Right Opinion

A Workforce Worthy of America

Kay Coles James · Jun. 25, 2018

When you think of federal government workers, what image comes to mind? That was a question I pondered when President George W. Bush asked me to lead the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

I knew going in that many Americans appreciate federal workers as highly skilled and dedicated professionals. But I also knew others simply dismiss them as bureaucrats.

What I found surprised me. In the four years I led OPM, from 2001 to 2005, I discovered there is validity to both views.

I met many federal employees who were truly dedicated to our nation — patriotic men and women who work hard, pay taxes and make a significant contribution that is too often unsung.

At the same time, I realized a few bad actors have given the federal workforce a bad reputation.

Of course, “few” is a relative term. In a federal civilian workforce of 2.1 million, a “few” can equate to tens of thousands of nonproductive workers. And their impact is not only wasteful, it’s a real disservice to their hardworking colleagues.

That’s why I produced a series of OPM reports that explored ways to attract high performers to the federal workforce. And it’s why I think President Trump’s recent action is so important.

On May 25, the president issued three executive orders that will do much to protect outstanding federal workers from the comparatively few “bad apples” in their midst.

One order holds nonproductive workers more accountable for unsatisfactory performance and speeds up the disciplinary process. This fixes what has become a seemingly never-ending appeals process that has made it extremely difficult to remove those who are guilty of poor performance or misconduct.

Believe it or not, it takes an average of a year and a half to fire a subpar federal employee. This lengthy and cumbersome process not only inhibits efficiency, it nurtures a toxic work environment that can lower the morale and productivity of competent workers.

Knowing this, most federal managers have given up on even trying to remove problem workers, except for truly egregious performance. Instead, they hand bad workers a lukewarm review and try to fob them off on other agencies or departments.

The new order speeds up the disciplinary process, shortening — from 120 days to 30 days — the “last-chance grace period” poor workers are given to demonstrate improved performance.

To keep managers from shuffling problem workers from one agency to another, the order also bars “code of silence” agreements, whereby managers promise to say nothing about an employee’s poor or illegal behavior in exchange for a resignation. The order also requires agencies to share performance reviews with other federal offices before they hire someone who was previously fired or disciplined.

Also new: Federal agencies may now consider employee performance when making layoff decisions. Previously, layoffs were based solely on seniority.

Another executive order limits how much time employees can spend on union business while on the government clock.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reports that more than 12,500 federal workers took “official time” to work on union affairs last year. Many spent all their working hours on union business — all. In the Department of Veterans Affairs alone, more than 470 employees did so, meaning they put their union activities before the needs of the brave veterans they are paid to serve.

No longer. The executive order allows employees to devote no more than a quarter of their workday to union business. This change alone will save $100 million annually. Just as important, it will ensure American citizens receive the service they need and deserve from their federal government.

These reforms are an excellent start. I look forward to additional action by President Trump and Congress to make our federal workforce worthy of the nation it serves.

For example, federal pay and job evaluation systems are still grounded in the era of the file clerk. They must be modernized to reflect the wide range of skills and specialized training needed in today’s agencies and departments.

Also, many low-skilled federal workers are grossly overcompensated, while others with advanced skills are woefully underpaid. If we fixed this by bringing federal compensation costs in line with the private sector, The Heritage Foundation estimates America would save more than $330 billion over a 10-year period.

The dedicated men and women who honor our federal workforce with their service deserve our thanks and our support. And removing the bad actors from their midst is an excellent way to start.


Republished from The Heritage Foundation.

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