by the jawbone of a politician.”