Reforming the civil service is needed, and doing it now will eventually improve the public’s confidence in government and give the economy a boost.
Trust and confidence in the executive branch of the federal government have seldom been worse. According to Gallup, there have only been two times since 1972 where citizens have had a lower opinion of their government than they did in 2014.
Much of this is due to the multitude of scandals involving government employees. Recall these recent incidents. The General Services Administration spending $823,000 to send 300 employees to a training conference in a lavish hotel near Las Vegas. Or Veterans Administration employees intentionally delaying healthcare so they could earn bonuses while veterans died waiting. Or IRS employees overwhelmingly targeting conservative groups. Or Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services employees intentionally inflating Obamacare enrollment numbers to meet goals.
Most Americans now expect that government employees will waste taxpayer dollars, not do their jobs, use their position to promote their political agenda and lie. While there is much in the news that reinforces this stereotype, my experience is that the vast majority of the civil service is made of up good people wanting to make a difference. The problem is mostly the civil service system.
While reforming the system to improve the performance of 2.485 million employees might seem daunting, Wal-Mart does manages just fine with 2.1 million employees. It can be done and here are some ways to start.
1. Make it easier to hire employees. It takes so long to hire an employee that many good ones get away because other employers can hire great candidates more quickly. Simplifying the application, streamlining the evaluation process (maybe even outsourcing it) and setting clear milestones and deadlines would go a long way to improve the system.
2. Make it easier to fire employees. With so many employees, it is inevitable that there will be some bad apples and unacceptable behavior or performance. And if hiring takes a long time, firing bad employees take even longer. Streamline the firing process, expedite the appeal process and give departments and agencies more flexibility to handle problem employees.
3. Hold employees accountable for their performance. I have read more federal government individual performance plans that I can remember. One common theme that I do recall is that most are based on process, activity and inputs and not on results. Some reasonable metrics consistent with the mission of the appropriate department or agency would help hold employees accountable to the public they serve.
4. Enforce the highest level of integrity. Have zero tolerance for fraud, lying, looking at porn while working, taking up-the-skirt photos, stealing government property, discrimination, physical violence, abusing government credit cards, criminal activity, cronyism, nepotism and wasting taxpayer dollars. These are a fraction of the personnel issues that can be gleaned from media accounts every day.
5. Pay for more performance, not longevity. The civil service pay, bonus and benefit structure is outdated and uncompetitive with the private sector. Cronyism dominates rewards, promotions and bonuses. Departments and agencies need to have more flexibility to compete for talent, as well as reward high performers that deliver value for the taxpayer.
Americans do no have to put up with lower expectations. A poorly performing government is a $4 trillion drag on the economy. Getting it to serve the public better will not harm good employees and will go a long way to boosting Americans’ confidence in their government again.
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