- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Bureaucracy reform may be the original oxymoron, but amazing progress is being made against inefficient civil service rules and regulations, against lifetime employment with guaranteed raises no matter how poorly one performs.

President George W. Bush is absolutely revolutionizing federal work force procedures. The Department of Homeland Security has already put into effect its new system of pay-for-performance, expedited personnel appeals and consultation rather than endless bargaining with unions over work rules.

The Defense Department will end its review process proposing similar rules by midmonth, which will bring half of the civilian work force under performance management. And legislation to extend this system to the rest of government is being readied for possible public consideration by summer.

Progress is seen even among the states, where public employee unions have traditionally dominated politics. Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina recently drove to the Columbia capitol in a horse and buggy to dramatize that civil service procedures belong to the 19th century and require reform to meet modern challenges. The states indeed have led the way in contracting services to private firms to conserve taxpayer resources and improve work performance. Powerful state unions, however, have frustrated work rule reforms although many governors keep pushing for modernization.

Any doubts there has been progress are confirmed by opponents crying foul. The Senate Government Management Subcommittee met the first week of this month to review the DHS rules and soon will meet again to question the Defense proposals. The No. 1 recalcitrant has been the federal unions, which unsurprisingly oppose any change. Their Democratic allies (and some Republicans) complain the unions have not been consulted enough and that it is unfair to pay civil servants according to performance because good work is difficult to measure.

The Washington Post backed its hometown workers in a March 1 editorial opposing Defense Department pay-for-performance because it would be “politicized” and claimed its expedited consultation would curtail union rights in “unnecessary ways.” The editors perfunctorily denied opposing performance management “in principle” but claimed political influence was inherent to the system and objective performance rating impossible. The same problems are overcome in the private sector and the Defense standards haven’t even been set, but the editors somehow know they can’t work.

To eliminate political bias, they propose Congress create performance standards by law. So, the legislators will not politicize the rules?

As far as consulting the unions, the review process has not yet concluded. As soon as it has and they have considered the 6,000 comments (mostly solicited by unions), the Defense representative, Navy Secretary Gordon England, and Office of Personnel Management team leader, George Nesterczuk, will formally meet with all union chiefs. Indeed, Mr. Nesterczuk and Defense representatives have already met with union leadership several times without any legal obligation to do so.

Congressional leaders are concerned about extending performance to the entire work force. They say the rules should be tested at the Department of Homeland Security first. But pay-for-performance and its measurement have been tested more than 20 years, beginning at the Defense Department’s China Lake facility back during the author’s tenure of office. Any further delay would be unconscionable.

What could be more important than making the Defense Department work well? The federal unions are, indeed, one of the most organized interests in Washington and are generous with political contributions. The Feds’ whole livelihood depends on government, so public officials understandingly fear them. But national defense and many other functions are simply too important to be placed in the hands of nonperformers.

Pay for performance is not only the efficient way, it is the only right way to pay employees. Those who do the best work and contribute most to the public good should be rewarded better. Incentives should be given for good performance but, practically, if the best workers are not paid more, they will leave for more money in the private sector.

Indeed, the rules must be extended to the rest of the government too or all the better workers will transfer to Defense or Homeland Security and the rest of the government will become a vast “turkey farm,” as federal employees call places where nonperformers are isolated in make-work jobs — since they cannot be fired — so they can do little harm.

The problem is common in Washington. The special interests like the employee unions grouse loudly, but average citizens are silent. If one day, the public let their representatives know they want their government, especially its critical functions, to work effectively perhaps legislators would grow the necessary backbone. Meanwhile, congratulations to the Bush administration and the governors pushing ahead on these thankless but essential reforms.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a government professor and editor of ConservativeBattleline.com, the on-line publication of the American Conservative Union Foundation.

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