At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal government’s largest employer (the Army ranks second), only 56.9 percent of employees believe they can disclose a suspected violation of law or regulation without fear of reprisal. Even fewer — 46.1 percent — feel “a high level of respect” for their senior leaders. Fewer still — 37 percent — are satisfied with the policies and practices of those leaders.
Quite an indictment, you may say, one that confirms congressional demands for the summary firing of Eric Shinseki, the Cabinet secretary in charge of the VA. But the numbers for the government as a whole are barely more encouraging than for Shinseki’s domain: 58.4 percent, 49 percent and 38.8 percent, respectively.
We don’t have a Shinseki problem, in other words. We have a President Barack Obama problem. We have a Congress problem. We have a civil service system “in crisis,” as the Partnership for Public Service said in a recent report.
The contours of the VA scandal, involving alleged deception about the waiting time for treatment at veterans hospitals, are depressingly familiar. Disclosure is followed by politicians’ howls of outrage at perfidious civil servants, demands for firing and “accountability,” more investigations and more firings, until public attention wanes. The howls are particularly screeching this time, because everyone wants to be pro-veteran, and the proposed congressional solution — allowing any VA senior executive to be fired at will, with no due process and no protection for whistleblowers — is particularly appalling. But the trajectory was similar when it involved the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Hurricane Katrina or the Internal Revenue Service and the tea party or the Department of Health and Human Services and healthcare.gov.
Such “scandals” will recur, likely with increasing frequency, as long as government leaders ignore the underlying problem: a personnel system that has not been upgraded to suit the 21st-century knowledge economy. “Name an organization that is succeeding largely under the same system it had in 1949,” says Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “It doesn’t exist.”
It is a cumbersome system that can’t recruit or compete for talent and doesn’t reward top performers or punish poor ones. Some of the resistance to change is political: Democrats rely on government unions that are suspicious of merit-based policies, and Republicans are suspicious of government altogether. But Stier says the bigger obstacle to reform is structural. Political leaders want to influence policies that will bear fruit while they are in office. Civil service reform is hard work, requires sustained attention and would pay off mostly in future presidential terms.
Beyond his anger at times of crisis, does Obama care? “I don’t see it,” Stier said. “The administration as a whole has not led on these issues.” Congress’ contribution, meanwhile, is a “combination of neglect and destruction.” Taking the VA back to the days predating the Pendleton Act of 1883 — yes, 1883 — is only the latest example.
Some agencies do a better job, proving that even with all the political obstacles leadership makes a difference: NASA, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. But these are islands. Less than 6 percent of the federal workforce is younger than 30, compared with 23 percent in the country. As the public workforce ages and retires, dysfunction will increase, unless someone gets serious about attracting and retaining talent.