You’re Fired! and Other Federal Management Fantasies

imageWith Agency Heads, members of Congress, pundits and others continuing to press the issue of making it easier to fire Federal workers (and thinking it will actually make a difference), I decided to rerun a post from last year. Nothing has changed and these proposals are not going to produce the kinds of benefits most people expect from them.

The recent news about the Department of Veterans Affairs has generated a lot of talk about performance – lack of it, failure to deal with problems, rating inflation, and so on. During a June 20th hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA revealed that none of its Senior Executives had gotten a rating below fully successful in the past 4 years. While that may seem shocking, the VA is not that out of the ordinary. Sub-par ratings for SES members are not common and firing them is even less common. Firing anyone in a management job is rare. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a selection process that weeds out unqualified applicants long before they could be selected and a lack of will to deal with problem employees.

The raw numbers of removals for employees below the SES level are higher, but overall there are not large numbers of supervisors and managers who get less than fully successful ratings.

The overall number of permanent Federal employees who have been fired in recent years is not large. A recent article in Federal Times cited numbers of 11,564 in FY 2009, 11,733 in FY 2010, 10,373 in FY 2011, 9,980 in FY 2012 and 9,513 in FY 2013. That ranges from a high of 0.57% of Federal employees fired in 2009 to a low of 0.46% in FY 2013. Those numbers may actually be a bit higher than true number of people fired for poor performance or misconduct, because they include people who were terminated because their appointments expired and for other reasons.

The Federal Times article points out the higher numbers of people fired from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA is exempt from most Federal employment laws as a result of authority it has in Section 111(d) of the aviation and Transportation Security Act) and the higher numbers of people at lower grades (particularly GS-5) who are fired. The high number of GS-5s is not surprising. More people enter Federal service at the GS-5 level than any other grade and, as new employees, they are much more likely to be let go. GS-5s also represent the largest number of resignations of any grade.

Federal Employee Terminations and Removals FY2009 – FY 2013

The raw number of SES terminations and removals is very low:

Senior Executive Service Removals and Terminations FY 2009 – FY 2013

Federal Times noted that lower graded employees are fired at a much higher rate than higher grades. What is not often mentioned is that SES members are fired at the same or higher rate than GS-14s and GS-15s. In fact, the FY 2012 SES firing rate was almost twice that of GS-15s and one-third more than the rate of GS-14s. In 2012, 7 of 7,815 SES (.09%) were fired for performance or misconduct, while 28 of 59,216 GS-15s (.05%) and 86 of 119,507 GS-14s (.07%) were fired.

Firing rates for higher grades are most likely lower because those employees have been screened repeatedly as they have moved up through the grades. Another factor may be the familiarity that more senior people have with one another. Firing anyone is hard, but it is easier to fire someone you don’t know as well. Firing the people you work most closely with every day is much harder.

All these numbers about firing lead to the question – why aren’t more people being fired if we want to make government better? A June 24 Government Executive article on a a House/Senate conference committee was headlined “VA Conferees Agree on One Thing: Fire More Bureaucrats.” Wouldn’t it be better if we give managers the ability to fire people much more easily so they can clear out the deadwood? Wouldn’t that lead to a general housecleaning that would make government far more effective? Shouldn’t government fire people at a rate similar to the private sector?

In a word, no.

The simple idea that it should be easier to fire people sounds good in theory. If we let good managers make good management decisions about letting poor performers go they will get rid of the poor performers. Like many simple ideas, that one is too simple. The real world is a bit more complex. Here are just a few of those complexities:

  • The simple view assumes managers will manage. This post started with the story about every SES member in the Department of Veterans Affairs getting a fully satisfactory or better rating. The numbers are not a lot better in other agencies. Most managers who talk about how hard it is to fire people have never tried to fire anyone. Keep in mind that MSPB’s 2005 report, The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity, MSPB reports that 1.6% of competitive service employees are removed from their jobs during their probationary period. Those are employees who can be fired easily and have little avenue of appeal. Firing them doesn’t require a lot of documentation or time. Firing probationary employees is as simple as it gets, yet only 1.6% of them are fired every year. Why should we believe a quick and easy process for firing everyone else would have different results?
  • The simple view assumes Federal employees who cannot perform are the reason for many of government’s problems. In that scenario, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of employees who contribute nothing and wiping out large numbers of them will make government better. That view doesn’t assign the blame for government’s biggest problems to the people and cultures that are actually responsible for them. Federal employees do not cause duplication of services across agencies. They don’t cause money to be appropriated for wasteful projects. They do not cause most of the problems of the federal government. For the most part, the ability of anyone other than the most senior employees to dramatically change anything is next to non-existent. By shifting the focus to them, we lose focus on the bigger systemic problems our government faces and guarantee we will never deal with the underlying causes. Are there poor performers in government? Yes. Is the number massive? No. Will rolling a few heads distract attention from the bigger problems? Absolutely.
  • The simple view also assumes those managers who do have the backbone to deal with poor performers will deal only with poor performers and not the people they do not like for personal or political reasons. The federal civil service was designed to protect government workers and the American people from a government spoils system and the toxic results it produced in the past. The great champion of the civil service, President Theodore Roosevelt, said “The spoils-monger and spoils-seeker invariably breed the bribe-taker and bribes-giver, the embezzler of public funds and the corrupter of voters.” President Roosevelt was right. “Reforms” that would lead us back to a spoils system would do far more damage to the interests of the American people than any harm that can be done by a ten or twenty or thirty thousand people who do not perform.
  • The simple view assumes performance is an individual accomplishment. I have worked 33 years in government and 6 years in the private sector. During all of that time I have seen very few accomplishments that are the result of just one person’s actions. Virtually all good results come from teams of people working together.  Most bad results are failures of a team or an organization. They fail to deal with systemic problems. They fail to provide training for their employees. They fail to provide the technology that would enable success. They fail to create a culture that gets good results. Yet, when they have a failure, they always seem to default to finding someone to blame so they do not have to accept the fact that they might be part of the problem too.

