Time to reform the civil service

The American people are rightly fed up with an accelerating cascade of government failures. Just as one recedes from the headlines, another pops up

Most recently, Americans learned that law enforcement, including the FBI, failed to act on several detailed, credible tips about Nikolas Cruz, who went on a killing spree on February 14, killing 17 and wounding another 14 at a Parkland, Fla., high school. This was a perfect example of see something, do something, but government workers did nothing.

Their behavior validates the public’s opinion that too many government workers are just plain incompetent, and sometimes decide to ignore the public– the very people they are supposed to protect – knowing full well they will never be held accountable.

Surely it will not be long before these agencies are asking for more money and an expanded role.

The Parkland, Florida school shooting is just the latest in a series of high-profile institutional failures. They began with the September 11 attacks, when 2,977 people lost their lives because America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies missed warning signs. Then came botched efforts to deal with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the inadequate financial regulation that contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown, the National Security Agency letting Edward Snowden walk away with its crown jewels, the IRS’ targeting of conservative political groups, Russian spies being allowed to meddle in U.S. elections in the midst of Cold War 2.0, and the beat goes on.

These notable public failures contribute to the unhealthy divide between citizens and their government. With evidence of failure all around, is it any wonder that the public has become disillusioned, angry, and frustrated with all levels of government?

The scandal-plagued Veterans Administration is a glaring example of how government hurts the very people it purports to help when agency employees, not the nation’s veterans, become its most important constituency.

The Veterans Health Administration, which is part of the VA, is charged with providing medical care to those who have served our country. In 2014 Americans learned VA hospitals were making military veterans wait far longer than the targeted 14-day period to receive services.

Some died while waiting for care, and some hospitals falsified records to make it look like they were meeting their targets. The Phoenix VA Hospital reported that the average waiting time for medical appointments was 24 days. According to the VA inspector general’s report, the actual time was 115 days.

Instead of being disciplined for mismanagement after the VA paid out over $200 million in wrongful death settlements over a decade, VA officials received generous bonuses.

In the most recent scandal, at the VA Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts, an employee allegedly steered several hundred thousand dollars in contracts for landscaping services and supplies to her brother’s landscaping business. The supplies never showed up and the work was never done. The employee was demoted one pay grade, but kept her job.

If the American public wants government to stop repeating stupid mistakes, it must recognize that civil servants act within a bureaucratic system that rewards the status quo. For decades, reforms have failed to fix a bureaucracy that is far too large to manage and adequately oversee.

Studies describe the sources of failure, including fragmentation of authority, misaligned political incentives, and the government’s size. What is often overlooked is that federal workers are almost never fired for poor performance or misconduct. They have strong civil service protections and firing processes are riddled with complex regulations and confusion over how to apply rules designed to preserve fairness and diversity.

It’s time to get real. Civil servants enjoy a level of job security that the ordinary private sector employee can’t begin to imagine. Nothing much will change until the civil service system is reformed and the notion of accountability accentuated.

To quote Plato: “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.”

Originally Published: Mar 10, 2018 at 12:16 PM