Thursday, August 18, 2011

Arrested Development

No, contrary to what some of you may be assuming (or hoping), I will not be writing about our beloved, yet short-lived TV show. (Although, if/when it strikes me, I just may find myself writing about The Big Yellow Joint or George Sr.’s love of ice cream sandwiches.) This time, however, the phrase will be used to describe what it means to work under the tightly regulated realm of government.

To get everyone up to speed, I have been working for the Community Development Agency, a branch of the City of Clovis, since January 28. One of my main responsibilities has been to coordinate the city’s Down-payment Assistance Program (or “DAP” because everything in government that is more than two words must become an acronym). Because I’m so well versed by now on how the program works, having explained to about 17273243480239 people, I’ll give a short explanation here. The applicant picks out any house they like that’s under $200,000 within Clovis, and then works out a primary mortgage with a lender of their choice. The City then provides a “silent 2nd” loan that fills the gap between the amount of the first mortgage and the actual price of the house. This 2nd loan has deferred payment up to 30 years and forgivable interest after 15 years. For more information please contact David Brotman at (559) 324-2094 blah blah blah blah…..

Okay, enough with the boring technical mumbo-jumbo. Now to get to the point. This program is being funded with a federal grant provided by HUD. Without federal and state grants, amazing programs like this and a million others ranging from environmental protection to after-school programs would not exist. However, that said, grants are a pain in the ass! Along with the money, come rules and regulations and mounds of paperwork and about 100 e-mails back-and-forth in one day between you and the federal employee who will be auditing you. It makes sense that rules need to be set and auditors need to be overseeing the project; if not, the recipients of grants would have nothing stopping them from flubbing numbers and just using the funding for pay raises—among other highly corrupted misuses.

If the only downside to government regulation on funding were loads of paperwork, I would not mind. But it’s not; there’s a more subtle yet still developmentally detrimental effect this whole process has on people like me. I’m losing my creativity! The federal funding only happens in the form of a reimbursement after we pay out of the City’s budget, and so is contingent on the federal auditor approving our use of the money. Because of this, I need to make sure that I am following each and every guideline to the T. All the outrageous rules for exceptions; all the cells in the “Reimbursement Calculator” need to be filled in properly; the way I determine the applicant’s projected yearly gross income needs to be done in a very specific way. All of the problem-solving and critical thinking skills I’ve accrued in my life are simply useless for this job.

The incident that prompted this blog post happened last week. The lender of one of my applicants had a few questions about the loan she was formulating. The questions regarded some strange nuances in the way she was calculating the front-end ratio (housing terminology, no big deal). I had been trained to confront any question with a quick scan of the program guidelines (a 35 page packet), but in this case, the scenario she was presenting was not addressed in the packet. No worries; when that happens, I usually go ask my supervisor, Andy, what I should do. Not this time; Andy wasn’t in that day. I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do, and I actually panicked. I panicked because I realized if I give her the wrong answer, either we could not provide the loan and completely screw over the applicant, or we would not be reimbursed and cause the City to lose $80,000. At this moment, I took an outsider’s look at myself and realized that my critical thinking skills were nowhere in sight. There was no application for, what I see as, real intelligence. The only way I could get out of this conundrum was to ask my supervisor; I couldn’t problem-solve my way out. Defeated, I postponed the answer until the next day when Andy would be in.

The paralyzing part about all this is that the auditor would have to deny reimbursement if I did anything outside of the regulations. This problem could be easily fixed by allowing some leeway to someone in my position. There’s no doubt in my mind that I could have given the lender a response that would have taken into account the purpose and context of the program, but I was not allowed to. Grant funded programs could be much more smoothly and effectively operated if the program coordinators could face problems themselves and employ critical thinking. Not being able to figure out what to do made me feel weak and dependent, but I guess that’s what working under tight government regulations does. All of the red tape completely eliminates any opportunity for creative thinking and problem-solving. Your hands really do feel tied. That is part of the reason why I love writing these blog posts; it’s really the only way I can get my creativity out. I’m still trying to figure out what type of career I want for myself, but at least I know now to cross out any jobs that stifle creativity and mandate mindless obedience.

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