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How a culture of unaccountability permeates the federal government

COMMENTARY | Accountability is essential for an organization to function effectively.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a series from the National Academy of Public Administration looking at the challenges and urgency of modernizing the civil service. Find the Academy’s full essay here.

The federal government is often criticized for failing to deal effectively with poor performance and misconduct. Accountability – being responsible for tasks, answerable to someone for accomplishing those tasks, and subject to consequences for failure and rewards for exceptional work – is essential for an organization to function effectively. 

Criticism directed at the federal government often focuses on career civil servants. Critics point to the low numbers of employees being fired every year and conclude that the number should be higher. They often point to the private sector, which they argue is more effective in dealing with conduct and performance problems.

The truth is that we don’t know what the right number would be, and comparisons to the private sector are based on anecdotal evidence rather than data. Labor Department data regarding private sector terminations lumps terminations for cause and layoffs into a single category, and neither the Labor data nor Office of Personnel Management data on civil servant terminations take into account the number of people who voluntarily leave when it is apparent they may be fired. 

A working group of National Academy of Public Administration Fellows has examined this subject as one of several reports on civil service reform. We concluded that calls for firing more career civil servants are missing the mark because they are just a subset of the people in government who should be held accountable for their performance and conduct. 

Discussions of accountability typically start and end with the bottom of the food chain: the employees. Employees are expected to do their jobs and that is it. Employees should be held accountable, but their contribution to the process can only occur following actions by the people above them in the executive branch, enabled and overseen by the legislative branch. 

When we look at those entities, we find that a culture of unaccountability permeates government. Congress is tasked by the Constitution with the power of the purse, yet for the past half-century virtually every year they have failed to pass appropriations bills and resort to stopgap measures and massive omnibus appropriations bills that are often (as this year) passed many months after the beginning of the fiscal year. 

They fail to act on nominations of political appointees, use federal workers as political footballs, and turn constitutional oversight into political theater. A recent Pew Research study showed only 26% of Americans view Congress favorably, but other studies and, most importantly, election results, show that voters like their individual representatives more thanCongress overall, and rarely hold them accountable for getting results.

The executive branch leadership doesn’t fare much better. Presidents, much like  Congress, tend to let political needs interfere with effective government. They do not make timely nominations for many political appointments, and political motivations often overlook common sense solutions that might offend a president’s political base. Impeachment is an option, but no president has ever been removed from office via impeachment and none is likely to be in our lifetimes.

Political appointees are, in theory, fully accountable and can be quickly removed with little effort. What they do not have are performance standards, performance ratings, and any real means of being held accountable for getting results. Absent a scandal, they typically serve until they decide to leave or the administration changes. 

Career senior executives are responsible for formulating and carrying out policy, working with the White House and the Congress, the public, and various interest groups. The 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results show that only half of federal workers believe their senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment, and only 62%believe their senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. Accountability for career executives is much like that of political appointees – theory and execution are very different. Most receive high performance ratings and terminations of senior executives are exceedingly rare. In fiscal 2022, the most recent year for which full-year data is available, OPM’s Fedscope shows that only six of the more than 7,200 career SES members were terminated for conduct or performance.

Supervisors and managers, the group responsible for day-to-day leadership of the career workforce, receive the same types of performance appraisals as other workers. Few supervisors are removed for poor performance or misconduct (just over 1/10 of 1% in FY 2022), and supervisory probationary periods have not proven effective in weeding out bad supervisors. 

Rank-and-file employees, the group most people think of when they refer to federal workers, actually carry out the mission of agencies. They have probationary periods when hired, annual performance appraisals, and can be fired for poor performance or misconduct. When that happens, employees can file grievances, appeals and Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. Their appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board are typically resolved in favor of the agency. Accountability for this group is typically one-way. Employees are given performance standards which they may or may not have substantively participated in developing, and then evaluated on their performance. Few agencies offer meaningful participation in developing objectives, and employees are often left on their own to identify the connection between their work and the objectives of their agencies. About one-half of 1% of such employees were terminated for performance or misconduct in FY 2022.

What we have is a government where people at the bottom are subject to criticism that they do not do their jobs, often from those whom the American people clearly believe do not do their own jobs. The biblical admonition that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone” clearly does not apply. 

The National Academy of Public Administration has published a paper on this issue that identifies levels of accountability and addresses the culture of unaccountability that hampers the government’s operations. We identified a number of potential solutions for every level except the president and members of Congress. For those folks, the solution is in the hands of voters. The good news is that the solutions that do not require a ballot box also do not require Congress to change the law. They can be implemented with current civil service law and can be implemented quickly. More on this is available from the Academy report

Jeffrey Neal, former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department, is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.