The Wrong Fight over the Government Workforce


    Cross-posted at Daily Kos

    You’ve got to hand it to the Repubs – they never miss an opportunity to push their agenda as far as (in)humanly possible.  So, no surprise that they are using the current obsession with the deficit to simultaneously turn government workers into scapegoats and crush unions through a divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at creating tensions between public and private sector employees.  Strategically brilliant – and utterly callous and cynical – as usual.

    One of the many disturbing things about this fight is the fact that neither Repubs or Dems – nor anyone else – is talking about what really needs to be done to make our government work more cost-effectively and efficiently.  Based on my own experiences working in government, there are two fundamental, but fixable, problems that cause the most waste in the public sector:

    * Spectacularly lousy management, and

    * The failure to reward the best performers and get rid of the worst.

    So, while the Republican effort to demonize public employees, and take away their rights to defend themselves through collective bargaining, is wrong-headed, verging on evil, the appropriate Democrat response would not be to say that government and such unions, are right on all particulars, and have nothing that needs to be fixed.  In my experience, the problem with such unions is that they tend to treat all employees equally and therefore treat proposals for merit pay and attempts to make it easier to get rid of dead wood with undue suspicion.  

    As a result, governments at all levels are burdened by a situation where the most dedicated and capable employees do the vast majority of the work, while the rest glide by, and frankly get in the way, courtesy of your hard-earned tax dollars.  And when you try to fire the worst, you get taken to court and all too often their jobs are reinstated – frequently, sad to say, with the unions backing them.

    For all of her mistakes, I think that Washington, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee got this fundamental approach right, with her focus on merit pay for the best teachers and principals, firing for the worst and making sure that the people at the top were ready and equipped to lead.  The key to improving government is to train and incentivize public sector managers to really know how to manage, and then to give them the power to reward those employees who perform and dismiss those who don’t.  

    The GOP succeeds politically with their so-simple-a-third-grader-can-understand-them messages:  BUSINESSES GOOD, MUST BE FREED FROM ALL REGULATION. TAXES AND GOVERNMENT BAD.  PUBLIC EMPLOYEES BAD, MUST BE PUNISHED.  

    This leaves Democrats in the position of either responding at the same Neanderthal level or offering more nuanced messages.  Granted, we can’t overcomplicate or over-intellectualize our messages (see Kerry, John), but neither should we fall into the trap of simply saying the opposite of what the Repubs say without thinking that much about it.

    We have here an instance where we can and must offer a slightly more nuanced but still understandable message – government can be reformed and improved, not by treating public employees as fall guys upon which to vent your frustrations, but by finding ways to reshape the public workforce and its management, so that merit is rewarded and poor performance is taken care of quickly and firmly.  

    If politicians treat public employees as human beings, and really look into their offices and see what works and what doesn’t, we can arrive at real solutions.  But we need to move quickly, before the Republicans turn government workers into the new Untouchables – a hated, spit-upon underclass, rather than partners in continually making our society work better.

    • sallybee

      …we can evaluate teachers based on student performance you might wish to read this:


    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Merit pay can’t work as proposed. Take this example: I want to teach the high school students who have failed to meet their grade level expectations. I know I am a master teacher, and I feel that this is where I can make the largest difference. So, my class is filled with following: several students who are already regular users of drugs and/or alcohol, a few students who have home lives that would make us in the middle class physically sick, some kids who never were read to or who never had an example of academic achievement for them to emulate. Yet, I will be expected to have the same number of students reach grade level as the teacher whose students come from homes which acculturated them early and often to the importance of school and learning. That’s not a “level playing field.”

      Teachers do not deal with a product that comes to them as a blank slate, just waiting for their miraculous teaching skills. I speak as one who was a teacher for 31 years. I refused to leave the classroom and go into administration because I loved my job – and the human beings I dealt with – more than status and extra pay.

      It is quite easy to weed out the worst teachers, just as it is quite easy to identify the best teachers (I was honored on several occasions with that designation). The vast number in the middle cannot be pigeon-holed simply to satisfy some sort of “merit pay” plan.

      I did my a thesis for a graduate class on that very subject years ago, and the truth has not changed since then. Merit pay plans pop up every 30 or so years, only to be proven foolish and unworkable.

      So, how should we determine which teachers should stay and which should go? The best will be those who never stop learning their craft, who keep up with the latest research on learning, who delve deeply in their subject matter. How about this? Ask their students. They know who is trying to reach them and who is not.

      One of the best forms of feedback I ever received was when I was teaching AP English, and when I was teaching English carrying dual credit for high school and community college. Why? Because my students received a questionnaire that sought their opinion on whether I was a competent and dedicated teacher or not. I treasured their opinions far more than some “evaluation” by a principal who knew absolutely nothing about my subject field or how to make it relevant to the diverse students I taught.

      I agree with your assertion that the people who are at the top should be those who “how to manage.” That’s a far worse problem in public education than incompetent teachers.

    • CaffinatedOne

      Why in the heck would we want to counter a full on broadside against public sector unions (and workers more generally) with a high minded discussion on the weaknesses of public sector management or some such?

      republicans are using deficits, which they and their policies largely created, as an excuse to attempt to destroy the most valuable organizing and funding groups for Democrats. This is all political; republicans aren’t looking to solve a management problem, they’re not looking to make public sector workers more effective/efficient, they’re not even looking to fix deficits, they’re looking to destroy public sector unions. Period. republicans, after largely creating the present mess are exploiting it to it’s fullest to further a major strategic aim, which would be to destroy the Democratic organizational infrastructure (remember ACORN?).

      Nuanced messages rarely work in politics regardless, but countering this assault with some sort of hazy discussion on the weaknesses of public management or some such is absolutely the wrong way to go about it. This is all about power, and this play has to be blocked or it’s just going to get worse.