The Washington Post reports today that the Bush Administration has revealed its plan to restructure the civil service within Homeland Security, and has made suggestions that it wants to extend the same blueprint throughout the civilian federal workforce. Recall that a large objection raised by Democrats over the DHS bill was that it stripped civil service protections from the workforce of the new department. Now we se what shape that will take.
Those of you who are federal employees or just care about the ins and outs of pay grades can read about the details in the Post story and in this story at Government Executive (I know, you subscribe already). For the rest of us who simply care about good government, let me cut to the chase. The central change is that employee pay and promotion will be based in part on evaluations made by superiors, who will have much wider latitude than under current rules.
Hey, that doesn't sound so bad! Isn't that what everyone in the private sector has, and shouldn't government be made more efficient like firms have to be? Leaving aside the broader questions about the role of government, a serious danger with this scheme is that it opens the door to political manipulation of bureaucratic performance. While it's still a far cry from the bad old days of patronage which got President McKinley killed, it does mean that we move from a model of neutral competence -- the very basis of bureaucratic decision making, in the good sense -- into one beset by partisanship and favortism. Just take a look at the pressure put on SSA employees these days as the debate over privatization gears up and you can see what might become commonplace under the new rules (read TPM here and here).
There is one narrow way the policy is good and that is to provide uniformity across government. Another objection raised about the DHS bill was over defining a special set of rules just for those employees. Government Executive reported in early December that the GAO and the National Academy of Public Administration said having uneven application of civil service rules across agencies undermines management and performance. One agency can raid another's employees by offering more attractive benefits, producing a "Balkanization" of the bureaucracy. So uniformity is good. But not if it's uniformity of bad rules.
Not surprisingly, the federal unions are unhappy with the changes, not least because they are also limited more stringently on when they can engage in collective bargaining, further tilting the balance of power in favor of managers. You can tell the proposal has real problems when even the Joementum isn't behind it (Post again):
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of the law's key sponsors, said yesterday that the new system is an improvement over earlier drafts but still "will undermine key employee protections that prevent workplace abuses and improve employee performance." He also called the limits on collective bargaining "excessive."
Yes, this is the kind of issue that makes one's eyes glaze over, but it also defines the balance of power in the bureaucracy and is therefore an issue we ought to care about. Especially since it concerns far more than just DHS. Rewards for merit and performance are good, and there are certainly reasons to rethink the old, calcified pay grades, but the Bush scheme does not seem the proper way to go about it and might introduce real danger and political trouble into our civil service.