- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009


The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2010 Defense Department authorization bill is set effectively to kill the National Security Personnel System. This Rumsfeld-era reform was intended to bring market discipline to the federal government’s most sprawling department, but in practice it turned into another bureaucratic muddle. The current draft of the authorization bill moves some 205,000 Defense Department employees covered by NSPS back to the familiar General Schedule over the course of a year. Few will mourn the transition.

NSPS sought to link pay to performance, a basic market principle that fomented bitter opposition by labor unions. It was supposed to create an efficient, high-achieving work force and make government employment competitive with the private sector. But the system in practice was balky and unworkable. Measuring performance required writing lengthy annual employee evaluations for even the most elementary job positions and establishing objective metrics for job performance better measured by the subjective judgment of managers. Awarding incentive pay required senior leaders to spend around a month out of every year sitting on pay-pool panels evaluating the performance of hundreds of employees they never met or supervised, who were often in noncomparable jobs. This took the senior leaders away from their critical tasks (the nation is at war, remember?) to dicker over which of these anonymous people might deserve a fraction of a percent more incentive pay than a co-worker. Ironically the GS incentive system turned out to be more fair and flexible.

The benighted NSPS focused too much on incentives and not enough on penalties. The fundamental problem in managing government workers is not determining which high performers get bonuses but having to tolerate marginal (or worse) personnel who are allowed to collect paychecks while contributing little. A system in which these people can more easily be fired would be a great boon to government managers, since it would allow them to cut out the deadwood and boost the morale of those who have been forced to strain to make up for the slack work of others. The threat of firing would motivate the underperformers to improve, just as it often does in the private sector. Carrots are wonderful but sticks tend to focus the mind.

To some, this sounds like the spoils system of the 19th century. True, that system did not put the best people in government, but neither does the current system. Yet under the spoils system people could be fired, which has a clarifying virtue. As for those who think nepotism, favoritism and political connections were driven out of government by civil service reforms, open your eyes. Freedom to fire would liberate government managers to fix the mistakes they inherit.

Let’s wander into political theory for a moment. Officeholders come and go but bureaucrats seem eternal. In a democratic republic like ours, the legitimacy of the public acts derives from the fact that the decider is elected. When the decision-maker is not elected, he is appointed by an elected official, giving a kind of indirect legitimacy.

But what about those who are neither elected nor appointed, who are increasingly immune, through civil protections, from accountability to elected officials? What makes those civil servants legitimate? As strange as it might seem, making bureaucrats more accountable would also make their actions more legitimate.

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