Thursday, January 27, 2005

"Reform" of the Civil Service

The Washington Post has an article this morning on changes to the Civil Service System in the New Department of Homeland Security. Here's the gist of the new plan:

The new system will replace the half-century-old General Schedule, with its familiar 15 pay grades and raises based on time in a job, and install a system that more directly bases pay on occupation and annual performance evaluations, officials said. The new system has taken two years to develop and will require at least four more to implement, they said.

Under the new plan, employees will be grouped into eight to 12 clusters based on occupation. Salary ranges will be based, in part, on geographic location and annual market surveys by a new compensation committee of what similar employees earn in the private sector and other government entities. Within each occupational cluster, workers will be assigned to one of four salary ranges, or "pay bands," based on their skill level and experience.

A raise or promotion -- moving up in a pay range or rising to the next one -- will depend on receiving a satisfactory performance rating from a supervisor, said officials with homeland security and the Office of Personnel Management.

OK, so a bit of the history on American Civil Service is summarized here, for those of you who remember who the Whigs were, but let me start with a few basic facts:

(1) Government work sucks. All work sucks, really, I mean that's why they call it "work" and not "fun". Have a good day at fun today, sweetie! That just doesn't sound right. Anyway, government work sucks more because of the type of crap that gets dealt with and the people who dish the crap out.

The Brookings Institute has an interesting report on how much life in Civil Service blows since September 11, 2001.

(2) Bureaucrats get trashed and blamed for everything, as we are apparently an easy, faceless, nameless target. Oh for the days when Government was considered a noble profession! The excoriating of bureaucrats has been an increasing trend since the Carter administration, now since picked up by those keen on "reinventing" or "reforming" government. Reagan's "Government is the Problem" quote glosses over some key, valid reason for regulation and oversight... but that still hasn't stopped people for blaming their problems on Big Government instead of themselves.

[As an aside, if "The Ownership Society" fails, is it Government's fault?]

(3) Government pay sucks. It wasn't always like this. Prior to Carter, there was a system that the Old-Timers call "The Golden Handcuffs": workers were given a below market pay, with the promise that should they stay with the government until they were 55, they would retire with a pension equal to about 90% of their salary. Pretty sweet deal for both sides: Bureaucrats are encouraged to stick with their jobs and provide "institutional memory"; Government gambles that it will only have to pay out benefits to the really hard-core employees that will stick it out, and thereby save money. This system was dropped by Carter to a more traditional 401k type plan, basically negating a key distinction between government and private employment.

BTW, all those baby-boomers that were under the old system are quickly reaching retirement age. Washington Post, again, has a nice series on this here. No one has really figured out a way to fill all these upcoming vacancies, despite my prior badgering of the GAO.

Given the above, my first objection to the plan: if I'm a well educated member of the "Creative Class" [FURF!], what possible reason do I have to join Government Service? The work sucks. The pay sucks. The retirement plan sucks. Now, under the proposed plan, I don't even have job security. All that I have now is an overinflated sense of public duty, and that don't keep the utilities paid in the winter. I might as well just join the private sector now that the choice is basically a wash. The Government can't currently attract "The Best and the Brightest."

The supporter's argument doesn't address these matters. Their argument is "This plan allows for easier pruning of underperforming employees and prevents deadwood from hanging on to the bureaucracy ."


The private market has enough of its share of deadwood, otherwise Dilbert and Office Space wouldn't be nearly as funny. Good employees (except those of us with "over active public duty glands") will leave, if they haven't already, for better, or at least "less bad" benefits. Marginal employees will now leave, as the choice between Public and Private employment has become a wash. The underperformers will do just enough not to get fired, but no more, just like they always do.

Now, the second part of my objection: if I'm being judged on "performance," to what standard am I being held? Am I rewarded for doing my job, or rewarded for pushing projects that are important or projects that the local member of Congress considers important? Is my boss' performance measured on how well she follows marching orders from the administration or how well she follows the rules?

