By Kathryn Watson
Federal workers are far more likely to be audited by the IRS or get arrested for drunk driving than they are to be fired from the civil service payroll for poor performance or misconduct.
The odds are one-in-175 for the IRS audit and one-in-200 for the drunk driving arrest, while the odds for a fed to be fired in a given year are one-in-500,according to the Government Accountability Office. The rate is higher for employees who are in the one-year probationary period that follows their hiring.
Private sector workers face just the opposite situation. They have a roughly one-in-77 chance of being involuntarily terminated — the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t distinguish between fires and layoffs — in a given month.
With such odds, it’s no wonder that bureaucratic horror stories are so common. The Daily Caller News Foundation, for example, recently reported Environmental Protection Agency officials let an employee convicted of stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment from the EPA back to work after a 30-day suspension. Another EPA employee was convicted of sneaking marijuana and marijuana pipes into a federal facility, but went back to work after a 21-day suspension.
The embattled Department of Veterans Affairs said it will take no less than 275 days to take disciplinary action against a nurse charged with operating on a veteran while drunk, due to the complex and time-consuming hoops administrators have to jump through, according another DCNF report.
Federal workers have enjoyed incredible job security for a long time, thank to layers of bureaucracy, complicated employment laws, well-funded and politically powerful government unions, and multiple incentives against firing anyone, former federal personnel officials told TheDCNF.
“It ends up being very, very difficult to fire a federal employee even when there is the best of cause,” Joseph Morris, general counsel for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan administration. “At the end of the day, the civil service often ends up being a haven for poorly performing employees, and that drags down the morale of others.”
Morris and former colleague Patrick Korten, who worked as OPM’s executive assistant director for communications and policy, would know. They listed every possible step a manager had to take to fire an incompetent federal employee using old computer paper. Their boss, then-OPM Director Donald J. Devine, often rolled that paper out for congressional committees.
“It was a demonstration of, if someone chooses to follow every single twist and turn in the regulations, this is how it could turn out,” Korten said.
It stretched 30 feet.
“It was pretty dramatic,” Morris told TheDCNF. “ … It would cause a combination of shock and laughter. And people would look at the thing and look closely and realize that it was describing a real-world process that would begin with a government manager deciding to take action because of misconduct by an employee.”
The roll would probably stretch much longer than 30 feet today, Morris and Korten said, thanks to the increasing strength of federal employee unions and failures by succeeding presidents from both political parties to make it a priority to reward high performers and get rid of poor performers in the federal bureaucracy.
Dealing with unions, the formal civil service grievance process, and internal agency requirements usually takes months, not days or weeks. If an employee appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board — an entire agency devoted to hearing and adjudicating employees’ grievances — it can take more time. And federal court appeals can take years, Morris said. Appeals heard by MSPB took an average of 243 days to adjudicate, according to GAO.
“By the time you went through this process, there were scores and scores of people who had to be involved in it, and every stage along the way occupied time,” Morris said.
It’s an uphill battle, even in seemingly obvious cases. Federal law requires agencies, in instances of criminal misconduct, to prove the criminal activity hurts the agency’s mission, Morris said.
So, government bosses often don’t bother trying to fire problem employees, figuring they’re “better off just sticking someone in a corner and paying them,” former Sen. Tom Coburn told TheDCNF. Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican who is now pushing for a convention of the states to reign in what he considers to excessive power and spending by the federal government.
“The way bureaucracy is run is, never do what’s best if you can do what’s safe,” Coburn said. “Everything settles out a the lowest common denominator. People look the other way all throughout the VA (Veterans Affairs). Everybody knew what was going on. Nobody spoke up.”
Morris called government worker unions the “snake inside of the tent” and called on the next president and his or her senior advisers to make civil service management reform a high priority.
Coburn said the bureaucratic firing process is only a symptom.
“These are all symptoms,” Coburn said. “They are symptoms of a greater and bigger problem. You have an uncontrolled federal government that nobody can manage.”
The first step, he said, is cutting the federal workforce — drastically.
“The first thing you need to do is downsize the government by about two million people,” Coburn said. There are about 2.7 million people working in the executive branch, according to OPM. But Coburn doubts Congress has the willpower to do anything drastic.
“Most of them don’t even know how to run a business, or hold people accountable,” Coburn said.
“You can report on this, you can bring transparency to it,” Coburn added. “But the American people, as you’re seeing in the election, they’re fed up already.”