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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan September 5, 2007
SUMMARY: During a stump speech urging reforms of the federal workforce, John McCain invoked the stereotype of the incompetent federal worker who can never be fired, and he wasn't far off the mark.

"The failings in our civil service are encouraged by a system that makes it very difficult to fire someone even for gross misconduct..." McCain said. "We must do away with the current system that treats federal employment as a right and makes dismissal a near impossibility."

Are federal workers really that protected?

A union leader says McCain is wrong, but two experts who study the federal work force say McCain exaggerates only slightly.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says the government has procedures for firing or disciplining workers.

"Contrary to Senator McCain's apparent belief, federal managers have full authority to take appropriate action against employees who engage in misconduct or fail to satisfy agency-established performance expectations," she wrote in an email.

But experts say it is a cumbersome process that needs to be streamlined.

"Very few federal employees -- in the hundreds, not the thousands -- are ever fired on the basis of poor performance," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

That's out of a federal workforce of 1.86 million, he said.

"If you want to fire an employee, you're taking on a task that is very intense and difficult, and biased in favor of protecting employees, and it can take a year or more to complete," Light said.

Don Kettl, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that it's too hard to fire poor performers and that few experts who study the issue would disagree.

"The federal civil service is hamstrung by antiquated rules," he said. "We need to make it easier to fire poor performers."

When an employee is fired, there are a number of appeals processes available to fight a termination, explained John Palguta of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for an improved federal workforce. Some of those processes probably could be streamlined, he said, while keeping in place rules designed to protect employees from partisan politics.

"It's not supposed to be easy to fire federal workers for the wrong reasons," he said.

He also said that 8,000 to 10,000 federal workers are fired each year when you count people who are fired for poor conduct (coming to work drunk, hitting the boss, etc.) and workers who don't make it past their initial probationary period, he said.

Overhauling the way workers are paid might be a better way to improve performance than making it easier fire people, Palguta said. Currently, salaries and raises are based on length of service, not on performance.

"Poor performers are more likely to leave an organization that ties their pay to their performance," he said.

The federal government checked into the issue of poor performers in 1999, when the U.S. Office of Personnel Management tried to quantify poor performance. The good news for taxpayers was that the study found supervisors labeled poor performers only a tiny percentage of their workers - 3.7 percent.

The researchers had a difficult time finding a significant sample of supervisors who had attempted to take action against a poor performer.

The 42 supervisors said it was hard to fire workers because of a lack of support from upper management, varying quality in technical guidance for completing the process, and reluctance to devote time and energy to completing the process.

The study said many bosses got discouraged and gave up. "Interviewees found the investment of time and energy required over an extremely long period to be daunting," the report said. "This was compounded by the stress resulting from the employee's counter-charges, grievances, accusations, appeals, general hostility and attempts to subvert the supervisor. One described the documentation required as 'horrendous.'"

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Our Sources

National Treasury Employees Union, email interview with Colleen M. Kelley.

Times interviews with Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, Don Kettl at the University of Pennsylvania and John Palguta of the Partnership for Public Service.

Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story U.S. Office of Personnel Management Office of Merit Systems Oversight and Effectiveness, January 1999.

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