As I've indicated in a previous post, bureaucrats aren't necessarily supposed to follow the will of the majority; we are supposed to follow the rule of law. If you allow the mob to control how the laws are enforced and on whom, you not only undermine equal protection, you also risk violating Rule #2. Once you start blurring the line between politics and bureaucracy, you start back down that road to patronage.

In sum: Working for the Government sucks at a basic level. This proposal merely exacerbates the increasing Federal employee vacuum, the real problem at hand. Political patronage is bad.

That's enough for now.

This post brought to you by: Cups of Coffee #'s 1-3.


fester said...

ADB--- the point is not even to drive out the best and the brightest, or even to attract the best and the brightest. The point of this reform is to break the bureaucracy, as you partially indicated, as a brake upon really dumb ideas... go see the Department of Homeland Security, or the new reorganization of the intelligence community. If a third of your salary is dependent on how much your boss believes you are drinking his Kool-Aid, the big purple monster will have a lot of lips at his lid.

And, yeah, if this happens to break the public employee unions' political power, and hurts the Democrats, shit that is a nice side benefit.

O said...

I'm not sure that I follow your comment: Are you suggesting that "Breaking the Bureaucracy" slows down dumb ideas from the bureaucracy from within or that "Breaking the Bureaucracy" speeds up dumb ideas through the bureaucracy from above?

I would argue that it's probably the latter: Dumb (or poorly thought out) ideas from the politicians will be implemented faster. As I've said before, "Bureaucracy is a brake on populist passions," and probably a logical extension of the theory of checks and balances.

Now while the GOP seems to be the one that pushing this "reform," they push it as populists, championing the little guy over big government. In reality, however, it is probably big business that will benefit more from a crippling of Bureaucracy; I mean, how many metric tonnes of NO2 do YOU produce per day. Of course, we all know about the government's economic role in mitigating negative externalities... blah, blah, blah. Long story short: little guy is getting bamboozled.

Dems, if they even care, are in a bind: they can't support good government without being labeled as liberals or communists or other such nonsense. So they're right on board whipping the Bureaucracy for the sake of political expediency.

Feh! It's a blatant attempt by this administration in particular to centralize control, break regulation, and plunder like the robber-barons of old.

Where's Thomas Nast when you need him? Hell, where's Upton Sinclair? I'm sure he'd do a spot on Air America.

fester said...

I am suggesting that breaking the bureaucracy will allow for more unopposed implementation of really dumb ideas that orgiginated from above --- see the Iraq war for instance, and imagine that without the constant leaking of how much lying, distortion, wishful thinking and delusion was going on there... some public feedback must have moderated the very worst of these habits (I hope) so the counterfactual in a broken bureaucracy scenario is an even worse implementation (if possible) of the post-conventional conquest phase.

CmdrSue said...

"An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty."
~Eugene "Clean Gene" McCarthy, Time magazine, Feb. 12, 1979

O said...

Or the other side of the coin:
"No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe when the legislature is in
session." - Mark Twain

Anonymous said...

the other bush larvae, jeb the younger bro, has managed to destroy florida's civil service system via his "service first" (aka "service worst") program. it was implemented here, the land of geriatric apathy and NASCAR-frenzied, drooling flag wavers with nary a public yawn.

the very predictable result--cronyist hiring practices and contracting fraud, contracting fraud contracting fraud, from state to local level.

having worked in federal service for a number of years, I recall many more smart, non-backstabbing, and yes, public-service driven people than not. job security and across the board retention and promotion standards produce far more good than bad--when you don't have to kick your coworkers in the face every day to make sure your family gets fed, you tend to focus more on the task at hand.

but then, you might just be more likely to point out the possibility that that 467th master plan study contract might actually be a waste of taxpayer money.

especially if it's an independent merit systems protection board who will make the final call.

we have met the evil empire and it is us.