Solve the problem; save the people.

It was the early ’70s, and I was recently transferred from San Francisco to the Intelligence Division in the Customs Service headquarters in Washington to help with the implementation a new computerized lookout system at the border crossings, airports, and seaports, the Customs ADP Intelligence Network, or CADPIN. This was before PCs and certainly before sexting and the other ways that people are now sharing too much information.

CADPIN had an administrative messaging feature; that is, in addition to entering and looking up names and license plate numbers in the central database, a message could be sent from one office to another. The terminals were teletype machines. It came to my attention that the administrative message feature was being foolishly used to send inappropriate messages: jokes, often racist or sexist; recipes, and even derogatory comments about coworkers and supervisors. I knew that I had to get it stopped because it could jeopardize the entire program. I also knew that it was only a matter of time before this came to the attention of the Commissioner, a tough-on-crime Nixon appointee and a former prosecutor, so I knew that I had to get it stopped before someone got fired. But how to do so was the question. I was most ably assisted in my job at the time by a retired Secret Service agent that we had hired as a consultant. Together we crafted an approach.

There was at the time a method of communication known as a Circular Letter. These had a half inch red stripe on the right edge, were issued on matters of considerable importance, commanded immediate attention when they came out, and were posted on bulletin boards throughout the Service. I drafted one. It was about a page and a half in length. It had as the subject line something like “Improper use of CADPIN Administrative Messaging.” In the first paragraph I described the administrative messaging feature. Then I said that the messages were not simply transmitted from one teletype machine to another but were stored in the central database. Then I said that all of the messages sent in the previous month had been reviewed in Washington and that some instances of inappropriate use had been noted. Then I quoted paragraphs from two or three especially egregious examples, in which scurrilous comments were made about specific individuals by name. In the quoted messages I put “[name withheld]” in place of the names that were in the actual messages. Then I closed with a simple statement of policy; that the administrative messaging feature was to be used only for official business.

So far so good, but then there was the matter of how to get the word out and realize my other objective, that no one would get reprimanded or fired. This was a little tricky because Circulars were signed by the Commissioner, and I could not be confident that he would agree that it would be enough to simply get the practice stopped and not want to know who the offenders were in order to make an example of them. Then Jack and I realized that in the absence of the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner could sign Circular letters. Deputy Commissioner was a career position, and the incumbent at the time was a man with many years in the job and protective of the Service. So Jack and I held our breath and waited for an opportunity. One finally came, and we send the Circular up to the Commissioner’s office for signature with no fanfare. We gambled that the Deputy would understand what we were doing and sign it, and he did. Then we waited for the Circular to hit the street. All the while we were monitoring the administrative message traffic. The volume and content of inappropriate messages was growing by leaps and bounds. People were having so much fun with their new toy, and more people were joining in the fun every day. In a couple of days we saw our copy of the Circular letter hit our inbox. In another day it would be in the field offices. We kept watching the administrative messages, with fingers crossed.

On about the third day, the messages stopped cold. It was as if someone had turned off the lights or slammed a door shut. It was delicious to contemplate the blood draining from the faces of all those who had been sending all those message when they realized that big brother had been watching them all along, for months. I especially savored imagining the reactions of the authors of the messages quoted with names withheld as they realized they had been spared an awful fate. I was especially happy to have solved the problem without anyone getting hurt. This total success is one of my sweetest memories. In a way it probably informed the rest of my career in government – just fix the problem and try not to hurt anyone.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 30-July-2013.

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One Response to Solve the problem; save the people.

  1. Lois Stratton says:

    Great message Ron. Such wisdom! Lois

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