One of the experiences I have always remembered from my days in government was an encounter with a man whom I shall call "Mr. Blister." That name seemed to define a problem, and so it came to mind again the other day when I read that Jimmy Carter's civil-service reform was in trouble on the Hill.
The problem Blister personified was that he didn't do anything. Each morning I watched him arrive promptly at 8:30. He walked down the hall to his office, hung up his umbrella and proceeded to that day's New York Times, which he read from first page to last, finishing promptly at 5 p.m. Where upon he picked up his umbrella and departed.
I was working frantically at the time to get a great many things done at once, and I needed people in my "shop", who wanted to pitch in and work hard. Naturally, it occurred to me that I needed Blister's "slot." So I called him into my office and suggested that he resign.
He wrote me the following morning, "Subject: Your oral request for my resignation. This request must be made in writing, after which respondent has 30 days to reply and, if reply is negative, 30 more days in which to appeal. This is to inform you that I intend to reply negatively and thereafter, if necessary, to appeal."
Blister did not do anything. (I apologize to The New York Times.) But he knew the rules of the game. And the rules, as I discovered after I had received his memorandum, were such that getting rid of Blister would have been a full-time job.
I could have argued the case from appeals board to appeals board. Eventually, in the course of making an enemy for life, I might have won. But that was by no means certain. Blister had not refused on two separate occasions to carry out written orders ad there was nothing in the regulations about not wanting to send written orders to someone who had never evinced the slightest interest in the work we were doing.
So as I say, I thought of Blister when I read about Carter's civil-service reform program, which, if you recall, he once declared "would be the center-piece of government reorganizations during my term in office."
Under the president's plan, the Blister problem would be somewhat alleviated, though not altogether removed. The president proposes to tilt the appeals system somewhat, in favor of the officer who wants to get a job done. If that officer wishes to dismiss a Blister he need only demonstrate to his own superior and one other person that his wish is "reasonable."
There are other equally sensible provisions intended to turn civil service from a protective association into an efficient work force. For example, under Carter's plan, there would be an attempt to link performance with pay rather than time, and promotion with merit rather than grade.
The Carter plan is by no means a return to the spoils system. It preserves the original concept of the civil service as a body independent of politics. but it is a firm step away from the notion efficiency. Those who have been complaining for years about the bureaucracy should be cheering the plan along.
In fact, however, support for the president, while widespread, is what politicians call "thin," meaning the proponents don't care very mucy. Opponents, on the the other hand, led by the civil-service unions, care a great deal and are busy attaching amendments intended to make the plan as unattractive as possible.
Like my old friend Blister, they know the rules of the game.