The pandemic’s telework environment sets the stage. Upon that, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been such a tale as this until now, and especially within the organization of America’s largest employer. It’s surprising that a rash of these stories hasn’t some to print from all over. The vast majority of us want to be productive, work meaningfully, and contribute to society. At the base of things these are factors that drive us to work hard whether we’re working from home or in an office. Our moral and ethical senses of self also bolster trust given remotely. Despite those drivers and many others, complicated as we humans can be, some working actors who have supervisory or leadership roles are simply unable to attain a healthy trust in their teams. Atop that, there’s the old adage “trust … but verify,” which seems suitable. When does it go too far, though?
It seems as though at least one agency’s leadership has been less than perfectly trusting and whether they’re going too far is for the public to judge. The U.S. Social Security Administration is not within the organization of any broader federal government agency. It’s its own thing, and has been rather independent since its inception in 1935. As you likely know, its main charge is to provide so-called social insurance to help those with qualified disabilities, or those who’ve retired, or provide survivor’s benefits once the ability to earn a living has gone out of reach. Over 40 million Americans rely on its support, which is distributed from some 1,200 offices all over the country.
The SSA’s business, obviously, is enormous and enormously important. I cannot recall a span of time when the fear of its funding depletion wasn’t bandied about in news circles. If you were slated to retire in the nineties, you paid attention to these scary predictions in the eighties. If you hung up the labor hat in the beginning of the new millennium, you heard them in the nineties, and so on. Four days ago Barron’s ran a piece entitled “Social Security Will Run Out Without Reform or Redesign. What Needs to Happen?” Seems that the media, when it comes to Social Security benefits, is the one faction of modern society that’s never adhered to the Boy Who Cries Wolf lesson.
Under the guise, I suppose, of this incredible importance the SSA’s leadership ranks believed that über-verification of some of its remote workers’ business was warranted. Or, from the other side of that coin, they’re unable to embrace a healthy level of trust when it comes to their workforce. Thus, during the past year or less some of the agency’s supervisory duties have included surveillance. Not, mind you, over its entire 60,000 employees, but rather the much more tightly knit, and perhaps ironically selected, subset of its inspector general workforce. Those 500 or so IG experts in its Office of Investigations, who’s charge generally is to wring out ethical and legal troubles from within SSA’s ranks, have been subject to what some critics characterize as “Draconian” oversight. That’s a word I enjoy using and reading: Draconian. Did it come from how Count Dracula would manage things? Inquiring minds—well … mine at least—want to know. The good ol’ Oxford English Dictionary shall school us.
“Draconian,” when used properly always capitalized, stems from the adjective Draconic, and can be used derivatively as a noun: Dracocianism. In any case, it harkens back not to Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic simply titled Dracula. It goes back further still, and might suggest why Stoker named the nocturnal monster as he did. Go back another couple hundred years and you can find the potential origin when in Apocalypsis Apocalypseos, Henry More wrote that a great dragon was released thus destroying the Empire, idolatrous and Draconick as it had become. Draco was a ruler in ancient Athens, and the OED believes his leadership style led to the word’s use as we know it today.
Maybe it’s not Dracula’s lineage, and it might have come from “dragon” or from the ruler Draco, but in any case we know Draconian to mean a severe, harsh code of rules that borders on, if not crosses into, cruelty in its applications. If you’re a supervisor or leader in today’s workplace culture, you probably don’t want to be tabbed as one with Draconian stylings or approaches.
Did SSA’s IG office’s monitoring rise up (or sink down) to the level of Draconianism? In these recent months, it has been gathering and analyzing computer logs of its remote worker bees. It’s been monitoring phone logs. According to the IT team at SSA/IG, a top official “threatened” that upon these surveillance results, staff who did not prove up their contributions based on the data would be severely disciplined. The phrase “severe discipline” surely puts us on the path of Draco’s approach.
The surveillance results were mixed. The vast majority of analysis targets passed muster. However, around 7% of the office “will be held accountable for their conduct.” State Department, mainly, conducts diplomacy but that language reflects it as well. The notion of being monitored wasn’t an unknown, either, so those found to be accountable cannot claim ignorance of the law, defenseless as that excuse may be. You and I may believe the Draconianism started well before the analyses. Since SSA/IG began its remote work response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, its staff was mandated to send an email to their supervisor when their day began, then another as they logged off. Not too burdensome, but there went any notions of implicit trust. Moreover, on that end-of-day missive, workers were to summarize what they accomplished.
The story hasn’t ended since workers filed complaints with the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. The whole boondoggle makes me think about leadership altogether, and its inherent continuum of trust.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.