A Merit Makeover Shakes Up The Feds
Commentary on reforming the civil service system.
Americans are almost unanimous in carping about big, wasteful, unresponsive government. Yet almost every effort to improve the way federal agencies function comes to naught, due in part to resistance from government employee labor unions.
The unions were out in force again last week, protesting proposed changes in personnel and pay systems at the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
“Bush has turned the government into America’s No. 1 union buster,” AFLCIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said at a Washington press conference. But that’s a stretch.
What has the unions in a tizzy is a Bush administration plan to de-emphasize the old General Schedule system, which sets pay scales according to what GS ranking a worker achieves, in favor of a merit- and performancebased pay system that actually dares to differentiate between the motivated federal worker and the deadwood.
The GS system is based on seniority. It rewards longevity over performance, very much the way teachers in the public school system traditionally have been paid. And higher GS ratings are handed out more or less mechanically, like merit badges minus the merit.
The new system would, at least in theory, infuse new life into a stagnant arrangement by rewarding workers who excel. That’s what rankles the unions.
The new Defense Department system would permit the paying of “performance shares” to employees who outperform peers and allow supervisors to pay bonuses to outstanding performers, to help bring some parity with private-sector pay. The new guidelines also warn, correctly, that “inappropriate overuse of the bonus could result in morale, recruitment and retention problems.”
The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security are far too important to be treated like every other hopeless bureaucratic backwater. If the agencies are going to compete with the private sector for the best and the brightest, they need an updated arsenal of management tools. And the unions can’t be allowed to drag them backward.
Union honchos fear that if these reforms can take hold in the federal government, they could spread elsewhere. John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, whined: “We know that if it happens to us, state and local governments will be next.”
And wouldn’t that be wonderful.