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Public Service Reformers to Unions: Get On Board

At an event honoring former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, above, speakers urged federal unions to support efforts to hold employees accountable. At an event honoring former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, above, speakers urged federal unions to support efforts to hold employees accountable. Kathy Willens/AP

Government employee unions do plenty of good for their members, but too often they act as impediments to creating an effective 21st century civil service.

So said an array of good-government activists who gathered for a symposium Thursday to celebrate the 90th birthday of longtime government reformer and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

Unions too often are “fighting the last war,” said Don Kettl, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, during a panel on how government should respond to technological disruptions and citizen mistrust. In Wisconsin, for example, unions “are perceived as helping Democrats” so that Republicans, led by Gov. Scott Walker, “feed on that sense of partisanship” as they seek to curb union power.

For government to be more nimble and catch up with the private sector in providing reliable customer service, it will need to bring new workers into the workforce, Kettl said at the event at the U.S. Institute of Peace, sponsored by the nonprofit Volcker Alliance. “We need to get unions to fight the next war.”

There is something to be said for the private sector’s “at will” employment that makes firings easier, said author and Stanford University scholar Francis Fukuyama, calling for greater government flexibility in hiring. “But Scott Walker doesn’t have excellent government as his goal—he’s putting his cronies in place.”

The challenge for the future federal government will be “having the right people at the right time in the right place,” said Paul Verkuil, former chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States and author of a recent book Valuing Bureaucracy.

Contractors and digital tools such as artificial intelligence reduce the need for front-line workers but increase the need for tech-savvy managers, he and co-panelists said. “We had a merit-based civil service, but unfortunately, that’s not assured for the future,” Verkuil added. Civil service reform is vital, but “it can only be done with the cooperation of the unions.”

From the audience, Jack Knott, dean of the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, said labor unions get too political and oppose flexible hiring such as internships for master’s degree candidates.

During a luncheon address, former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., said, “If government employees and unions don’t see value” in making government more accountable, “I fear the whole system itself will be in danger.” Increasingly, Americans perceive government as “doing nothing except raising taxes,” Bradley said. “There needs to be a process to terminate dead wood so that productivity increases.” It requires a new approach to accountability, he said.

But a bigger danger is the “juggernaut” built by the wealthy businessmen brothers Charles and David Koch, Bradley added. Their nationwide campaign against unions, global warming solutions and taxes that support schools, he said, is a movement in which “public service is the enemy.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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