The difficulty of getting rid of underperforming employees in the US federal government
As we enter 2018 and the second year of the Trump administration, there are lofty goals to transform the federal government. The IT Modernization bill was just signed into law, and there is an openness to adopt innovative technologies such as data analytics, Artificial Intelligence, and Block Chain into government operations. The mission is to improve customer service, reduce costs, increase accountability, and eliminate waste. Reforming and modernizing the federal government is essential – it is the right thing to do. One key point, however, must not be overlooked: people are an organization’s most important asset, and without reform of the hiring/firing process in the federal government, fully implementing government reforms and modernization will be difficult.
The Merit System was created to hire and promote federal government employees based on their ability to perform a job, rather than on their political connections. Unfortunately, this system, which began with a noble purpose, has become a bureaucratic hindrance to achieving the goal of a federal government with a performance based work force. The federal government is made up of roughly 2.8 million employees nationwide, 4000 of them being appointed by President of the United States. These 4000 positions are known as “political” appointees and can be terminated at any time. The remainder are known as “career” civil service employees who, after completion of a one-year probation period, are for all intents and purposes guaranteed a position for life, regardless of performance levels. It is widely understood and accepted by those in federal government circles that it is far easier simply to transfer a federal employee with performance or conduct issues to another department rather than go through the arduous process of dismissal. On average, 4000 civil service employees are fired each year. This represents only 0.14% percent of all government employees. And, seventy percent of these 4000 employees are fired during their one-year probationary period. (Source: Washington Business Journal.)
Established in 1978, the Federal Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) protects the rights of federal civil service employees and is designed to be independent of partisan politics. According to its website, the mission of the MSPB is to "Protect the Merit System Principles and promote an effective federal workforce free of Prohibited Personnel Practices”. The MSPB provides federal employees with an opportunity to appeal “adverse and unfair” personnel decisions. The problem today is that the board’s definition of “adverse and unfair” has expanded to include almost all federal employee disciplinary actions, no matter how egregious level of the offense. The appeals process can drag on for up to two years. During the whole dismissal process, employees may make a request for reasonable accommodation, file a grievance, or file an equal employment opportunity complaint that adds even more time to the process. After all these procedures, most employees do not lose their jobs, and, those who do, are often reinstated.
Incompetence is found in all industries but seldom tolerated. In the federal government, not only is incompetence tolerated but, in more extreme examples, there are documented cases of federal employees who have been caught stealing, using illegal drugs in the work place, and watching pornography during work time, who ultimately were able to keep their jobs. The misuse of the MSPB appeals process leads to a workforce without the motivation to improve, a lack of trust between executives and staff, diminished productivity, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
One way to solve this problem is for the Trump Administration to look at the MSPB itself. The board should commit itself to hearing employee performance and conduct appeals cases that fit the strict definition of being “adverse and unfair”. All other cases should be handled by the corresponding government agencies. This will allow supervisors to appropriately discipline federal employees who clearly break workplace rules and regulations. This would help the MSPB to return to its original mission of protecting employees from unfair and adverse partisan abuse while allowing for the discipline of those employees who are unproductive and display inappropriate or unlawful behavior.
Another potential solution to the hiring/firing dilemma in the federal government is to expand the Veteran’s Administration model to other federal agencies. The Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 is designed to speed up the process to discipline a VA employee for misconduct and put more decision-making power in the hands of Secretary of Veterans Affairs, could be expanded to other agencies. The act is in response to the 2014 VA scandals involving long wait times for medical care and attempts by VA employees to cover up the delays. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support June 13, 2017 and the Senate on June 6th. VA Secretary David Shulkin stated the law would not be used as a “tool for mass firings.” Rather, it will provide a way to raise morale throughout the department and attract new employees.
Improving the hiring/firing policies in the federal government would not only provide executives with the freedom and flexibility to rid themselves of employees who are non-producing and breaking rules of conduct, but also allow room for new productive federal government staff with fresh insights and ideas. This would lead to an immediate improvement in overall government productivity as employees realize that their government position is based on performance. Removing nonproductive federal employees will also make room for public/private partnerships, allowing the government better access to cutting edge private sector solutions and cost sharing.
Obviously, there are many extremely competent and talented civil service employees in the federal government. They are the nucleus for the government’s sustainable success. The changes suggested here are in the best interest of all hardworking government employees. Once implemented, these changes will allow the MSPB to fulfill its charter vision of ensuring that the federal government maintains “A highly qualified, diverse federal workforce that is fairly and effectively managed, providing excellent service to the American people. “
Jerry Pierce, Jr. is the CEO of The Interamerica Group, with offices in Washington, D.C. and Sao Paulo, Brazil. For more information on this topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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