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If only we could trick Al Qaeda into unionizing

Phillip Howard explains why the civil service system is incompatible with homeland security.

For personnel decisions, the civil service rules operate as a kind of legal air bag, allowing a disgruntled worker to force the supervisor to prove the wisdom of an adverse decision, even a negative comment on an evaluation form. The process of dismissing a worker who is incompetent or worse can take years. (The minimum generally is 18 months.) Getting rid of someone who has bad judgment is basically impossible: How would a supervisor prove bad judgment? Last year, according to the Office of Personnel Management, out of an estimated 64,000 federal employees who were designated "poor performers," only 434 were dismissed through these legal hearings: That's seven out of 1,000.

Assigning the best person to a new job is impossible unless you're prepared to prove in a hearing that more-senior personnel aren't up to the task. After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Customs Service immediately reassigned its best inspectors to better secure our northern border. The union filed a legal proceeding claiming that the reassignments required a nationwide survey of interested civil servants, from which choices should be made on the basis of seniority.

No decision, no matter how important or how trivial, is immune from a legal proceeding alleging that it violates the rights of federal workers. In August, following a directive outlining standard protective measures under each of the homeland security threat levels, the union filed a proceeding to overturn it because it was issued "without first notifying and affording [the union] the opportunity to negotiate." Several years ago a decision that U.S. Border Patrol officers should carry a side-handled club was rejected as not being within their job description.

Imagine being a supervisor in this environment. Do you go through the day thinking about how to stop terrorists, or are you preoccupied with how to negotiate the legal minefield of civil service?

The theory behind the civil service system was to eliminate the spoils system, where people got federal jobs based on political patronage. But that's a red herring; there's no need to eliminate the system for hiring purposes; we can still have (so-called) merit based hiring without having union-controlled day-to-day operations. President Bush may have been impolitic when he accused the Senate of caring more about special interests than about national security, but that doesn't make him wrong. Merely shuffling organizational flowcharts, as Senate Democrats propose, is not going to be sufficient to make a Homeland Security Department effective. The factor most missing from government -- accountability -- is needed.


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 15, 2002 6:05 AM.

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