07.28.2014 1

Inside the uncivil service

don_toddBy Don Todd

Americans are rightfully coming to the conclusion that their federal government is incompetent, wrongheaded and unproductive.   The total collapse of numerous federal agencies and programs has led them to this inescapable conclusion.  From the Obamacare roll out, to revelations about the Veterans Administration hospital system, to the exposure of massive corruption at the Internal Revenue Service (a.k.a. the Internal Revenge Service) and now the end of sovereignty at the southern border, the public has been bombarded on a daily basis with examples of dysfunction.

One of the reasons often given for this dysfunction is the personnel policies of the federal government, the Civil Service System.  I have experience with this system and I can assure you that it is not the only reason, but a major reason, why your government does not work.

Thirteen years ago I had the honor and privilege to be appointed by President Bush and Secretary Chao to be the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Labor-Management Programs in the Office of Labor–Management Standards (OLMS) at the U.S. Department of Labor.  OLMS is the federal agency responsible for administering and enforcing most provisions of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA).  This Act provides that union dues paid by the members of unions are to be spent only for the benefit of these members and they have a right to know how the money is being spent.

Consequently the larger unions are required to publicly disclose on an annual basis their income and expenditures to OLMS.

On my first day, the Deputy Director, a career employee, took me on a tour the office’s divisions and introduced me to the staff.  On one stop, the Division Chief explained to me that division’s busiest time of year was January through March.  He added, “Naturally a third of my staff stops showing up during that period.”

I was somewhat taken aback by that statement asked, “Why do you allow that to go on?”

He replied, “Nothing I can do about it.  It takes two years to fire anybody around here.”

Me, “How long have you been here?”

Him, “Ten years.”

Me, “Well if you had started 2 years ago you would be done by now.”

That was the beginning my adventure with the civil service system.  I was determined to remove these employees who only showed up when they felt like it, which meant they were absent without leave about a third of the time.  I had no idea what I was getting into.

The first step was the annual performance review.  The Chief of the Division forwarded to me his appraisal their performance.  There were several levels of appraisals ranging from “unsatisfactory” to “exceeds” performance standards. In order to get a performance bonus or a step increase the employee must get either an “exceeds” or “meets” rating with the “exceeds” getting a larger percentage of the bonus pool.  Why a person should get a bonus for just doing their job is beyond me, but I digress.

I don’t remember whether he rated them “meets” or “needs improvement” but I was having none of it.  I informed him that I would settle for nothing less than “unsatisfactory.”   He informed me that I was asking for trouble.

Within hours of the appraisal reaching the desk of the head of Human Resource for the division she was on the phone to me.  She informed me that she had been with the Department of Labor for well over 20 years and she had never before seen an unsatisfactory rating of an employee and that such an evaluation would not be allowed to stand because there was no way I could have followed proper procedure.  I made an appointment to see her the next day.

What followed was one the more bizarre experiences of my life.  The lady had a rather large office lit by what appeared to be about a 60 watt bulb in a table lamp on her desk.  The effect was that the only thing illuminated in the office was her face.  She asked me if the employees had been counseled over whatever they were doing wrong.  I assure her that the employees had been told many times that they were required to show up for work.  Did we have a written record of these counseling sessions signed by the employee?  No.

Well then there was no way that they could be given an unsatisfactory performance review.  How could these folks possibly know they were doing anything wrong?  Another problem was they had not been placed on a PIP.

A PIP is a Personal Improvement Program.  It required that a supervisor literally sit at the desk of the employee for a set period of time and tell them what to do.  Like when the phone rings they need to be informed that part of their job is to answer it.  Otherwise, how would they know?

I had brought their immediate supervisor to the meeting with me.  Not wanting to deprecate a civil service employee to another civil service employee I asked after we left our audience with the Oracle of human resources if she didn’t think the lady was just a bit eccentric.  She replied, “No she is not eccentric, she is off her rocker!”

By the time I got back to my office the Oracle who was supposed to be guiding me through the process had called both employees and told them I was out to get them.  When I confronted her about this she said she was just informing them of their rights which she had a right to do.

Then the union stepped in.

The OLMS office had not been updated in over 15 years.  The union informed me that if I wanted to remodel the office each change would have to be negotiated with the union.  She further informed me that if I wanted the negotiations to go well I would stop any further action against the employees who continued not to show up for work.  There is a reason such employees are referred to as, “children of the union.”

To cut an already too long story short, (if you think this is a long read you should have lived it) the employees were never fired.  After approximately a year of going through the process which took up a large part of my time as a well-paid Senior Executive Service ($160,000+) employee and also to up may hours of two G.S. 15’s (also well over $100,000) the employees decided to resign.

They were about to be fired when the union told them it was going to happen and they should quit rather than be fired because if they were fired from the federal government they would never get another job since no one would believe anyone could be bad enough to get fired from the federal government.

One note in closing, the vast majority of the people I worked with at OLMS were very dedicated hard working people who believe in the mission of the agency.  The slackers were the exception not the rule but they were certainly not a rare occurrence in the civil service.  And, that is a reason why your government is dysfunctional.

Don Todd is Director of Research at Americans for Limited Government and previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor-Management Programs. 

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