According to Merriam-Webster, a MacGuffin is an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance. Alfred Hitchcock popularized their use.

According to Merriam-Webster, a MacGuffin is an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance. Alfred Hitchcock popularized their use. Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The MacGuffin of Schedule F

COMMENTARY | Plans to convert federal workers in policy-related positions into at-will employees leave the workforce dangling.

The unquestioned master of suspense, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was especially fond of staging a MacGuffin, an element of the story that helped move the plot along but turned out to be insignificant to solving the case. 

Hitchcock fans—and count me at the top of the list—always admired his ability to drag us off the scent of the main issue by the clever ways he set up the plots of his films. All the better to scare us.

And that’s just what’s happening now in the debate over Schedule F, the plan to make it easier to move large numbers of federal workers from the civil service to at-will employment. The plot is simple: increase accountability by making it possible to replace federal workers who don’t effectively implement the president’s policies. Conservative analysts are preparing to relaunch Schedule F on Day 1 of a new Trump presidency. 

Schedule F is a MacGuffin. Everyone is worrying about it, but it won’t resolve the big plot problems of the civil service. 

The system has three big problems: improving hiring; making it easier to deal with poor performers; and streamlining veterans’ preference. Schedule F won’t solve any of them.

First, the federal government’s hiring quagmire is simply embarrassing—and unacceptable. The average time to hire a new worker in the federal government is about 100 days, and recent efforts to shorten it haven’t made much progress. In the private sector, time-to-hire is about a third of that, at 36 days. 

Schedule F would give top officials the flexibility to hire new employees without jumping through a lot of hoops. The track record for hiring new political appointees in past administrations, however, doesn’t give much hope that Schedule F would speed up the hiring process. For example, according to the Center for Presidential Transition, the Trump administration was the slowest out of the gate of any recent presidency in naming its political appointees, and it never caught up. The Biden administration was faster but, six months into the term, still had named only one-sixth of its 1,200 appointments that require Senate confirmation.

Its proponents say Schedule F could be used to make 50,000 feds—or more—into at-will appointments. That would be a staggering increase in the appointments workload for a new administration. 

They could speed it up by simply rubber-stamping requests to turn career positions into Schedule F jobs. That, in fact, is just what happened to requests from the Office of Management and Budget at the end of the Trump administration. But jumping from OMB’s 500 employees to 50,000 employees across the federal government would be a staggering administrative challenge—or it would lead to a massive delegation of decisions to federal agencies. Either way, it would be virtually impossible to track what’s happening in real time. Without transparency, Schedule F wouldn’t make good on its promise of more accountability.

Second, although Schedule F promises more accountability by making it easier to fire poor performing feds, it doesn’t have a mechanism for identifying poor performers, except by whether employees follow the political will of their superiors. 

For a generation, the constant refrain has been that government ought to be run more like the private sector. Schedule F isn’t how the best-managed private companies deals with employee performance.

Instead, private management consultants found that the best approach is “providing feedback, support and training to employees.” That, in turn, builds a “supportive environment.” 

Schedule F turns that approach upside down. Its strategy of firing workers to improve results is more like the t-shirts for sale in Annapolis where I used to live: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A LinkedIn post puts the best practice like this: “Firing an employee should be a last resort after all other options for improvement have been exhausted,” it says. 

The Government Accountability Office conducted extensive interviews about the implications of accountability-through-firing. Its report pointed to the risks that would flow from rolling out Schedule F again: “effects to recruiting, retaining experienced staff, and risks such as employees in Schedule F positions being subject to removal for partisan political reasons.”

The third challenge is dealing with veterans’ preference. In quiet conversations among federal leaders, there’s a powerful consensus that the current system for giving veterans’ preference in hiring and promotion is broken. 

There’s overwhelming consensus on helping those who have nobly served the nation get a fast track into post-service jobs, including in the federal government. But research shows that the current veterans’ preference system for federal employees reduces the diversity of the federal workforce, leads to workers who are older and less educated, and produces employees who don’t advance as far as non-vets. Vets hired through the preference system tend to leave the government at a higher rate than non-vets, which suggests that the preference too often creates a bad match between individuals and their jobs. That, in turn, chokes off opportunities for non-veterans, who might be better qualified for particular jobs. It's also inequitable for the vets themselves, because some vets are eligible for the preference while others aren’t. 

Schedule F said that “each agency shall follow the principle of veteran preference as far as administratively feasible.” That, of course, creates a mega-loophole. Just what does “as far as administratively feasible” mean? And who gets to decide? Schedule F not only fails to solve the veterans’ preference problem. It makes it far worse by making it more arbitrary.

When it came to the MacGuffin, Hitchcock might leave his audience dangling at the end of the movie, but he always wrapped up the big pieces of the plot. Schedule F leaves the workforce dangling, enmeshed in the enormous uncertainty about how it would preserve the merit system principles on which the country’s public service has relied for the last 140 years—and for which there has been bipartisan support. It also fails to solve the fundamental problems of the civil service—problems on which just about everyone agrees but which Schedule F doesn’t solve.

Leaving the audience dangling like that is something the master of suspense never would have accepted.