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true blue nightmare
The Civil Service Blues

If a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton is any indication, the federal civil service will be ground zero of a looming blue disaster. The report’s findings are troubling, to say the least: the federal government does not know how to train, employ or pay its employees. It doesn’t know how to promote or fire them. It isn’t shifting them into retirement properly or hiring qualified new ones at all. It is recruiting people for clerical jobs that don’t exist before outsourcing work that actually needs to be done to contractors. The Alpha and Omega of the blue model faith—the federal government and the civil servant—are caught in a self-made cycle of failure and decay that threatens to bring the blue model to its knees.

Politico quotes from the report:

“Unable to compete for and retain some of the high-end skills and lacking the capacity to handle many critical day-to-day tasks, the government often has to look to outside contractors for the intellectual capital and know-how that is needed,” the report said. “There also is an absence of clarity and consequence regarding individual and organizational performance. Top performers seldom receive sufficient rewards, poor performers are rarely fired or demoted, and managers are not held accountable for how well they manage employees or the outcomes of the work they oversee.” […]

“Only 9 percent of the federal workforce is made up of people younger than 30 — compared to 23 percent of the total U.S. workforce,” the report says. “By 2017, nearly two-thirds of the Senior Executive Service, our nation’s career leadership corps, will be eligible for retirement, and about 31 percent of the government’s permanent career employees will be able to head out the door.”

Obamacare’s botched rollout was a good example of a blue tendency to fall in love with the vision of a program while neglecting its implementation. The people who want the federal government to take on more responsibility, not less, have not made it a priority to see that it’s capable of doing so.

The fact that the federal government cannot attract young people to join its ranks should also be disconcerting to blues. Millenials form a core base of President Obama’s support. According to the report, few among them have any interest in working to implement his programs, and the government wouldn’t know how to hire and keep them even if they would.

Reforming the civil service isn’t as sexy an undertaking as federal gun control or climate change legislation. But the people arguing for a larger and more active federal government have a responsibility to help make it a priority.

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  • John W Berresford

    I retired from the federal government two years ago; the Report is accurate. One example: I once asked a union rep “What does it take to get fired from here?” He thought for a moment and answered “Violence in the office.”

    • Corlyss

      We used to say the only way you could get fired from the civil service was to shoot your supervisor.

  • Boritz


  • Anthony

    Perhaps we ought to consider instead of true blue nightmare, why we need a new Pendelton Act. “Americans love to argue obsessively about the size of government, and in the process never come to grips with the question of the government’s quality…What we end up with is a screwed-up set of incentives for Federal workers that does not reward innovation, risk-taking, or high levels of qualification.” In particular, “what the contemporary Civil Service fails to do is attract smart, highly qualified young people out of elite universities….”(Francis Fukuyama)

    • qet

      I think the observations made by some of the ex-civil service people here explain why a new Pendleton Act is an impossible dream today. Any set of hiring and retention criteria worth the trouble must actually exclude some people. Those excluded people must not then be permitted to force their way in via litigation and quasi-litigation methods. Unfortunately, the evolution of all law, including employment-related law, over the last 40 years has been to progressively insulate incompetence and failure against any consequences, to substitute a fictional fault of someone else for any actual fault demonstrated by an individual. No amount of reform of any particular institution will ever succeed unless and until there is a comprehensive reform of tort law and procedure generally.

      • inthisdimension

        This is because Democrats do not believe, in the core of their being, in personal responsibility.

      • Anthony

        Read Francis Fukuyama essay on Pendelton Act. My use of Act in sentence was for rhetorical purposes and to provide quote as a reasoned perspective on issue (as considered by someone interested in American success). Unlike many here, I don’t think he has a partisan agenda to push nor an unconscious axe to grind.

        • Corlyss

          And how many organizational reforms has Fukuyama overseen?

