Procedures focus on avoiding negative publicity, not on high performance.
We're shocked -- shocked -- to discover that government files with sensitive personal information about citizens have been hacked, or that waiting lists for medical treatment for veterans have grown, despite extra funds and doctors. Before that, we were shocked to hear of the colossal failure of the enrollment system for the biggest change in health insurance coverage in decades, and before that, flood victims left helpless and hammers that were overpriced.
Why am I not among the shocked? Because I worked in the civil service for over 30 years. I know how hard it is to get things done and get things right under the rules and restraints associated with conducting the government’s business. It’s a problem that we the taxpayers -- the employers of the civil service -- ignore at our growing peril.
To some, the civil service constitutes a faceless bureaucracy of clerks, slackers and do-gooders interfering with the productive flow of the private sector. Others see the federal workforce as a hard-pressed, underfunded corps of idealistic public servants striving to carry out the will of the people without regard to politics.
There's truth to both assessments. Civil servants have had a lot to do with reaching the moon and Mars, developing lifesaving vaccines, heading off epidemics, multiplying the productivity of agriculture, and making the deployment of armed forces possible. But some have had a lot to do with the failures of computer security and the health care enrollment system, the chicanery in hiding backlogs and delays of veterans’ health care, letting politics creep into IRS nonprofit exemption decisions, and allowing vast and habitual cost overruns on military weapons systems.
Much of the good can be attributed to highly trained and highly motivated workers. The less admirable can be attributed to poor performers and a management environment that not only tolerates inadequate performance, but hobbles the efforts of the capable and well-intentioned.
Absent scandals and conspicuous failures, the pay and working conditions of federal employees are of little concern to the political appointees and Congress members whose main motivation is building a record for election or other advancement. The guidance that flows down to the working level is more oriented to avoiding negative publicity or embarrassment than it is to high performance.
Political executives, whose tenure averages two years or less, are scarcely acquainted with their agencies' problems and prospects by the time they move on. Meanwhile, they will have attempted to make a splash with priorities and leadership methods that their successors are likely to change. Career civil servants are expected to adapt and devote voluminous hours and documentation required to shift direction.
The workforce also is hamstrung by an excess of rules and regulations -- all in the interest of avoiding embarrassment and high-profile failure. The red tape associated with applications for government services or filing claims is despised by the public. The complexities are more intense for federal workers, who hassle with justifications for action and multiple levels of approval, largely to avoid a repetition of some long-forgotten abuse or to provide cover for a new mishap.
Similarly, the effort involved in preparing and defending budget requests in front of multiple congressional committees takes a major chunk of federal managers’ time. Add to that the routine reports required by Congress, many for activities that are no longer relevant. The administrative minutia and politics are a diversion from providing direct service to the public.
Jobs and compensation also are subject to the fluctuating sentiments of political officials. Ever since President Reagan identified the government as "the problem, not the solution," the federal workforce has experienced repeated hiring and pay freezes and reduced benefits. Its size and shortcomings have provided cannon fodder for congressional hearings and campaign rhetoric.
One of government’s biggest hurdles to success is its process for dealing with inadequate performance. The long-hallowed tradition of protecting employees against politically motivated personnel actions have discouraged sensible means of dismissing employees who aren’t getting the job done. Retraining, rehabilitation and reassignment are conscientiously pursued, but when those fail, managers balk at the time-consuming procedures and litigation involved in firing poor performers.
From time to time, outside commissions have recommended sweeping changes to the civil service system, ranging from the reorganization of agencies to the structure of pay and rewards. Minor tweaks have resulted, but the basic characteristics and inefficiencies remain.
Sooner or later, probably later, the political arms of government will have to deal with the looming fiscal crisis in an insecure world -- think perpetual sequestration, Greek austerity and defending American interests with an outdated military force. A more efficient, cost-effective civil service could contribute much toward the wide-ranging and unprecedented actions required.
Absent the necessary workforce reforms, taxpayers can expect to be shocked again and again.
David Hornestay is a retired government management official and former columnist for Government Executive.