We've been through waste and fraud week, another president's attempt to capitalize on the public's fed-up feeling about government. And, yes, to do something about it.
Ronald Reagan's team says its campaign against waste and fraud will be led by a new group, "The President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency." lDespite that stern Prussian-like title, the effort is worthy and the internal governmental problem real enough. But this highly publicized Reagan campaign, no less than others ordered by his presidential predecessors, masks a greater form of governmental waste.
What's haphpening inside the government today presents a problem worse than waste and more serious than fraud. The evidence points to a tragic breakdown of the government service itself. If the voices this reporter has been hearing recently are correct, the nation faces a governmental crisis all the more dramatic and damaging because it seems so little understood or discussed. Even though it has been building for years, you don't hear presidents warning about this crisis. They are, you see, part of the problem.
The waste I'm talking about involves the loss of many of the government's best people; the crisis comes from the deterioration of morale and rising frustration at all levels of the U.S. workforce.
Last week the president of the largest union representing federal employes talked openly about a confrontational mood among his membership that could lead to wildcat strikes and slowdowns throughout the government. Even top management officials are discussing the possibility of forming executive unions. A sense of anger and anxiety comes through conversations with government employes of both high and low rank. And the flow of talent out of the government continues.
Stop any top U.S. official on the streets of Washington these days, one of them says, and ask when that person will complete the 25 years of service making him eligible for early retirement. "He'll immediately tell you, not down to the year or the month -- but to the exact day," this offical remarks. "I think the government is heading down the road to a disaster. Within five years the group of supergrade people that are now between the ages of 50 and 60 will all be gone. The best of them are gone already . . . The next president of the United States will turn to his top government people and say, 'Do this,' and he'll find no one able to get it done."
That respected official, who entered government service under Eisenhower, found himself rather startled at the apocalyptic tone of his remarks, "but I just can't find any cause to feel other than deeply dismayed today." In that, he seems sadly typical of many others.
From New Year's Day through the first week in March, the federal Office of Personnel Management received 38,000 retirement papers from federal employes -- twice the average monthly rate of retirements, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.
A government study completed before the new year provides disturbing evidence of the rapid departure rate in the government's key managerial echelon -- officials who oversee two million civilian employes, a budget of more than $600 billion, and whose decisions have a profound effect on all American citizens.
"The retirement rate for career employes at the Executive Level V pay ceiling," the study says, "has increased from 17.6 percent of those eligible to retire during the 12 months ending in March 1978 to an astonishing 57.1 percent during the 12 months ending in March 1980."
Not even the dullest set of statistics about federal retirements can cloak an ominous trend -- unless, that is, you are among those who believe all U.S. bureaucrats are as bad as recent presidential candidates have depicted them and think the answer to the woes of government is to dismantle it all.
The problem inside the government extends into every area of the workforce. "The bottom line is morale is very low and frustration is very high," says Kenneth Blaylock, national president of the American Federation of Government Employers, the largest federal workers' union. "Government employes -- and that includes managers -- feel they've been kicked and kicked and kicked. . . . Now they've forced to pay the price again with a 4.8 percent pay raise in a time of 12 percent inflation and cuts in retirement benefits."
His point about pay and benefits touches a sore nerve among all federal employes. A special commission that recently completed a study of executive government salaries found a direct link between low pay and increasing difficulties of attracting and retaining outstanding people for top U.S. positions.
The commission also found that salaries of key U.S. officials in the three branches of government have fallen dramatically behind the corresponding managerial groups in private business. In addition, in most cases Congress has not allowed annual increases called for in a salary-cost-of-living act for top officials, placing those people significantly behind what they had promised legally. "The resulting compression adds, "has created the anomalous situation in which up to seven tiers of management are now being paid identical salaries."
The complaints about pay and benefits are real enough, but the grievances within the government are more serious than economic issues -- and they go beyond the present emotional state of fears, rumors and resentments spurred by the Reagan administration's blueprint for federal hiring freezes, pay caps, reductions in force and slashing or junking of government programs and agencies. Another top U.S. official, whose work has drawn praise from a number of presidents, both Democrat and Republican, and who is now highly placed within the White House operation, says we are approaching the end of "a decade of despondency for bureaucrats." He fears the period ahead could worsen.
Ronald Reagan was not the first candidate to run against the bureaucracy and then have to lead it as president. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter sounded similar themes, and encountered similar problems in power. Reagan's presidential task is even more delicate, for it is his fate to preside over the government at a time when respect for public officials has declined even further and the concept of public service continues to generate greater expressions of public cynicism.
Reagan's gifts for conciliation and leadership will be put to a critical test in his handling of the federal workforce. He can attempt to inspire it and begin rebuilding a national sense of public service or he can witness a further disintegration in an already dispirited federal establishment. Before Reagan took office, a veteran bureaucrat, Bertrand M. Harding, who headed the National Civil Service League, said he hoped the new president and his people would put aside all their campaign rhetoric about "faceless bureaucrats." As he said, "for better or worse, these 'faceless' persons belong to the president and for the moment are all the glue he has to keep the government together."
The danger is the glue is coming unstuck.