John McCain: If You Are Disappointed With Government, Join Its Ranks

As President of the United States, how would John McCain approach managing the millions of federal employees who would be working for him? What changes would he be likely to make and how would his philosophy influence the federal workforce?

As noted in a recent article, based on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, he wants to reform the "20th-Century bureaucracy" if he is elected as President.

As the news media has been bombarding the public with pictures and articles about the Obama campaign and his desire to "change" America, it is not surprising he would focus on a "20th Century Bureaucracy."

What may surprise some readers, especially those who are not political junkies watching the latest charges and counter-charges from each campaign highlighted in cable news channels throughout the day, is that John McCain also wants to change how government functions.

"We need to change the way government does almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children. All these functions of government were designed before the rise of the global economy, the information technology revolution, and the end of the Cold War. We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington."

Join Government to Change It

In his acceptance speech, Senator McCain urged Americans to join the government.  "if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them.  Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself."

One would not expect an acceptance speech to spend much time on reforming, revising or somehow changing the civil service structure. But, as with the remarks from Senator Obama, we can get a better understanding of his philosophical approach from his remarks.

With regard to teachers, he said: : "Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work." He also commented that "Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want schools to answer to parents and students. And when I’m president, they will."

"Entrenched Bureaucrats"

The "entrenched bureaucrats" could be referring to local school administrators or, perhaps, federal employees. But, clearly, he thinks public institutions should be more accountable to the public and less focused on meeting the needs of government employees and unions. We can also infer that pay for performance will have a big role in the civil service structure under a President McCain. Whether it would follow the pay band system now being used in a number of agencies remains to be seen but there is a good chance that some of these experimental systems are likely to be looked at closely by members of a McCain administration.

And, while not referring specifically to merit pay, he envisions greater rewards going to those who work hard and deserve more: "We believe in rewarding hard work and risk-takers and letting people keep the fruits of their labor."

Federal Employee Unions

A McCain administration is unlikely to be beholden to or have any strong ties with federal employee unions. Barack Obama has been a big supporter of unions in general (and a recipient of union funding) so, presumably, they would play a bigger role in an Obama administration than in a McCain administration. (See Employee Free Choice Act: Candidate Obama’s Achilles Heel?)

One quote: "Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want schools to answer to parents and students." And another quote lumping together union leaders with unfavorable company: "I’ve fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes. I’ve fought crooked deals in the Pentagon. I’ve fought tobacco companies and trial lawyers, drug companies and union bosses."

So, while a McCain administration is not likely to ignore unions, his comments demonstrate a belief that unions are an impediment to a large bureaucracy or organization being responsive to its customers.

Expanded Scope of Appointment Pool

McCain also emphasized his strong belief in working with people from both parties.

"The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn’t a cause. It’s a symptom. It’s what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not for you. Again and again, I’ve worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed. That’s how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again."

He leaves little doubt he intends to appoint both Democrats and Republicans and to seek out ideas from a variety of sources. So, initially at least, policies in a McCain administration would probably be less predictable than has sometimes occurred with the President has approached governing from a more ideological position.

Senator McCain is also telling the country that he is not going to approach governing based on party loyalty. Rather, he stressed his intent to be different by striving for a smaller government rather than expanding government. For example, at one point he commented: "Reducing government spending and getting rid of failed programs will let you keep more of your own money to save, spend, and invest as you see fit." And, at a different point, he stressed: "we lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger."

Finally, with his appointment of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, John McCain has demonstrated his willingness–perhaps his eagerness–to reach outside traditional lines. Gov. Palin’s appointment has changed the race and ignited interest in the election cycle, as demonstrated by large donations pouring into the campaign coffers of both parties. Her appointment and the favorable response to her speech at the Republican convention has created discussion on topics that were often absent from the campaign. Moreover, the arguments from all sides have flipped traditional approaches to social and cultural topics from interest groups that flock to the political process to advance their own special interests.

So what can career federal employees expect from a McCain administration? Here are several likely possibilities.

  • There will be an emphasis on equating pay increases with rewarding the best performers in government. Whether that is called "pay for performance" or some other catchy name, it would be consistent with the McCain philosophy of management.
  • Unions will be treated with respect but their power and influence would be felt through a Democratic Congress rather than through the White House.
  • Agencies will be asked to look for savings by cutting programs that may have outlived their usefulness or not serving a wide segment of the public
  • Political appointees going into agencies are likely to be from a wider variety of sources rather than emphasizing party loyalty.
  • Expect surprises and less traditional approaches to governing, including how the federal workforce is managed and how political appointees are selected.

Regardless of who wins in November, next year should prove to be an interesting and probably controversial one for the federal workforce.

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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