President Carter's long-awaited Civil Service Reforms have finally been unveiled and, like most of Mr. Carter's plans, they sound swell on paper. The president wants to get the government on a more businesslike footing, reward those who do a good job with merit raises, and punish those who do a bad job with dismissal. He would also protect whistleblowers who, by going public, embarass their bosses and find themselves booted out in the street.
All well and good. So what's the problem? The problem is that no one, including the president, Congress or the Supreme Court, has ever defined exactly what a government employe should do. There are job description in the Civil Service Regulations, but since the government is not a profit-making organization, it is almost impossible to accurately measure a civil servant's productivity.
For example, I work in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue in which six of the 13 floors are rented to a government agency. Since I am located on the 13th floor I come into contact with its employes every day. Some are going from the sixth floor to the seventh. Others from the second to the 10th and still others from the fifth to the ninth. They are always carrying official-looking papers in their hands, so I have to assume they are doing something very important.
The question is, are government employes, who are moving up and down in the elevator, whizzing to and fro, more productive than those who are sitting in their offices reading the funnies in The Washington Post?
The elevator rider, you may say, is giving us a bigger bang for our buck. He or she is engaged in the nation's business of writing new regulations, interpreting old ones, sending out memoranda, stamping classified material, setting up committees, turning out reports, and doing all the things expected from a servant of the people.
So surely he or she should be given a raise and a promotion.
Perhaps. But the elevator rider is also the person making the government more unwieldy and impossible to control. By going from the second floor to the 10th he or she may be responsible for a new regulation putting 10,000 people out of work, making a National Park into a coal mine, or giving the go-ahead on a new missile that will never fly.
A short trip from the fifth to the sixth floor by an innocent-looking chap with a pipe clamped in his mouth, could cost every man, woman and child in this country $165.
After traveling up and down the capital's elevators for 16 years, I have come to the sad conclusion that the government employes doing the most work in Washington are also doing the most damage.
Therefore, before I go along with Carter's reform package he's going to have to spell out exactly what he expects government employes to do for their salaries. My fear is that by instituting a merit system, and getting government employes to compete against each other, the president will not reduce, but add to all the red tape he said he was going to eliminate when he became president.
If Brown submits a 10-page regulation on the amount of whipped cream permitted in an amaretto liqueur, will Guggenheim write a 20-page regulation to outdo him?
Compared to other countries, the bureaucrats in the United States have been like a sleeping giant. But if you threaten them with demotions, and dangle financial incentives in front of them - they could become an aroused beast, prepared to regulate anything that gets in their way.
Before Congress approves the Carter government reform package, I believe it should ask itself the following questions:
1. Is a government employe who puts in an honest day's work making any worthwhile contribution to society?
2. By taking an elevator from one floor to another is a bureaucrat saving the country, or merely wasting the country's energy?
3. If you fire all the drones in the government and just keep the over-achievers, who will be left to blame when a giant federal program fails and goes down the tube?