          Personally I think we ought to stop lying to ourselves about merit-based civil service and revert to a patronage system, but only if all the cretins brought in in one administration can be guaranteed to leave when their guy leaves office. At least we would be assured that the perverse and the malicious would be purged at the end of an administration. But that’s a pipe dream as well, really. No advanced western nation has undone civil service merit-based “reform” even as we all know that politicians know how to work the system to frustrate the concept of merit-based to pay off their loyalists. That’s simply asking too much of human nature, i.e., to be passionate about policies and then turn the whole apparatus over to guys you know you can’t trust. Jimmy Carter’s were the last substantive reform and that system was effectively compromised by disguised patronage within 3 years.

          • Anthony

            Corlyss, as politics is the realm productive of public policy we seem to be stuck. Here we generally find inadequate officeholders chosen by largely inadequate…on the basis of largely irrelevant criteria. Your description does not leave much to disagree with. As to organizational reforms instituted by Francis Fukuyama, I have not inquired.

  • Andrew Allison

    As the husband of a highly talented and productive former Federal employee who quit in disgust at the perverse employee incentives, I can attest to the accuracy of, “There also is an absence of clarity and consequence regarding individual and organizational performance. Top performers seldom receive sufficient rewards, poor performers are rarely fired or demoted, and managers are not held accountable for how well they manage employees or the outcomes of the work they oversee.”
    I’m not, however, convinced that the government has to look to outside contractors for the intellectual capital and know-how that is needed. Contracting reduces agency headcount, usually at considerably higher cost than having the agencies do their jobs, and should be a last resort. Let me provide a typical example of what’s really going on: the department in which my wife worked was downsized, and positions approved for four managers and eleven specialists. All the specialists were re-deployed and their positions filled by the managers — who, of course will need contractors to do the specialist work of which they are incapable.

    • inthisdimension

      Early in my career, after several years at IBM as a Systems Engineer, I worked as an IT staffing person for a while. NO ONE wants to hire ANYONE who has EVER worked for ANY government agency – municipal, state or fed. You are guaranteed that these people are lazy & entitled, prioritize time on the clock over results, and are such a problem that no one in the private sector wants to deal with them. Yes, there are exceptions, and I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Andrew Allison, but in my time in staffing (before going back into tech), NO ONE wanted ex-govt employees or managers.

  • Corlyss

    “the government wouldn’t know how to hire and keep them even if they would.”
    The Feds are vehemently opposed to most policies that attract Millennials and Gen Xers, like collaborative management styles, relaxed dress codes, flexible work schedules.

    • inthisdimension

      The solution, of course, is to allow the Feds to define a project’s scope and timeline, accept a manageable – and firmly enforced – method to deal with change orders (that WILL impact the cost and schedule of ANY project), accept the lowest competitive bid, and to prohibit the Feds from employing anyone actually working on the project – outsource the entire thing to private companies not hampered by civil service laws, by any government-sector union, or the EEOC (Eventual Elimination Of Caucasians), thereby putting the PROJECT – which is an expense of TAXPAYER DOLLARS… FIRST.


      Taxes are a LOWERING of the standard of living I work for to provide my family. They are NOT a tool to be used to mismanage government idiocy.

      • Corlyss

        Of course. But . . .

        1) Except for the DoD, the intellectual capital in federal agencies to manage high-level projects is non-existent because such people can’t be bred within the Civil Service nor can they be hired for the pittance the Feds will pay them.

        2) The Fed workforce is a highly politicized animal. Not the employees per se, although naturally the unions are highly active, but the trench wars between the Executive Branch and the Congress, and between the Congress as a whole and individual Congressmen of greater or lesser power.

        Do you know the BRAC process? Well, any Fed agency that has employees in every Congressional district, say for example, DoD, IRS, PO, or HHS, is going to have a ton of legislators to work to preserve jobs. As long ago as 18 years I predicted that the only way to downsize IRS IF AND WHEN tax simplification ever became a reality, would be on the BRAC model. Otherwise, horse trading and log rolling will render any changes infinitesimal and the studies of which offices to downsize will cost more than any savings ultimately realized.

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