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Repair the U.S. Civil Service

by David Brin, Ph.D.

What could be more important than the skilled and honest performance of our "fourth branch of government"?

Repair the U.S. Civil Service

Some of the proposals I offer may be "unusual" — unspoken elsewhere — simply because they seem... well... boring! For example, have you heard anyone else raise the plight of the civil servants? It sounds like a tedious "process issue." And yet, please do bear with me. For there are few matters facing the next administration that could be more important than the skilled and honest performance of our "fourth branch of government."

By some measures — especially if you include the military Officer Corps — there are at least three million professional public servants in America, most of whom have suffered for eight years under bullying misrule by eight thousand appointees of the Bush Administration — political hacks who filled the top slots in every federal agency, from EPA to the Justice Department, from FDA to NASA to the CIA. All too often, those top appointees seemed to have just one purpose — making it difficult, even impossible, for the civil servants to do their jobs.

Of course, it has long been stylish to dismiss "bureaucrats" as faceless drones, or as officious, petty tyrants who stand in the way of free-spirited American enterprise and individualism. Nor is this a completely misguided reflex! Suspicion of authority is healthy, and it's good to keep a libertarian corner of the mind asking, "Is this rule necessary?" Al Gore's greatest accomplishment as Vice President was to cut both the non-military federal manpower total and government paperwork by substantial amounts, the only time it's happened since 1950.

Nevertheless, we citizens co-own a republic of laws that were deliberated by freely elected delegates and passed according to a Constitution we all share. For better or worse, those laws ought to be honestly and openly and capably enforced — while we continue arguing over how to further change them. We have hired, at great expense, a large number of highly trained and skilled professionals to help our nation deal with a myriad problems in this complex world. We all lose when they are thwarted from giving taxpayers their money's worth.

Which is what the neocons did, all across the initial part of the Twenty-First Century — whether motivated by a dogma of hating government or some far more nefarious agenda — interfering with our FBI agents and prosecutors, with the inspectors who keep our dams and roads safe and our food and toys safe, with scientists investigating climate change and auditors charged with keeping an eye on financial institutions.

Might the latter have spotted some of the disastrous practices that led to our present economic meltdown, and taken action much earlier, if not for active and relentless hindrance from above? Perhaps we'll never know. Still, the matter is an important one.

Indeed, it can be argued that Barack Obama will accomplish fully half of what America needs, simply by unleashing a couple of million skilled men and women and letting them get back to doing their jobs. And it can happen without passing a single new law.

Still, there is more that ought to be done. I have several very specific proposals that would be easy to implement.

three steps to de-politicize civil service

MY FIRST PROPOSAL is that Obama Transition Team visibly act to promote civil servants into second and third tier positions, just below that of cabinet secretary. It would do wonders for morale, showing that this important cadre has not been forgotten and that things really have changed. It would also offer a chance to reward exemplars of courage and foresight — individuals who stood up to political pressure during the Bush years, who issued prescient warnings, or who exhibited remarkable displays of rectitude.

There is a flip side to this, and it's my SECOND PROPOSAL. As they saw change coming, a number of Bush era political appointees performed something called the "Washington Side-Step," or "burrowing" — getting themselves hired into the bureaucracy as members of the supposedly nonpartisan, and legally protected, civil service. There are hundreds of these people, by now ensconced in positions for which they would normally never have been qualified. Ways should be explored to do something about this.

Further evidence comes from the Justice Department amid accusations against Bradley Schlozman, the former acting head of the civil rights division, in a report by the department's inspector general, Glenn Fine. Among the fanatical right-winger's misdeeds was an apparent litmus-testing of new hires, with 63 out of 65 new lawyers enjoying his approval as fellow ultra-conservatives. These people are now "burrowed" under civil service protection. Nor is this anything but the tip of a rotten iceberg. Correcting such travesties must be done carefully, without violating Civil Service laws. See one suggestion, below. But it must happen.

Yes, Barack Obama is entering office determined to keep things cool and calm and grownup. He will disappoint his most passionate followers by eschewing many opportunities for political vendetta or revenge. This policy is wise, overall. Nevertheless, as I plan to argue — here and elsewhere — that President Obama cannot let predators and toadies get away completely free. Surely, some bright people can be assigned to find imaginative ways to both stay cool and rid the republic of parasites.

Just one possibility: pass a law allowing all the civil servants in any agency to vote one percent of their colleagues either up or out — to be promoted or booted. One percent should not infringe overmuch upon administration prerogatives or upon bureaucratic due process. Surely that would offer a legal and understandable way for the rank and file of agency personnel to supplement and enhance regular hiring/promotion processes, knowledgeably rewarding the very best and getting rid of the very worst, purely as a matter of consensus wisdom, while keeping politics out of it.

A THIRD PROPOSAL should be obvious. Improve whistle-blower protections, so that we will never again see bureaucrats intimidated by a competence-hating administration into biting their lips in silence over violations of the law.

A side note: the shift of the state of Virginia into the Democratic column during the 2008 election may have had a great deal to do with anger on the part of members of the U.S. Civil Service toward the Bush Administration and the GOP in general. This topic has political ramifications, as well as those having to do with the general national good.

My FINAL PROPOSAL may seem a bit strange, at first, but it is simple and would prevent recurrence of countless travesties. Create the office of Inspector General of the United States, who will head a uniformed agency akin to the Coast Guard or the Public Health Service, charged with protecting the legal and ethical health of government.

and finally — the PEOPLE'S PROPOSALS

There are so many other possible proposals relevant to the Civil Service, many of them sent in by respondents to my first posting of this segment — some of them passionately dedicated but frustrated public servants. A short list (and I do not fully grasp all of them):

End inter-agency discrimination. (Someone is not unqualified for CIS because they worked for CBP.)

End managerial holds on transfers and promotions. (Someone can't compete for other jobs because the service can't find anyone else willing to move to that locale to replace them.)

End managerial vetos of professional development. (What do you mean, you won't allow your staff to get training?)

End the Peter Principle. (Fastest way to get promoted: screw up.)

End the union crushing. (Self-evident.)

Actually match wages with other agencies in the same area (or quit pretending you're going to).

Import talent into DC and end the preference for DC-connections.


Repair the U.S. Civil Service

about this article

"Repair the U.S. Civil Service" (published in full here) was one of a series of 21 "Unusual Suggestions" Brin posted following the election of 2008, when it seemed that everybody — columnists, political sages, bloggers and citizens — wrote missives about "what I'd do if I were president."

Copyright © 2009 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

join David Brin's discussions

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

cited in this article

David Brin, "Free the Inspectors General"

David Savage, "Bush appointee saw Justice lawyers as 'commies,' 'crazy libs,' report says"

smart(er) governance

letting others have their say

Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk

William D. Morgan and Charles Stuart Kennedy, eds., American Diplomats: The Foreign Service at Work

Jeanne Liedtka et al., Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector

T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice


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