Reforming Government Work

One long-standing Republican idea may finally be put to the test in the coming Trump administration. They propose to change the model of government business to align with how business in general is conducted. And the federal civilian workforce is not going to like it one bit.

The primary motivation for this is efficiency. The view of many Republicans is that government workers, or “the bureaucracy” as they snidely say, are a coddled elite who are profligate with our tax dollars. This cartoon from the Bill Clinton era captures that viewpoint amusingly.


This is a gross canard, but it is true that they live in a somewhat insulated world, with job protections and benefits the rest of us don’t enjoy. At one time this seemed justified by the fact that they were paid less than equivalent workers in the private sector. By and large this is no longer true, so why not strip off some of this insulation? Wouldn’t it be helpful for government workers to better appreciate the impacts of their actions if they were equally affected?

Note that I said “some of this insulation”. Creation of a modern civil service was a big improvement over the politically corrupt system it replaced. It should be a matter of pride not scorn. So changes should be made cautiously so as to preserve its benefits. Those envisioned seem largely to satisfy that constraint.

The key ideas are pay for performance rather than longevity, green light to fire poor performers, ban on union business on government time, and switching to 401k’s instead of defined benefit pensions. Every one of these is anathema to federal unions and, presumably, to their members. But really, what is wrong with them from the broader perspective of a productive and frugal government?

Their one other idea along these lines is to impose a hiring freeze in order to shrink government generally by attrition. Even though they would exempt military, public safety and health workers, and actually increase the Border Patrol, this still seems a bit mindless to me.