Howard's Daily: Attracting Good People to Government

02/24/2014 12:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

What one thing would you change to make government work better? I've gotten this question many times. Pressing the reset button is clearly needed, because the dysfunction of endless bureaucracy and bought-off democracy has led to structural paralysis.

No new vision can work, however, until there's been a complete overhaul of civil service. Over 22 million Americans work for federal, state, and local government. How well government works depends on how well they do their jobs. Today, most public employees wake up and go to work in suffocating bureaucracies. Teachers are demoralized by legal shackles that prevent them from maintaining order or, indeed, from teaching with the spontaneity needed to form a genuine bond with their students.

Three recent articles highlight the brokenness of public service. All are thoughtful, but in each case fail to come to grips with the depth of the challenge and the extraordinary opportunity of remaking the social contract with public employees.

  1. In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker succeeded in breaking the power of public unions over hiring, firing, and seniority entitlements. Steven Greenhouse's post-mortem in this weekend's New York Times acknowledges that the changes resulted in greater efficiency, and that most public workers had dropped out of unions once they were allowed to. But he also suggests that the efficiencies are on the backs of public workers (such as higher contributions to health care) and have resulted in widespread demoralization. I am a little skeptical, and would like to see an impartial survey from a respected research outfit like Public Agenda. I also have two immediate comments on the report:

    First, the unstated assumption of the report is that perhaps Wisconsin should return to the good old days of union power. But Wisconsin public unions, like public unions generally, were notoriously hidebound. It was impossible to terminate lousy teachers and other employees. It was almost impossible to manage them. The retirement rules were abusive, with some workers "retiring" in their 40s or 50s with pensions "spiked" by excess overtime in the last year of employment. Under seniority rules, a young teacher who was honored as one of the best first-year teachers in Wisconsin was forced to be laid off. Aaargh!!! There is a lot to talk about with public service, but the one place we don't want to go is back to the old days. 

    The NYT story also assumes that civil service policy ultimately turns on your view of labor vs. management. I reject that premise: What's important here is the public interest. The litmus test for Scott Walker's reforms is whether they helped the public. If they result in better, more efficient government, then those are markers of success. If they demoralize public workers, then the reforms are not sustainable, and will drive good people away from government.


  2. "Here's How To Reform Civil Service in America" is the headline of a Washington Post interview of Prof. Linda Bilmes, an expert on civil service at Harvard's JFK School. On tenure, she says, correctly, that bad employees are "a real morale drag for those who are working hard." But she blames this on inexpert managers: "Federal managers don't know how to deal with poor performers." Excuse me: the legal armor surrounding civil servants is nearly impregnable. (See The Collapse of the Common Good.) As one manager told me, "you have to dedicate years" to getting rid of a bad employee. Far more efficient to work around the bad apples. And yes, one bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel. That's one of the reasons working in government is so demoralizing. The solution is to strip away the legal armor, and replace it with non-legal checks on termination, such as an oversight committee that includes line employees. Everyone in an office knows who's doing the job and who's not.


  • Why aren't more good people going into government? Prof. Bilmes suggests that young people are impatient: "If we want to attract the cream of the crop of this generation, the government needs to step up its game technologically and change the way agencies work to permit pockets of what I call 'intrapreneurship,' where people can create new things and run with new ideas."

  • EJ Dionne, in a Washington Post column, suggests that recruitment is a marketing problem, mainly caused by right-wing disparagement of public service, and that Obama should "lift up government service as a noble calling. The people we deride as bureaucrats are those who do the daily work of self-government on our behalf. We should never forget that self-government is a thrilling idea."

    Actually, working for government would be, for most people, an awful experience. Who wants to work in a place where your ideas make no difference? The bureaucracy is exhausting. As Prof. Bilmes points out, it starts with the opaque, convoluted recruiting process. But that's only the introductory quicksand to what promises to be a lifetime of frustration. Former NYC Commissioner Sam Schwartz noted that the bureaucracy of modern government drives good people out: as he put it, "expulsion of the fittest."

    What amazes me is how many good civil servants stick it out, and deliver needed services despite work conditions that constantly trip them up. They deserve medals. But they're not proof of a working system, but of the extraordinary strength of human character. Imagine what good they could do if they were free to roll up their sleeves and take responsibility.

    Let's agree on this: Getting able people into government should be a core goal. They should be honored, and treated fairly, and paid reasonably. Public service should be a noble career.

    How do we achieve that? I believe America needs a new social contract for public employees. The first principle should be personal responsibility -- meaning both the authority to make a difference, and the accountability that goes with that. Avoiding abuse is important -- no spoils or arbitrary dismissals -- but those goals can be achieved without tiptoeing through a legal minefield. The starting point is to acknowledge that the current system needs to be abandoned: As a report from the Partnership for Public Service concluded: "Today's federal civil service system is obsolete."

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