“Trump proposes biggest civil service change in 40 years”

This could be major: President Trump may be set to propose the biggest civil service changes in 40 years, with goals of flushing underperformers in the federal workforce and boosting pay-for-performance. “Trump is using the VA Accountability Act, which gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs greater authority to fire and discipline workers, as a model. The White House says that law has resulted in the dismissal of 1,470 employees, the suspension of 443, demotions for 83 others last year.” The head of the American Federation of Government Employees charged that Trump was “interested in political revenge by firing people” and that his proposal “wipes out due process rights for employees.” Currently 99.7% of federal employees get the satisfactory rating (“fully successful”) needed to qualify for stepwise pay increases as well as cost-of-living. [Gregory Korte, USA Today] My City Journal take on the perennial challenge of civil service reform, back when, is here.


  • Why not have performance standards that are meaningful? The other taxpayers have this in their jobs and must perform to keep them……why not our government workers, many of whom have better benefits than their civilian counterparts,

  • Steven,
    Many of whom? Average federal salary and benefits per employee: $119,000. Average U S household income; including multiple earners, investments, and benefits: $78,000.
    It’s a great time to be in governance.

  • Is there anyone on the planet that believes that 99.7% of federal employees are doing well enough to earn a pay raise? Is there anyone that believes 99.7% are more than mediocre?

  • Two comments. The Federal workforce has changed quite a bit over the past few decades, from one where there were a good number of people who did actual hands-on work, to one where a large number are contract managers, issuing contracts to companies to pay for work to be done. Most of the Defense Department works like this, as well as many other agencies. These people typically get paid a bit more than the ones who do the actual work. There is a downside to this model, which is that the contract managers often do not understand the subject matter they manage, so the government often ends up paying more money for a bad job, and doesn’t know what happened. But that is another matter.

    Also, in government, it is often difficult to set meaningful standards for performance, because of the inherently political nature of the work, with interference from Congress, the courts, outside activists, lobbyists, corporations, and the general public. One good letter from a constituent can trigger a Congressional iinquiry that can easily derail a project. And the insane Congressional budgeting and accounting system makes it very difficult to do good planning.

    I think that the Federal workforce does need to be improved, and that it would be a good idea to make it easier to fire people, but the problems at the state and local levels are much, much worse, because the politicians (and their local supporters) are much closer to the workers. Rule of law is only a guideline for local government.

  • Another idea – do away with unions in government, at all levels. At least in the Federal govt, the unions do not get to bargain for pay and monetary benefits. But they do bargain for all sorts of perks, and grievance procedures, which is one of the reasons that it is hard to fire people.

    Trump needs the cooperation of the Congress to change the civil service, but I don’t think he will get it, absent a much bigger scandal than the VA.

    And remember the reason why we have a civil service, instead of a political spoils system – a President was assassinated by an office seeker who was not successful. And I don’t think that anyone in the business community would appreciate having the bureaucracy turn over completely every election cycle. You see how difficult it has been for Trump to fill vacancies at the top – imagine that he had to fill all of the rest of the individual workers.positions, as well.

  • A favorite proposal of Charles Peters (“Washington Monthly”) was a 50-50 split of the Federal workforce between non-political civil servants and explicit patronage hires. The patron of a political hire would be publicly identified: if he did a good job, it would reflect favorably on the patron; if a bad job, the patron would suffer public embarrassment.

    Peters suggested the civil servants and the political hires would keep each other up to the mark. With luck an agency would get a happy blend of the civil servants’ institutional loyalty and honesty with the political hire’s enthusiasm and energy.

    • There are already a LOT of political hires in the bureaucracy. FIrst of all, most senior agency managers are appointed by the President – there is a book called the “Plum Book” which lists all of them. It is plum-colored, but I think that it is named for the choice jobs that are available for the taking.

      Many of the people who have taken these political jobs transfer into the career civil service when their preferred administration loses power. It is called “burrowing in”. It is frowned on, but usually there is plenty of advance notice when an administration is going to change. I suspect that there was very little of it during the most recent transition, because no one thought that Hillary would lose.

