Wednesday, March 01, 2006

 

Federal Civil Service Future Bleak

Like canaries dying in mines, the recent resignations of federal inspectors general has gone largely unnoticed by all except a few. These warnings, like the lack of air, are silent.

March 3 will be the last day for Nikki Tinesly, widely respected IG for the EPA. In her resignation letter, she said "I fear the pay inequities that were created with the implementation of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2004 will make it increasingly difficult to convince career employees to accept IG appointments in the future." Behind the reserved language of a professional bureaucrat lies a story of potential disaster that needs to be told.

For over a hundrend years, the federal professional class has been prohibited from taking part in public partisan politics. The abuses of the spoils system resulted in the passage of laws designed to limit the influence of partisan politics on the day-to-day operation of the federal government.

Title 5 of the United States Code governs the traditional federal civil service. The 2004 Act referred to by IG Tinesly exempts over 70% of the federal workforce from Title 5.

In place of the staid, insulated civil service we now have a civil service that runs on "pay for performance." Who could oppose linking pay to performance? It sounds so reasonable. And many people have had the experience of frustration when dealing with the vast, complex federal bureaucracy.

Of course, the supervisor determines performance, and thus pay. And therein lies the rub.

If your job is to criticise the superior's performance, to audit the agency, then your pay is determined by the political appointee you are critiquing. So much for honest audits. The conflict of interest is intolerable, and auditors with intregity and ability will refuse to serve under such a system.

The wider implications remain to be seen. The potential for abuse is there. Certainly, smart young civil servants serving in a partisan environment will now have incentives to align themselves with the party of their appointed bosses; incentives that were banned over a hundred years ago, but are back.

But the same civil service that employs only Lake Wobegon executives may not be able to make real use of the new system. (You know - they are all above average. About 60% of all Senior Executive Service employees are currently rated at the highest level.") Actual experience with limited pay for performance expriments in the federal service shows that nearly everyone is found to be performing at the top level within a few years of adoption of the new system.

The new system is clearly bad for auditors since it creates a prima facie conflict of interest. No internal federal audit in the future will be free of the taint of suspicion.

We can only hope that the future will prove the system merely ineffectual. Otherwise, we'd better be ready to answer the IRS man when he asks us who we voted for in the last election.

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