Firing Bad Federal Workers Is the Answer for a Better Government

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Firing Bad Federal Workers Is the Answer for a Better Government

Jul 30th, 2018 2 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Stephen Moore

Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Stephen Moore is the Distinguished Visiting Fellow for Project for Economic Growth at The Heritage Foundation.

Key Takeaways

Federal employees are not rewarded for performance or excellence or results, but rather for showing up and, often times, they don’t even do that.

One of Trump’s reforms is to limit the time that workers can use on the job at taxpayer expense working on union activities. 

A merit-based system will reward great public servants, and getting rid of the shirkers will improve morale and the pride of our federal workers.

Liberals love to boast that they are the party that believes in good government, but they are also for a mediocre — at best — federal workforce. Uncle Sam is the nation’s largest employer with some 2 million on the government payroll. Federal employees are not rewarded for performance or excellence or results, but rather for showing up and, often times, they don’t even do that.

It is the sweetest deal around and turns the idea of America as a meritocracy on its head. Donald Trump has proposed some fairly minor, pro-taxpayer reforms in the civil service system that would benefit top performers and shove the lowest performers out the door. Hooray! The Wall Street Journal headline put it best: “Trump Issues Orders to Make it Easier to Fire Federal Workers.” Liberals and public employee unions such as AFSCME are acting as if he has declared World War III on workers.

Most taxpayers would be shocked to learn how hard it is to fire a federal employee. A report from the Washington Business Journal found that, between 2004 and 2013, the average yearly number of federal employees who were fired for performance was 4,000. This is a rate of 0.2 per 1,000. A federal employee practically has a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a pink slip.

Would you work hard if, no matter how poorly you performed, you had a less than one in a thousand chance of being fired? Even at the height of the Veterans Administration scandal, which led to some deaths because of shoddy care, less than 1 percent of workers were fired.

I have worked in the federal government and saw the debilitating effects of our antiquated civil service system on morale and results. Not only is it nearly impossible to fire poor performers, but even subversive employees were hard to get rid of. I remember we had a secretary who showed up about half the time, was mean, surly and vindictive when she was called out for her abysmal behavior. To retaliate against anyone who called her out, she would put the files out of order. The woman literally could not be fired because she would slap the agency with a lawsuit.

It was a racket that many of the worst performers knew how to play well. To get her out of our hair, we kicked her upstairs, and she probably got a promotion. Federal employees have a sweet deal. The quit rate in some agencies can be lower than it was in the private sector during the Great Depression. You cannot get people to leave with a crowbar. The pay in many federal agencies is well more than $100,000. The benefits are about 30 percent higher than comparable private-sector jobs. The cherry on top of this taxpayer sundae with whipped cream is 99.8 percent job security.

One of Trump’s reforms is to limit the time that workers can use on the job at taxpayer expense working on union activities. What does this have to do with public service? So taxpayers have to pay overcompensated federal employees while they work on union activities so they can get even more taxpayer money. Why should any of this be done while workers are supposedly on the job?

Trump’s adversaries are saying that he is punishing federal employees and politicizing the government workforce. Nonsense. Our current system is demeaning and unfair to the high performers in our federal government. A merit-based system will reward great public servants, and getting rid of the shirkers will improve morale and the pride of our federal workers. It will attract better workers to run our agencies.

Pay for performance is standard operating procedure in the private sector. Why have we waited 80 years for the same codes of conduct for federal bureaucrats who run our $4 trillion government? As comedian Bill Murray famously said in the movie “Ghostbusters,” after getting fired from a government job and now having to go into the private sector, “Oh, no! In the private sector they expect results.”

Why should we not expect the same from government?

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on May 29, 2018

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