We seem to have reached a point where the solution to a problem is to hunt down the offending party and say “You’re fired!” Maybe it makes us feel better to think we made someone pay for their failure. While we would be better off if we dealt effectively with poor performance, the truth is that government is so complex, cultural norms in agencies are so powerful, and our political process is so broken, that there is rarely a single person or even a small group of people who are truly responsible. If we want to make government better, we need to deal with cultural issues that drive the kind of problems we have seen at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We need to deal with the political dysfunction that can make Congressional oversight more of a sideshow than the powerful tool it was designed to be. We need to deal with the lack of training for Federal managers that would help equip them to deal with problem employees and problem organizations. We need to deal with the unresolved questions of the scope and reach of government. None of those are easy. None are likely to be completed within a daily news cycle, and none of them give someone the satisfaction of finding someone to blame and firing that person. But – if we want to make our government better, they are what we have to do.


Federal Employee News: Lies, Damned Lies and Headlines

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

This old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli, points out the fact that statistics can be used to obscure truth rather than reveal it. I am working on posts on pay and performance management, so I have been reading a lot of articles in various publications regarding federal employees. After reading until I could not take it any more, I think it is time to amend the Twain’s quote to include headlines.

We know that federal employees have become more and more of a political issue. After a 4-year pay freeze, federal employees finally got a 1% pay raise in January. The controversy around pay extends to bonuses, taxes and even the number of employees. I spent some time reading articles published from 2010 to today, and found some alarming headlines. Here are just a few:

“Federal workers raking in millions in bonuses, new database shows”

“A new in-depth database of federal worker salaries shows the government paid out a whopping $105 billion in salaries last year for most of its civilian workforce — to boot, the workers got $439 million in bonuses.”

Who got $332 million in federal bonuses?

“SES members unscathed by bonus freeze”

Federal Employees Owed $3.5 Billion In Back Taxes In 2011: IRS

Number of Tax-Delinquent Government Workers Up 11.5%

Obama Aides, Fed Employees Owe Millions In Back Taxes

Largest-ever federal payroll to hit 2.15 million

Wow. It must be great to be a rich federal employee who is raking in millions in bonuses and not paying taxes. Unless that isn’t the truth and the headline is designed to inflame rather than inform the reader. If that is the case, then headlines such as these are shameless attempts to get clicks on a web site. Headline writing is a bit of an art form. You want to get the attention of potential readers, give them a taste of what is coming, and get them to read. That is hard to do in a few words. If the writer or publication have a strong point of view, headlines can serve as the primer to pump up emotion. Many of the headlines on the bonus issue are of that type.

Let’s take a look at some truth about Federal bonuses. The article that followed the 2013 “Who got $332 million in federal bonuses?” headline reported that 360,000 federal employees got $332 million dollars in bonuses. That is an average annual bonus of $922.22 or 44 cents per hour. I doubt many people would read an article that follows the headline “Federal Employees Get Average Hourly Bonus of 44 Cents.” The article with the headline about SES members being “unscathed by bonus freeze” included the fact that SES members had received $340M in bonuses in 4 years. That is a lot of money, but let’s put it in perspective. SES pay is intended to have an “at risk” component in the form of a bonus. It was part of the design of the system in an attempt to put more pay at risk based on individual and organizational performance. Bonuses were never intended to be a significant part of the compensation package for GS employees. As a result of these types of stories and a few agencies mismanaging some aspects of their bonus programs, there is increasing pressure in the Congress to restrict bonuses for federal employees. Some proposals focus on specific departments, such as the proposal to ban executive bonuses at Department of Veterans Affairs for 5 years, while others are targeted at the entire workforce. These recommendations are on top of restrictions the Administration has already put in place that eliminate bonuses for political appointees and  cap bonus pools at 1% of salaries for the general workforce and 5% of salaries for executives.

The tax issue is even worse. The headlines about taxes would lead one to believe federal employees are deadbeats who don’t pay their taxes. The truth is that their delinquency rate is 3.2%. The delinquency rate for the overall population is 8.2%. That fact is buried in some of the articles, but many casual readers will never notice it. The headline about Obama Aides doesn’t mention the general public delinquency rate at all. A headline that says “Federal Employee Tax Delinquency Less Than Half of General Population” doesn’t inflame anyone, so it is unlikely we will see one like that.

And then there are the fact-free headlines. The story about the “largest-ever federal payroll” is simply not accurate. OPM data clearly shows the number of federal employees since 1962 has varied greatly, but in 29 of the 48 years prior to that article, the federal payroll was higher than when it was written.

Maybe bonus programs should be revisited. Maybe federal employees should be even more attentive to their taxes. Maybe we have too many (or too few) federal employees. Whatever the case, flaming headlines that distort facts and incite anti-federal employee biases are definitely not part of any reasonable discussion of the issues.