We think of the president as Commander in Chief, a title that emphasizes his military role. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of the largest organization in America. In the former role, most presidents quite rightly praise the caliber and achievements of our men and women in uniform. The military esprit de corps -- and its effectiveness -- require a supportive Commander in Chief. But presidents have, especially in recent years -- and more especially as candidates for president -- have showered scant praise on the civilian federal workforce or its achievements. When they have done so, as is true of President Obama, it is usually in private appearances, in the hopes that their positive comments about federal workers will not be widely reported. The esprit de corps of the civil service -- and its effectiveness -- also require a visibly supportive CEO, but they don't often get one.
As a case in point, Mitt Romney recently let his potential federal workforce know that he thinks they are overpaid. Speaking at a steel fabrication plant on April 25th, he said that "The taxpayers shouldn't have to have money taken out of their pay checks to pay people in government who are our servants who are making a lot more money than we are."
Let's ignore whether federal workers actually earn more than candidate Romney. That part of his statement may have just been rhetorical flourish or an effort to sound, well, more like an average steel fabrication plant worker. Let's focus instead on what Romney's statement says about his role as CEO, a role he knows well as he reminds us.
Taken literally, we could assume that Romney thinks federal workers should make no more than the average American. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that figure for 2011 was $45,230. So let's assume that President Romney could get his way. That would reduce his salary, the salary of all his cabinet officials, 6,500 senior executives and much of the highly educated federal workforce to much less then they make now. Would that lead to better government? Would we be able to recruit highly talented people to protect our nation, its health, food, drugs, air and water quality, labor force, infrastructure and transportation systems by offering them $45,000 a year?
OK, let's not take him that literally. After all, campaign rhetoric has other purposes than serving as actual proposals. But if he is elected, he will lead a federal workforce that he has said is overpaid -- not worth what they earn. Any private sector executive who took the CEO's job after announcing that his entire workforce was not worth much and should be earning a lot less would not exactly create the conditions for high performance. We know a lot about how to get the best out of people -- their creativity, commitment, and energy. And none of the research says that demeaning your workforce makes that happen. Quite the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that engaged workers (those who feel appreciated and supported) are more productive, generate higher quality, and cost their firms less (due to sick days, accidents, etc).
Whether federal workers are overpaid relative to their private sector counterparts gets debated all the time, and we need take no side on that issue to realize that bashing the very people who we want to perform better is not likely to help them do so. Candidate Romney's Harvard MBA should have at least taught him that. If he aspires to be the public sector's chief CEO, he should put that education to work.