Pay, Politics and Payback: An Evolving Civil Service

The civil service system is evolving. Federal employees are part of a political system and their representatives are taking strong political positions – whether most employees in the civil service know or care about the consequences.


The proposed Defense plan for revamping the labor relations program isn’t popular with unions. That is not surprising since the changes would be the first roll back of the program which has been expanding the role of unions in government since President Kennedy created the program in the 1960’s.

Comments from readers reflect both sides and the strong opinions on the issue. The public relations departments of the labor organizations are working overtime issuing press releases, organizing rallies and trying to drum up public support for allowing the unions to continue to operate under the same umbrella of favorable rules and regulations they have enjoyed for years.

DoD strategists presumably anticipated the immediate outcry before they released the proposal. It doesn’t take a brilliant planner to anticipate that federal employee unions would decry the proposals and accuse the agency and the administration of “duping Congress”, “destroying collective bargaining”, etc. Union representatives will undoubtedly call on their sympathizers in Congress to reverse the course that DoD is taking.

Perhaps the administration will blink if the political pressure mounts. It is more likely that the unions and the agency will meet and make a few modifications. In relatively short time, the program will probably go forward in much the same format as when it hit the public airwaves. It is likely the unions will continue to protest and challenge the decision. The unions will also cite the changes as a reason for all their members to support the Democrats’ nominee for president (whoever that may be). The changes will also be given as the rationale for the unions to support and spend all resources available for the campaign to go toward electing Democrats to office (just as they did in the last election).

Stepping back a few paces from some of the harsh rhetoric and looking at the bigger picture, it is clear how and why the federal civil service system has changed.

There is no doubt the administration and political appointees in DoD want a more efficient, responsive organization. Restricting unions’ ability to slow or prevent decisions from being made will help accomplish that objective. There is also little doubt the unions sincerely believe they are being treated unfairly and are sincerely upset. Many of them probably do not see themselves as a serious impediment to efficient, effective administration of the Department of Defense or any other agency. The reality is decisions impacting the civil service system are based on politics as much as any other consideration. And federal employee unions are all about politics.

Political decisions regarding the federal civil service are not new and often inevitable. What has changed is the political dynamics impacting those decisions.

The federal sector unions are active, hard working supporters for the Democratic party and worked to defeat Republicans in the last election just as they are already working to defeat them in the one coming up in November. If the Democrats prevail, the unions will again become much more powerful (remember labor-management “partnerships” created by President Clinton?) and will probably benefit from a financial windfall. Their leaders will once again be meeting with senior elected and appointed officials and they can probably expect the vice-president to again speak at their national conventions. If the Republicans win, it will be another long four years. Either way, the federal workforce as a whole is going to feel the results.

The federal civil service system was established to create an effective government to benefit all Americans. It was supposed to be a professional cadre of highly qualified, politically neutral employees shielded from political pressure of political campaigns. Federal employees were hired to help an administration implement its policies and objectives. It worked well for decades. Employees were not beholden to elected officials for their jobs. They didn’t have to campaign. A job in government service was one of the most secure jobs in the country.

With the relaxation of the Hatch Act, organizations that fervently support Democrats speak on behalf of federal employees. We get e-mails from federal employees stating there are many federal employees who are Republicans and that they should not get lower raises or be seen as supporting Democrats. But the elected representatives of employees are the ones shouting in support of Democrats in the media and on the steps of Capitol Hill and using the power and prestige of the federal workforce to elect Democratic candidates. Whether employees like it or even realize it, their representatives have placed them, their benefits and their careers squarely in the political arena and subject to winning or losing based on these choices.

Using the prestige of federal employees as a pawn in national elections may be a good tactic to ultimately increase the power and financial wealth of unions. It may not be good for career federal employees. More importantly, it is not good for the country. Our civil service system is evolving rapidly. It is headed in the direction of a government of contractors and it is easy to see why.

If the party in power believes employees are not neutral and it is apparent their representatives are doing everything they can to bring an opposing party to power, one can reasonably expect a reaction. Smaller pay raises (or none at all), more contracting out of federal jobs, and reducing or eliminating the power of unions in most of government is a predictable reaction to federal employees’ representatives deciding to ardently choose sides in national elections. It is also predictable that the decibel level will rise as we get closer to the election. But regardless of who wins, federal employees will be working for the party that wins the election. They are expected to help implement the policies and programs of the winning party. If the person you are working for knows your elected agents did everything possible to put him out of a job, don’t expect a great deal of thanks.

No one will accept credit or blame for the changes headed your way. The unions will blame the current administration (or at least some other organization); the politicians will couch decisions in neutral, politically correct terms to help with their campaigns; and the public won’t know the difference.

The worms are out of the can. But you can’t expect to work in a system controlled and dictated by politics and then expect neutral, objective decisions to be made insofar as your pay, benefits and working conditions are concerned. Federal employees have become part of the political process. The DoD changes discussed here, the upcoming changes to those working in the Department of Homeland Security, the proposed pay raise and throwing open the federal employees health benefit system to anyone without health insurance all reflect the dynamics of the political system in which you are now working.

In short, words and actions have consequences. We can’t have it both ways – attacking political candidates and then not expect a negative reaction.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47