Among the many sensible proposals President Donald Trump called for during his first State of the Union address, one certainly deserves more attention that it has received.
Tuesday, before a joint session of Congress, Trump said:
All Americans deserve accountability and respect—and that is what we are giving them. So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.
These changes are long overdue. Federal employees are notoriously difficult to remove, suspend, or even demote.
A manager who wants to fire an employee has to follow a time-consuming and extensive process of documenting misdeeds, counseling the employee they wish to fire, and giving him or her ample opportunity to improve just enough to stave off a pink slip.
Federal employees that are fired often do not stay fired. They can appeal any such disciplinary action via four separate sets of procedures. In many cases, if an employee does not win their appeal in one venue, they can simply try their hand another venue.
This grinding, litigious process of reviews, hearings, and appeals can take years.
While it is somewhat easier to remove employees for flagrant misconduct than run-of-the-mill laziness, the process still moves at an embarrassingly slow pace.
For instance, in 2014, a federal employee discovered to have 7,000 pornographic files on his work computer and who often spent two to six hours a day watching porn at work, was placed on paid administrative leave for one year before the lengthy termination process even began.
Unsurprisingly, given the procedural hurdles, very few federal employees ever lose their jobs. In fact, a private sector worker is 200 percent more likely to be fired than a federal employee, according to a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
While the process of removing a federal employee must eventually be razed and reconstructed, the president’s modest proposal is a good place to start. When news of an employee’s misconduct or poor performance reaches all the way up to a Cabinet-level secretary, the removal of that employee should be greatly expedited.
One department secretary has already been given the fast-track removal authority that the president is advocating.
In response to the revelations of widespread mismanagement, fraud, and negligence at the Veterans Health Administration, Congress passed—and Trump signed—the Veterans Affairs Accountability Act, which, among other things, gave the department’s secretary the ability to expedite removal of employees for performance or misconduct.
As the president pointed out during the State of the Union, the new statute is already having a big impact. Roughly 1,700 VA employees have already been fired since the bill’s passage last June.
There is already a bill on the floor that would give all department secretaries the same capacity to quickly remove bad employees that the secretary of Veterans Affairs currently has. The MERIT Act, introduced by Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., back in January of 2017, should be brought out of mothballs and onto the floor for an up-or-down vote.
But throwing out bad apples is not enough. Rewarding good work is at least as important, if not more so. Unfortunately, the federal government does very little to identify and pay for outstanding performance.
Unlike most private sector employees, federal workers receive scheduled pay increases regardless of how well they are doing at their job. Even performance-based bonuses reserved for “fully successful” employees too often become automatic and unearned, since 99 percent of federal employees are rated “fully successful” or better by their managers.
When the federal government has moved away from seniority-based compensation toward merit pay, it has worked. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense had, at one time, effective merit pay systems.
But despite the Office of Personnel Management’s conclusion that these programs “drive improvements in managing performance, recruiting and retaining quality employees, and achieving results-oriented performance cultures,” public sector union opposition caused both departments to abandon pay-for-performance.
Congress should reintroduce merit pay systems of the sort once used Homeland Security and the Department of Defense and stop automatic pay increases for time served. At the same time, managers must be incentivized to make distinctions between employees rather than giving everyone high marks.
By rating all of their workers “fully successful,” managers make it very difficult to identify—far less, reward—truly outstanding work.
While these overarching goals may take some time to implement, agency secretaries should be given more authority to identify and reward outstanding employees now.
Today, the head of an agency can reward an exceptional employee with a one-time payment of up to 20 percent of their base pay. However, when the total award to an outstanding employee totals more than $10,000, an agency is required to submit their recommendation to the Office of Personnel Management for review.
That award size may sound substantial, but it comes in the form of a one-time payment. It does not amount to a permanent raise. That should change. A Cabinet-level secretary should, as a bare minimum, be able to determine how best to reward outstanding performers within their agency.
The president’s proposal to give Cabinet secretaries this discretion will not only make government more efficient, it will also reinforce a basic principle of democracy.
Duly elected representatives and their appointees within the bureaucracy should be firmly in control of the direction of government. Unelected bureaucrats must be subordinated to politicians and political appointees, since the public has no way to hold them directly accountable.
Reasserting control over career bureaucrats has never been more pressing. Near immunity from the consequences of their own misconduct and insulation from political leadership has, apparently, fostered a spirit of defiance in some corners of the administrative state.
The endless leaks and deep-state cabals over the past year are evidence that some among the bureaucracy believe it is their job to discipline and remove elected officials, rather than the other way around. This Congress and administration can now set things right.