President Carter yesterday described the typical $17,532 federal bureaucrat as a hardworker who would like to scale mountains but rarely even tries because of too much heavy protective padding, and not enough financial or psychic stimulation.
He said he has a way to change all that.
The way, the president told a National Press Club audience, is for Congress to approve a sweeping "reform" of the U.S. civil service system. That reform provides both financial, and ego, carrots for outstanding workers, and the stick or the door for drones.
Carter outlined his long-awaited civil service overhaul, which he said "will be the centerpiece of government reorganization during my term of office."
Using a some-of-my-best-friends-are-bureaucrats approach, the president said nobody in the country is more worried about the "inability of the government to deliver on its promises" than the majority of the 2.6 million people who get a green paycheck from it every two weeks.
The problem, Carter said, is not the people in the federal system, but the federal system itself. It has gotten away from the "simple concept of merit" and become a "tangled web of complicated rules and regulations" that protect incompetents, block whistle-blowers and generally encourage people to be mediocre at best.
He has asked for authority to put nearly 9,000 top paid managers under a new system that would give bonuses and top assignments to quality executives, and recycle officials who did not work out into lesser jobs or into unemployment.
More than 70,000 "managers" in grades 13 through 15 would lose automatic pay raises that now go to all federal workers. Those who did well could get some increases and those who did not would have financial incentive to shape up.
"There are too few rewards for excellence and too few penalties for unsatisfactory work," the president said. He said this has hurt government delivery systems and blackened the image of federal workers with many taxpayers.
Saying that it can now take up to 3 years to fire a clearly incompetent worker, the president proposed a speedier and fairer discipline system that would give both the manager and the employe a quicker decision when a reprimand or dismissal was involved.
Under the incentive system for workers in grades 16 through 18, who would be brought into a new senior Executive Service, Carter aides explained that as many as 50 percent of the executives each year could get bonuses. Up to 10 percent of that number would be elligible for year-end payoffs for outstanding work equal to a maximum of 20 percent of their salary.
Middle managers would have a smaller bonus incentive because they would be taken off the automatic annual pay raise system. Those who were judged outstanding would get some, or all, of the general increase that goes to other white collar federal workers each October. Money to pay the incentive awards would come from funds earmarked for general pay raises that would normally go to that group. The average bonus for those managers, under the Carter plan, would be between 5 percent and 6 percent a year, according to top aides.
The insulation that makes it so difficult to fire federal workers who are incompetent or, as the President says, "just won't work" has not protected employees who were motivated to tell Congress or the press about "gross" mismanagement in their agencies. To guard them and give them an incentive to speak out, Carter said his reform plan would provide special machinery so they would have a place to take their complaints and be protected from reprisals.
PResident Carter's proposals drew immediate praise -- ranging from the effusive to lukewarm -- from a wide variety of "good government" and public service groups. The American public is certain to embrace a system that is sold with the guarantee that it will clean deadwood from the government.
Key members of Congress (who have, after all, keen political instincts) rushed to the TV cameras yesterday to endorse a system that promises good things for good workers and bad things for bad ones.
The real test will come later on, after the legislative process begins to grind at (and maybe grind up) some of the president's proposals. Some legislators fear that it could open up a new spoils system, others that it could damage pets and pet projects in government. Betting is that the president will get about half of the "reform" proposals he wants. The bet nobody will take is when he will get it, and which half he will get.