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You Can’t Fire Your Way to Success

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It was just a short remark in President Trump’s State of the Union speech, but nonetheless, the president made an emphatic call “to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” To support his point, he pointed to 1,500 Veterans Affairs Department employees removed under his watch “who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve” and to new flexibilities that make it easier to hire the professionals VA needs.

But there are two problems with this approach. First, firing 1,500 VA employees for cause may sound impressive, but it is actually fewer than were fired over an equivalent time during the Obama administration. In Obama’s second term, for example, the VA fired on average 2,470 employees for cause each year. And inside the VA, as best we can tell, the rate of firing poor performers isn’t appreciably lower than in the private sector.

Second, and more important, we simply can’t fire our way to success. The federal government unquestionably needs to perform better. There’s no excuse for vets who have to wait for good health care or for poor performance anywhere in government. But if we’re going to improve the way the federal government works, we need to give managers the flexibility they need to get the right people, in the right places with the right skills at the right times, to do what we want the government to do.

It’s tempting, of course, to focus on federal employees as symbols, both of a government that too often falls short of expectations, or of a government that seems to have grown too large. But the number of federal employees today is almost precisely the same as in 1966—and that’s after federalizing 57,000 airport screeners following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Whatever swamp we might want to drain, focusing on firing feds is precisely the wrong way to do it.

Instead, as the National Academy of Public Administration argued in its 2017 report, No Time to Wait, the key lies first in determining what we truly want the federal government to do, and then making sure we have the people to do it. That’s the bedrock principle of the best private companies and, if the federal government wants to keep up, it’s a principle it needs to follow.

That means putting mission first. As President Trump pointed out, federal executives need flexibility to hire the people they need. But that means first figuring out what they need to do and how to do it. Mission, not artificial targets, needs to drive the process.

That also means reinforcing the lasting values of government work, especially hiring people based on what they know and what they can do and protecting them from political interference in doing it. In short, that means focusing on principles always.

And finally, it means ensuring that American citizens get the government they deserve. As taxpayers and voters, we all expect—rightly—that we’ll get the government we choose and that we dig so deep to pay for. We want—and need—accountability for both government’s mission and its principles. If we focus on quick-and-easy measures like the number of people fired, we aren’t going to solve the VA’s problems, ensure our air-traffic control is safe, develop better flu vaccines, protect our shores, or do any of the many other things we count on the government to do.

But there’s also a strong sense that government isn’t doing as good a job as we expect. We need to do better. And we need to look at government’s employees as one of its most important assets in doing just that.

The National Academy of Public Administration’s first report provides a road map for doing just that: mission first, principles always, accountability for both. Thanks to generous support from the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust and the Volcker Alliance, the Academy has launched a second phase of its work. The federal government has launched an armada of hiring and firing flexibilities, like those at the VA. Which ones work? Which ones don’t? What lessons are there for making government work better?

That work will help inform the super-critical next phase of the debate. If we can’t fire our way to success, and if more flexibilities don’t necessarily produce better results, what steps actually will get the government to where we want it to go? The president called for firing workers who undermine the public’s trust and for rewarding good workers. But what exactly does that mean—and what is most likely to work where? After all, NASA might be the best place to work in the federal government, but lessons about hiring great rocket scientists might not provide a very good model for motivating nurses in VA medical centers or getting the best front-line border guards in Customs and Border Protection.

The budget will shortly unleash a huge debate about the strategic direction of every federal agency—and about the plans that top officials have for getting the job done. President Trump was right on target in highlighting the issue of hiring, firing, and motivating. And that will happen best if we keep our eyes on the ball: figuring out what we want government to do, and how to get the workforce we need to do it. There could be no more important legacy for a business-leader-as-president than to bring this critical lesson from the nation’s best-run companies to the federal government.

Donald F. Kettl is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Volcker Alliance. He is the author of many books, including Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America's Lost Commitment to Competence, The Politics of the Administrative Process, System Under Stress and The Next Government of the United States. Kettl is a two-time recipient of the Louis Brownlow Book Award of the National Academy of Public Administration. In 2008, he won the American Political Science’s John Gaus Award for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in political science and public administration. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and has held appointments at University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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