The number of feds fired for "incompetence" could jump dramatically if the government is allowed to use tough new streamlined job performance guides on its million-plus white collar aides.

Critics of the bureaucracy say there is so much job insulation for the typical bureaucrat that odds of being fired by Uncle Sam are about equal to the dangers of being killed by an exploding turnip.

Instructions on how to design new appraisal systems for individual agencies will be coming out in the next few days from the OPM (Office of Personnel Management). They are part of the president's civil service reform act. It was designed to strengthen management's hand, and give federal bosses more power -- and salary incentives -- to deal with poor performers either via counseling, demotion or firing.

In selling the need for reform to Congress, Carter aides aruged that procedures were so cumbersome that fewer than 250 workers are fired each year for incompetence. (The actual number of civil servants dismissed for all causes runs between 20,000 and 30,000). Proving "incompetence," the White House said, was virtually impossible under existing rules that require a "substantial" amount of evidence be supplied by the government. The civil service reform act changes that to "preponderance of evidence" meaning it should be easier for the government to prove incompetence, and fire workers for it.

Dismissals for incompetence have been delayed in many agencies since mid-summer. That is when the American Federation of Government Employes challenged OPM and the Social Security Administration. SSA was using new, reform-inspired guidelines new, reform-inspired guidelines to fire workers for allegedly poor performance.

The AFGE union argued -- successfully -- before the Merit System Protection Board that the agencies and departments could not fire workers under new guidelines until they had been formally communicated to employes and unions. It also contended that those guidelines were subject to negotiation. Rather than risk being overturned, many agencies simply delayed disciplinary moves they had planned.

The Board did agree with the government, however, that agencies can adopt individually tailored performance appraisal standards. The union wanted those standards common to government.

The speed with which agencies begin using new standards to discipline alleged poor performers will depend on the outcome of several cases pending before the Federal Labor Relations Authority. FLRA is the "little NLRB" that handles the government's in-house labor-management program.

The union says those performance standards and so-called critical elements of a job must be negotiated between unions with exclusive bargaining rights and the individual agencies. (Critical elements of a job are indeed critical: failure to meet any of them satisfactorily could, under the new rules, subject an employe to immediate dismissal).

Federal officials argue that the civil service reform law says only that unions should be "involved" in forming the standards -- but they say involvement does not mean negotiation. If the government position is upheld, federal job appraisal rules could be much, much tougher than anything now in government.

An AFGE spokesman said "we are going to resist any interpretation that minimizes our involvement in negotiating the appraisal standards." In more standard English he said "the government will put them into effect unilaterally, over our dead bodies."