Political Prohibited Personnel Practices Increasing in Federal Agencies

Reports of prohibited personnel practices of political coercion or discrimination are growing. Why is this occurring?

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) conducts merit principles surveys every few years. The agency asks federal employees a series of questions asking whether they have experienced or observed prohibited personnel practices (PPPs) at work.

In the surveys conducted in 2010 and 2016, some PPPs were consistently reported. Manipulating recruitment actions to benefit a particular person is the most prevalent. Federal employees reported race, sex, and age discrimination (in that order) more than the other discrimination PPPs.

In February 2023, the MSPB issued Perceptions of Prohibited Personnel Practices: An Update. One portion of this report was particularly striking, and that is the subject of this article.

Partisan Politics and Increasing Number of Prohibited Personnel Practices

Two PPPs increased by more than 2% between the surveys taken in 2010 and 2021. Both involve partisan politics and are at double their rate from 2010.

In six agencies, perceptions of political affiliation discrimination reported were higher than 8%. According to the MSPB, more than 500,000 Federal employees work at agencies where the perception rate for political affiliation discrimination approached or exceeded 10% of survey respondents.

In two agencies, the Departments of State and Homeland Security, more than 10% of federal employees report they have experienced or observed discrimination for political affiliation.

In 2010, only 1.1% of employees reported they were subjected to discrimination based on political affiliation, and less than 1% said they experienced political coercion in the preceding two years. However, these practices may become more common during political polarization, transition, or crisis, when partisan interests clash with professional norms and values.

According to MSPB, political coercion occurs when an employee with authority to take or direct personnel actions coerces the political activity of any person or takes action against any employee or applicant for employment as a reprisal for refusing to engage in such political activity.

Political affiliation discrimination occurs when an employee with authority to take or direct personnel actions discriminates on behalf of or against any employee or applicant for employment because of their political affiliation.

Here is a chart listing agencies with the percentage of reported political discrimination and coercion for each.

Listing of agencies and reported political affiliation or political coercion
Chart from US Merit Systems Protection Board

Why is Political Discrimination Increasing in Government?

While some of the growth in political coercion and discrimination based on political affiliation may be due to the country becoming more politically divided, there is considerable difference between agencies.

Some agencies have reported rates two or three times higher than other agencies. The MSPB concluded: “it seems that the data cannot be explained solely by our Nation’s political climate, but rather that factors particular to an agency may have contributed to these perceptions.”

Some agencies have a more “political” mission, and differences of opinion on work-related matters and political affiliation may become blurred.

Here are some of the factors contributing to this growing trend of political discrimination in government:

  • The higher polarization and partisanship of American society and politics. This polarization makes it harder for people with different views to cooperate and respect each other.
  • Increasing politicization and influence of the executive branch over the federal agencies and departments. This growing influence may create a culture of loyalty and conformity in the civil service community.
  • A need for clear and consistent policies and protections against political discrimination in the federal government.
  • The reduced oversight and accountability of the federal government by Congress, the courts, and the public, enabling some officials to abuse their power or violate the law.

Impact of Personal Political Issues Impacting Federal Employees

Issues that may have seemed to be outside the political arena sometimes become controversial political imbroglios. The COVID vaccine mandate was one of the issues. The mandate impacted almost all federal employees. There were solid opinions among those that favored the mandate and those that believed they should not be required to use a vaccine that had not been thoroughly tested or with medical experts unsure of what side effects could arise.

The COVID vaccine mandate was controversial from the moment it was issued. Articles posted on FedSmith generated hundreds of comments with strong opinions on both sides. Even as the pandemic has dissipated, it continues to remain an emotionally charged issue.

Federal employees were given until November 22, 2021, to get vaccinated or face disciplinary actions, including possibly being fired. The COVID mandate also applied to teleworking federal employees.

Legal battles ensued, and a court eventually issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the mandate. That was still in effect when the Executive Order terminating the mandate was issued.

Even after the injunction was issued, the Biden administration continued to fight the ruling in court and had some success on appeal of the decision.

Former Federal Employee of the Year At Center of Controversy

Anthony Fauci was the Federal Employee of the Year in 2020. He was the  Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He became a household name with numerous appearances on television in two administrations. He retired with the largest federal employee annuity in history and became a focal point of controversy over Covid and government policies surrounding this virus.

According to a Newsweek article, “documents show ‘unequivocally’ that NIH grants were used to fund controversial gain-of-function (GOF) research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China—something U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has denied.

And, in comments on the same topic, Senator Rand Paul stated in December, “We’re not done with him yet. I think Dr. Fauci actually made one of the worst judgments in modern medical history by funding for over a decade of dangerous gain-of-function research, which many of us believe leaked from the lab, inadvertently.”

More recently, articles such as Leaked Pentagon Report Forensically Dismantled Fauci-Led Natural Origin Study have been published, continuing the political disputes regarding the Covid virus.

Federal employees are not exempt from political news and events. Other examples regarding the role of politicians and political actions involving federal agencies and employees have occurred in recent years. Undoubtedly, some of these allegations and reports of inappropriate actions by agencies have impacted the federal workforce.

The MSPB report reflects the changing environment of the federal workplace.

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