      And then there are a lot of career civil servants who really believe in certain interpretation of the mission of their agencies. Think about the EPA, certain parts of DOJ, DOD, HUD, and Dept of Energy and Education. They may not be political types, but they are certainly true believers. In my agency, there were very few engineers who did not believe that we were doing the right thing, and very few activists against the nuclear industry.

  • defined benefit vice defined contribution retirement plan. That’s where most of the benefits package is. I was with EDS when HP bought them. Went from defined benefit with 17 years in to defined contribution, then two months later laid off with 23,000 others. i’m sure some of the folks I work with that have 30+ years in but don’t have the retirement age deserve that sort of change given that they are all IT workers and underpaid in comparison to private industry to begin with. But that’s the problem with statistics, average isn’t addressing specific cases where things are lower than industry vice higher than industry… Just saying.

  • New Federal workers have been covered by a (mostly) defined contribution pension plan since 1987. There should be very few current employees who are working under the old system. But a lot of retirees who are collecting the checks. Trump, on his own cannot take those benefits away from current retirees or change the terms. He can throttle automatic pay raises for current workers., as has every President since Reagan, I think.

  • Get comfortable.
    Performance standards: I cannot speak for other departments. I am a program manager at a major DOD installation (~14000 employees) with a $1B/year budget. I have 2 pages of performance standards that I formally answer to every 6 months. I have to prove that I am pulling my weight. That right there is excellent incentive to meet standards.

    My program is responsible for 106ish new hires per year. Those 100 are the top 10% of applicants; mostly they are people with a proven track record with a few young’uns thrown in. They have one year to prove their worth. So far this fiscal year we have hired 40 and 4 of them did not work out. We walked one of them out the gate this morning. In addition, 2 permanent hires were let go.

    There are 32 managers in my office. In the past 16 months (since Fiscal Year 17), 2 were demoted, 2 were put out to pasture (no more promotion, Peter Principle in action), 1 was fired, and 1 self-demoted. I would not be surprised if my position is combined with another when I leave. Currently, we are a hot spot of activity, but starting this fall, nearly half of us will be transferred to where the major work will be at that time.

    Pay: I get paid significantly more than the average American worker. I have a M.S. degree (and was All But Dissertation on the PhD before tragedy struck). I work on a $400M asset which requires skills that do not exist outside of the DOD and a security clearance that most of America could not pass; we could never privatize if we wanted to. With the skills I have, I can make $200k/year in the private sector, double of what I am paid now. With the process improvements I am responsible for, I typically find ways to save ~$300k/year. Is that typical? Yes, I would say it is. I am not a star performer. The workload forecast is for a lot more work in the future. We have to make improvements or we simply won’t accomplish our mission.

    Unions: I used to think that way when I was your age. My father was a teamster. My view of unions was a lot of corruption, nepotism being the least of it. The unions that work with the government are much, much smaller (our office has some-teen employees) and they work with the “company”, not against it. I have seen mistreatment of workers at the individual and the aggregate scales. Lawsuits are rare. The few I have seen appeared to be justified to me, and the court agreed.

    On the other side of the coin, I sat in a critique where the employee insisted on Union representation. He intentionally violated a procedure which endangered the safety of a young employee. The union did their job by making sure it did not become a witch hunt and they also took him aside and excoriated him. He did not meet performance standards that year.

    Trump’s campaign to weaken the tenure effect: I underestimated him once.

    Benefits: The benefits package gets worse every couple three years. The defined benefits that CRS workers used to get was the same that private workers got. That was back when folks would work for a company their entire life. Then companies backstabbed the workers, downsized them, eliminated defined benefits and replaced it with contribution plans. Now the turnover rate in the private sector is extremely high. Federal employment is an island of stability. (You might say stagnant, but my first hand experience says the opposite.) Rather than hate that, why don’t you ask why the corporations turned against their workers, the people who actually do the work that brings money into the coffers?

    To be clear, I could also write a many page dissertation on the problems I see here, most of which are a result of the “insane Congressional budgeting and accounting system [which] makes it very difficult to do good planning.” I would amputate several limbs from the federal government if I were king.

    Completely unrelated: Here’s a hippy ‘s reformed perspective on nuclear power. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciStnd9Y2ak