LIKE MOTHERHOOD or apple pie, "performance-based pay" -- the concept that ostensibly lies at the heart of the civil service reform unveiled at the Department of Homeland Security last week -- is something everybody loves. That better employees should be paid more; that managers should be able to fire the incompetent; that the federal government should offer pay that at least competes with the private sector; that our civil service should be more flexible in the post-Sept. 11 world: None of that is controversial. What is controversial -- and what could be extremely damaging, if not carefully monitored -- are some of the reform's other effects, intended or otherwise.
We have three areas of doubt. The first concerns potential problems with the "performance-based" system itself. At the moment, the vast majority of federal employees are graded either on a five-point scale, from "unsatisfactory" to "outstanding," or on a "pass-fail" criterion that offers no precise definition of "good performance." The vast majority of government managers have no experience making more sophisticated evaluations. Training managers will take an enormous amount of time and money, both of which the government is notoriously stingy about committing. Although DHS's published regulatory schedule calls for some of its employees to be subject to the new system as soon as next fall, no criteria have been published, and no pilot program has been launched. Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution, an advocate of civil service reform, calls the current timetable "wildly optimistic."
Without clear performance criteria and management training, civil service "reform" could slide into civil service politicization: To put it bluntly, if managers can get rid of people whom they perceive as politically unsound simply by handing out bad evaluations, it won't be long before civil servants cease to be politically neutral. DHS and the Office of Personnel Management argue vociferously that the new system contains all of the same protections against politicization as does the old. But the new regulations do reduce the power of some neutral arbitrators. They also appear to raise the standard for employee appeals, which will make it harder to get a disciplinary decision overturned.
Finally, and most worrisomely, the new system appears to undermine government trade unions in ways that are hard to justify. The government already has the ability to bypass unions -- and in particular their right to negotiate working conditions -- in case of a national emergency. Now administration spokesmen argue that they may also need to bypass unions in case of potential emergencies, or simply because they need flexibility. John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, calls this claim "disingenuous" and argues that the changes simply use homeland security as an excuse to "remove employees' rights in a much broader area." It would be nice to believe the administration's fervent denials of a plot to destroy the mostly Democratic unions. But before we do, we'd like to see some clearer arguments from the administration about what the elimination of union bargaining has to do with either the nation's safety or civil service performance.
Before these proposals go further -- the Defense Department is preparing similar reform -- Congress ought to look more closely. Lawmakers should consider legislation that sets broad parameters for performance criteria, an appeals process that preserves civil service neutrality and union involvement. These changes are potentially too political to be left to the managers directly involved.