Americans are almost unanimous in carping about big, wasteful, unresponsive government. Yet almost every effort to improve the way federal agencies function comes to naught, due in part to resistance from government employee labor unions.
The unions were out in force again last week, protesting proposed changes in personnel and pay systems at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. “Bush has turned the government into America’s No. 1 union buster,” AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson said at a Washington press conference. But that’s a stretch.
What has the unions in a tizzy is a Bush administration plan to de-emphasize the old “General Schedule” system, which sets pay scales according to what GS ranking a worker achieves. Instead he favors a merit and performance-based pay system that actually dares to differentiate between the motivated federal worker and the deadwood.
GS is a seniority-based system, rewarding longevity over performance, very much the way teachers are paid in the public school system. And higher GS ratings are handed out more or less mechanically, like merit badges minus the merit. The new system would infuse new life into a stagnant system by rewarding workers who excel. And that rankles the unions.
The new DoD system permits the paying of “performance shares” to employees who outperform peers and allows supervisors to pay bonuses to outstanding performers, to help bring some parity with private sector pay. The new guidelines also warn, correctly, that “inappropriate overuse of the bonus could result in morale, recruitment and retention problems.”
The DoD and DHS are too important to be treated like every other hopeless bureaucratic backwater. If the agencies are going to compete with the private sector for the best and brightest, they need an updated arsenal of management tools. And the unions can’t be allowed to drag them backward.
Union honchos fear that if these reforms can take hold in the federal government, they could spread elsewhere. “We know that if it happens to us, state and local governments will be next,” American Federation of Government Employees president John Gage whined.
And wouldn’t that be wonderful.