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


Time to break out the brass knuckles on public executives

A rash of preventable deaths has put the Department of Veteran Affairs under intense scrutiny. The tragedy highlights the need to do better by veterans by revamping outdated federal personnel policies.

The VA has an annual budget of about $154 billion and more than 340,000 employees, including roughly 360 senior executives. It serves some 8.3 million veterans enrolled in the largest integrated health care system in North America, with 1,700 hospitals, nearly 1,400 community-based outpatient clinics, community living centers, nursing homes, and other facilities. In recent years, the VA has seen its customer base grow at an unprecedented pace, with a new wave of injured and disabled veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA is engulfed by a growing controversy over allegations that perhaps more than 40 veterans allegedly died while awaiting medical care in a Phoenix, AZ facility arid that government employees falsified data and created secret waiting lists to hide the long delays. Equally serious is the charge that the VA was aware of the delays but did little to address the problem.

Government agency heads operate under handicaps largely unknown in the private sector. For example, onerous rules governing procurement, budgeting and personnel that were originally adopted to prevent public sector wrongdoing have created workplaces that are often inflexible.

Recent scandals have further undermined Americans’ confidence in government. When these institutions fail, the breach of trust is devastating, especially when government staggers from one disaster and mistake to another.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, it overwhelmed the levees protecting the city and left nearly 1,000 people dead.. Eighty percent of the city flooded, whole neighborhoods were devastated, producing a repair bill at least 1,000 times larger than it would have cost to provide the kind of levees that would have prevented such a disaster.

The 911 Commission found that a year before the terrorist attacks, poor communications, poor coordination, and competition between multiple agencies contributed to the government’s inability to anticipate and respond to attacks.

More recently, Americans witnessed the botched rollout of healthcare.gov and the Benghazi attack in which four Americans died in an assault on the American consulate, which took place on the anniversary of 9/11 despite prior warnings.

Then there was the IRS targeting of conservative organizations. These are stark examples of the price of government’s failure to perform as it should and then not being held accountable for its failures. Antiquated civil service rules mean there is little threat of anyone being fired. Many public servants perform heroically, but these ghastly events dramatize the need for better performance from government agencies that deal with life-and-death situations.

It’s no secret that many public-sector employees feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to their jobs. Why shouldn’t they? They have virtually guaranteed lifetime employment followed by generous pension benefits from agencies that almost never go out of existence.

There is little incentive to focus on the taxpayer as a customer and mediocrity becomes institutionalized, creating a culture of complacency. Transforming a civil service mind-set to focus on the customer is profoundly difficult.

Now the uproar over VA treatment delays is triggering heated debate in Congress about whether it is too difficult to fire senior federal executives. Current law allows those who report directly to presidential appointees to be disciplined and fired, but the process can drag on for years.

The House of Representatives has passed legislation giving the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to remove senior executives whose performance warrants firing. Given the recent history of government mismanagement, it is time to break out the brass knuckles.

The average American does not have guaranteed lifetime employment and has witnessed massive private-sector layoffs, pay cuts and benefit reductions.

Meanwhile, all the usual suspects made the obligatory Memorial Day visits to Arlington National Cemetery. They expressed outrage at the treatment of veterans and pontificated about honoring the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms.

originally published: May 30, 2014