Running Against Government: Here We Go Again

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush pronounced recently that "Mount Washington," as he calls the federal government in the nation's capital, is arrogant and bloated. In a set of prescriptions to set him apart from other candidates and strengthen his "true conservative" bona fides, he announced that as president he would cut the federal workforce by ten percent, use merit pay to reward those who perform well, remove those who do not, press for a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto, bar those leaving Congress from lobbying for six years, and support docking the pay of members of Congress who do not show up for work.

With the exception of rewarding good performance, which has always been possible in the federal government, the focus of these reforms bears two negative messages. First, the federal workforce is too big and too easily coddled. Second, some members of Congress are unwilling to work hard and/or are too interested in their future career prospects.

Running against Washington is so common that it can hardly be considered distinctive in any candidate. Name one in the last forty years who hasn't invoked it. It makes for good campaign rhetoric, but it's the rare incoming CEO who can trash both his workforce and his Board of Directors and expect more than hostility when he arrives. Earlier this year, Bush spoke to the U.S. National Automobile Dealers Association. Asked what Republicans should offer voters, he said "Hope." "I mean, an optimistic message grounded in the greatness of our country..." Unfortunately, that message does not seem appropriate for those who work in Washington, DC.

Neither is it likely that such proposals will make much difference. The track record for these ideas is dismal. For its part, Congress, as the Framers intended, has a way of blunting encroachment by the executive, even when he is of the same political party. In the Executive Branch itself, a hiring freeze of the kind Bush proposes (one worker hired for every three that leave) has been done. It is a blunt instrument that ignores where deeper cuts could be made as well as where more workers are needed. It also ignores the fact that the federal workforce has not even been growing where he would cut it. Indeed, 94 percent of the growth in federal employment between 2004-2012 was in only three agencies, all of which he would find it politically and operationally hard to downsize: defense, veterans affairs, and homeland security. Further, the size of the federal workforce as a proportion of the U.S. population is already at its lowest point in more than 50 years. What has grown in past freezes - and would most likely continue to grow - is the contractor workforce. So at best we'd get the appearance of cutting the government without any real savings.

In regard to merit pay (pay for performance), it has been on the books for over 40 years, and the track record there is terrible. It has provided some help in weeding out the small segment of truly bad performers, yet it has turned off the much larger segment of good ones. The government's annual survey of federal workers bears this out. Large percentages think the system is unfair and fails to reward good performance. Only 38 percent of workers say that "awards in my work unit are based on how well employees perform their jobs," just 32 percent say that "difference in performance are recognized in a meaningful way," and the same percentage say that "promotions in my work unit are based on merit." To boot, the system consumes huge amounts of time for its administration, documentation, and defense, time that could be spent serving the public.

What then might a hopeful, optimistic message for reform of the federal government contain?

It would insist on hiring the best people, quickly. The reality is that the federal hiring system is too complex, too slow, and turns off or away good people. It would give federal workers a clear mission, train them well, and manage then with both inspiration and competence. These are functions of leadership. Yet agency missions are often confused and contradictory, the result of political squabbling. Training is often too little and too late, including the selection and development of the leaders themselves. Rewards are often cut out to save money or to assure the public that it won't have to fork over tax dollars to recognize those it has been taught to hate. A message of hope would promise to de-regulate agency operations, including the elimination of superfluous management layers, overhead staff, and political appointees. The tooth-to-tail ratio in federal agencies - the overhead - needs to be cut back so that front-line workers can devote more of their time to serving taxpayers and less of it to serving the reporting requirements of agency offices and Congressional committees. And the next president needs a message of respect and trust for the workforce. How refreshing would this be: "You are admirable Americans who believe in the future of our country. You came into government to make a difference. You are hard-working. You want to do the best for America. It's time to unshackle you from the barriers that get in the way of doing your jobs and to reward you for doing them well. That's my pledge to you."

In short, the keys to good performance are not a mystery. Of course there will still be poor and unethical government workers, as there are in any private sector company. They need to be fired, quickly. But why treat the entire workforce as if they were that small minority? Any candidate who wants a message of hope for America should not send a message of fear to those that have to bring that hope alive in their daily work.