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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Me, Me, Me

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As you toil under the rules and regulations that govern federal managers, you occasionally may long for the supposed freedom enjoyed by bosses outside the civil service. You imagine you could hire anybody you want, reward your best performers easily and fire the deadwood.

You're a fair arbiter of performance. You care deeply about your office's mission. You can be trusted with the freedom to manage that others enjoy.

Take members of Congress, for example. They have great leeway over their staffs. It is, after all, the lawmakers themselves whose nameplates mark the entrances to their offices. They can make hiring and firing decisions as they see fit.

And some take full advantage of that freedom. Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., a freshman lawmaker who faces voters in his first reelection effort on Nov. 4, did just that. He fired a female staffer whose primary fault, it seems, was enjoying a romantic affair with the married congressman. Unfortunately for Mahoney's reelection prospects, a phone call in which Mahoney fired the staffer was recorded. ABC News played it to the world earlier this month. "You work at my pleasure," Mahoney tells the employee on the tape. "Whenever I don't feel like you're doing your job, then you lose your job."

As he fires her, Mahoney further elaborates on his power as the boss. He says: "Guess what? The only person that matters is, guess who? Me."

Now that the public has had the opportunity to hear the tape, the only people that matter are, guess who? The voters. His district's verdict will be heard on Election Day.

It will be a reminder to lawmakers that, in fact, their staffers do not work for them. They work for the citizens who elected their representatives to see to their business in Washington. Everyone who works in a congressional office is an employee of the federal government. Every paycheck is cut from taxpayer dollars paid into the U.S. Treasury. Members of Congress who never learn that or forget it do not remain in office, at least if the voters catch on.

Now, members of Congress are not subject to the executive branch's civil service rules. Had Mahoney been a GS-15 supervisor who wanted to get rid of a GS-12 paramour, he'd have had a tougher time. There would have been a performance improvement plan and an opportunity for the employee to file a complaint through a variety of appeals avenues. Such rules might not prevent people from developing inappropriate relationships, but they do make it harder for bosses to hurt their subordinates' professional prospects when those relationships go awry.

Mahoney, it turns out, paid a heavy financial price -- $120,000, apparently from his personal fortune -- to keep the former staffer from going public with the affair. And he may yet pay a heavy political price by getting voted out of office.

It's reminiscent of the old adage: It's not the crime; it's the cover-up.

Civil service rules help prevent such cover-ups within the bureaucracy. They not only keep managers and employees honest, they offer a paper trail to prove that managers were trying to do the right thing if they are later accused of wrongdoing.

Most managers would never dream of doing what Mahoney did. But his example is a reminder to those who want similar power. Such power would be a mirage. In the federal government, your employees don't work for you. They work for the American people. And you do, too. Your job is to make sure employees do the job they're supposed to do. The rules and regulations aim to make sure you do yours.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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