Mr. Blandings builds his dream agency
Into every generation come the buzz words of the time. They creep into law, technology, business plans, financial forecasts and the newspaper articles that the common man reads in an effort to keep up with the changing times and tides of our industry. They break upon the shores of logic, sometimes eroding the hardened rocks of science, creating tide pools where little creatures borne of farce scurry and hide.
Buzz words are the jumper cables of logic. They pass over the slower process of analytical reasoning, unconcerned with the balancing of what is practical, to reach what might be possible. The circuit that regulates energy using the slower process of research, development, cost, market analysis, and profit potential is bypassed. Buzz words are the “Wouldn’t it be neat if . . .” of our society, promising panaceas for everything and deterred by nothing, least of all the mundane nature of time.
In the world of telecommunications, we use buzz words like most people use paper towels_with utility and fully disposable. Remember when “wireless” was an arcane word used to describe the basic dream of Marconi. In the words of Cole Porter, everything that’s old is new again, and now “wireless” has reentered our vocabulary as the radio wave of the future. Signal-to-noise ratios have given way to price-earnings ratios. Broadband doesn’t refer to the all-girl ensemble in the show Cabaret, and the phrase, “private mobile radio services,” has been used to avoid the less politically sensitive abbreviation for private mobile services.
Even the word “competition” has taken on new meaning. Competition used to refer to an activity taken up between opponents vying for supremacy. Now, competition is a taking up of experimental technologies, without regard to supremacy, but rather toward viability and earnings sufficient to justify company debt. Meanwhile, the FCC promotes this activity, urging a greater number of consumer choices without considering whether they are overbuilding the spectrum with new, ultimately unsuccessful, ventures.
It is competition without demand. Or, if you will, a race with no fans, no cheerleaders and no winners. The only obvious beneficiary is the race promoter, the FCC, which has taken to charging a hefty entry fee to the participants.
In a July 18, 1997, Public Notice, the FCC invited the public to comment on its “Strategic Plan” to be submitted to Congress pursuant to the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. The small circle of readers of this strange document are treated to a litany of buzz words and pat phrases. One can also garner some insight into the directions and machinations of this increasingly odd agency. Like Cary Grant as the hapless title character in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the agency has drafted out a floor plan to solve all its imagined woes. (For younger readers, reference the later movie The Money Pit with Tom Hanks.)
The FCC listed its objectives as, in order of priority, “authorization of service, policy and rulemaking, enforcement and public information services.” At the outset, one might wonder whether the agency was thoughtful when it listed enforcement as its number-three priority. The records would place it in a distant fourth position. Then again, given the secrecy that often surrounds its true motivations for taking various positions, perhaps information is number four.
Within the document, the FCC states that it will improve its licensing as follows: “We will design and implement re-engineered licensing and authorization processes to reduce the time it takes for existing licensees to obtain approval for the introduction of new or improved telecommunications services.”
You’ve got to be proud of the agency that wrote this sentence. No corporate communications department could have done better. We’ve got the time-honored opening phrase “design and implement,” which always connotes a promise of rapid progress. Throughout the remainder of the document, the FCC promises to streamline, implement, establish, utilize, restructure, encourage, reduce, eliminate, identify and increase. Each one is a powerful verb that leaves the reader in awe of the vast commitment of the agency.
In the preceding example, the FCC will also “re-engineer” its processes. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of re-engineering, it means looking at what you have as though none of it existed and visualizing what you would want to have in a better-engineered operation. Then, making decisions based on the vision, you toss out the old and bring in the new, employing a wrecking ball management style. This technique can be effective, assuming the vision is correct. Anyone who has totally redesigned their kitchen is familiar with this method. The problem is that the primary architect is as likely to be Mr. Blandings as anyone else.
Finally, with a tip of the hat to Madison Avenue, the FCC used the phrase “new or improved.” Okay, they didn’t say NEW AND IMPROVED, but they were close enough to make the whole thing sound like an ad campaign, which, in fact, it is. The whole exercise is an advertising campaign for Congress, to ensure that the agency gets a healthy market share in the budget process.
To save you the time of reading the FCC’s document, complete with “strategic objectives and performance indicators,” let me sum it up with a simple list. For clarity, I’ll avoid language used by the agency. In sum, the agency intends to: (1) push hard for its electronic filing agenda; (2) hold auctions whenever possible; (3) deregulate; (4) promote competition, see above; (5) respond more quickly to informal complaints; (6) tabulate the nature of telephone calls received; (7) use monitoring stations for resolution of interference problems; and (8) expand the use of the call center and the Internet. The FCC’s progress in each area will be tabulated and made into quarterly or annual reports, suitable for framing.
A careful reading of the document shows that the methods that the agency intends to use are almost exclusively electronic. Filing applications, making comments, information gathering and dissemination, rulemaking, complaints and every other noted function of the agency will be enhanced, improved and re-engineered to remove the pesky human element. Taking a page right out of the regional Bell operating company (RBOC) service manual, your hope of sitting down with an FCC customer representative just got re-engineered into the past.
It seems that Mr. Blandings’ Dream House for the FCC will have quite an echo. It will be vacant, except for the whirring and popping of machines that electronically accept your applications, payments, and pre-sorted complaints. The air-conditioning unit will be the finest, to further chill the cold digitized decisions and tabulations, sent with greater efficiency to “Dear [fill in the blank].”
Who knew that among public interest, convenience and necessity, convenience would win out? The FCC’s “Strategic Plan” is to construct an automat of law and policy. But did you ever taste the food in one of those joints? It’s hard to swallow.