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.


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