Pencil pushers. Desk jockeys. There are a lot of names for the bureaucrats who fill the offices of the federal government.
President Trump says they, and their work, need to be examined more closely.
He fired a major shot in the effort to enact civil service reform during his State of the Union address, creating what one leading workforce expert hopes will be an effort to root out the “intransigence and incompetence” from the federal workforce.
In his speech, Trump hailed the passage of legislation in 2017 that gave more authority for Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin to fire people failing to perform at levels needed to provide veterans the service they deserve. He then said that flexibility should be available to all cabinet secretaries.
“Tonight, I call on Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” said Trump.
American Legislative Exchange Council Education and Workforce Development Task Force Director Inez Stepman studies civil service issues and detailed the problem in a Federalist column Wednesday.
Stepman says getting rid of most incompetent and uncooperative federal workers is exceedingly difficult.
“I think the average American has very little idea how difficult it actually is to fire a federal worker. The process is usually over 300 days long. It includes two appeals that are conducted at the same standard of proof as a civil trial.
“That means there is a discovery period. You can call witnesses. You can call Bob from across the cubicle and say, ‘Well, Bob says I’m doing a great job. Why are you firing me?'” said Stepman.
She says the recent false alert for a missile attack in Hawaii is a perfect example of the problem.
“The guy who believed the drill in Hawaii and then sent out that horrible message that basically said, ‘Duck and cover, there’s a nuclear missile on the way to Hawaii,’ that guy was known to be a problem in the department for ten years. but you can’t get rid of someone like that under our current civil service laws,” said Stepman.
It doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Stepman says Americans are plagued by slow, subpar service on a daily basis.
“Almost anyone who’s ever tried to apply for a passport, who’s ever tried to go to the DMV, who has ever tried to go to any government outlet – since this is a problem at the state level as well – has been frustrated with how slow and incompetent government employees seem to be. And this has a lot to do with that,” said Stepman.
Current civil service laws largely stem back to legislation passed in 1883 that was designed to make civil servants apolitical by hiring based on merit and making it very difficult to remove them by the changing of administrations.
Instead the system left Americans stuck with too many slow and incompetent workers. But Stepman says the impact on the functioning of our government is the bigger problem.
“It’s a deeper constitutional problem. We have 2.8 million federal workers all over the country, but many of them in D.C. They have very little political accountability. They stay in office no matter who the people vote in or what policies the voters want to be enacted,” said Stepman.
The other goal of the 1883 reforms was to keep civil servants politically impartial. Stepman says Federal Elections Commission records from 2016 prove that effort a failure too.
“Ninety-five percent of the donations over $200 that were made by federal employees went to Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was 99 percent at the State Department. That’s not an apolitical civil service. That’s a civil service that has its own interests in growing government. We’re talking about millions of people who make decisions for the American people, where the voters have absolutely no say over whether they stay or go,” said Stepman.
Stepman says we see this bias rise up against President Trump on a regular basis.
“Even in instances where you can see President Trump is trying to shake something up, often times he’s dealing with a flood of leaks. He’s dealing with openly rebellious staff in most of his departments.
“Those people cannot be fired. Donald Trump cannot say, ‘You are obviously trying to slow walk my policy…It’s time for you to go. If you can’t get in line with the program the American people voted for, it’s time to get someone else.’ He can’t do that, nor can any other president. Bill Clinton complained about the same thing,” said Stepman.
Stepman says some states are addressing the problem. Georgia, for example, changed a hiring policy for state employees and is now seeing a big difference.
“The state of Georgia, a couple decades ago, said all their new hires would be at-will. They couldn’t do much about the union contracts from the past, but all their new hires were going to be at-will. Now their civil service is about 88-90 percent at-will and functioning a lot better than most other states,” said Stepman.
She says following the template of the Veterans Affairs reform bill would be a great legislative plan at the federal level.
“I think an easy first step would be to take the exact same language from that VA bill that was passed overwhelmingly with both parties and say, ‘Why is this only good for the VA? Don’t you want the Department of Education or the Department of Energy to have the ability to cultivate a good workforce as well,” said Stepman.
Stepman expects labor unions and other interests to fight back if this idea gains legislative traction, but she says the push is now on after Trump’s speech.
“President Trump saying this as part of the State of the Union is the first major coverage this issue has received outside of super wonky circles. So I think it’s important that we keep informing the American people about the fact that federal employees enjoy so many job protections that most Americans do not at their jobs,” said Stepman.