In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Bush argued in favor of having private contractors screen passengers and baggage at airports because poor-performing federal employees in those positions might prove hard to discipline or fire.
Now a new study concludes that federal workers themselves view many of their co-workers as poor performers who are rarely disciplined.
The survey of 1,051 federal workers, conducted for the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, found that on average federal employees believe 23.5 percent of their colleagues are "not up to par." Meanwhile, only 30 percent believe their organization does a very or somewhat good job of disciplining poor performers.
The study, the first to interview large numbers of federal employees anonymously in their homes, also found that four of 10 federal workers rate the morale of their agency as somewhat or very low; three out of five describe the hiring process as confusing; a third say their organization does a bad job of attracting and retaining talented workers; and a third say they are dissatisfied with their prospects for advancement.
Among the highlights for federal agencies, the study found that the "vast majority" of federal employees are proud to tell family and friends where they work; half believe their organizations are very good at helping people; the majority say they are allowed to do the things they do best; and "substantial majorities" say the people they work with are open to new ideas and are willing to help other employees learn new skills.
The self-assessment amounts to a mixed bag, according to Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at Brookings. "We've got a very good federal workforce. But we do have a substantial number of poor performers who need to be disciplined," he said.
Light said he was shocked by the study's finding that close to 40 percent of federal employees believe their organizations do not ask enough of poor performers. "That's a terrible finding," he said. The full survey appears in Government Executive Magazine.
The study also concludes that federal employees blame Congress and the president for the government's problems. Two out of five say the president acts in ways that worsen their organization and three of five say the same thing about Congress.
Interviewers also talked to 500 private-sector workers and found them more likely to view senior leaders and mid-level managers as competent. Private-sector employees were more likely to say their organizations are better at hiring and retaining quality workers, but they were also more likely to be motivated by pay and benefits and less by serving the public.
Still, when asked why they took their jobs, 59 percent of federal workers say securing a paycheck was more important than doing something worthwhile, 65 percent say job security was more important than helping the public, and 66 percent say job security was more important than pride in the organization they joined.
These figures vary depending on the category of federal employee interviewed. Members of the Senior Executive Service and Presidential Management Interns -- generally well-educated workers with high levels of responsibility -- are far more likely to cite making a difference as the reason they took their jobs than are General Schedule managers or employees. Forty-four percent of General Schedule employees and 25 percent of General Schedule managers say they come to work solely or partly for pay and benefits, compared with 20 percent of presidential management interns and 13 percent of senior executives.
The study also indicated that federal workers believe the quality of leadership across government is not improving. Overall, 31 percent say senior management quality has declined while 42 percent say it has stayed the same and 24 percent say it has increased. Light said these figures indicate a federal workforce that is "standing still" at a time of great public anxiety -- and an impending deluge of federal retirements -- that calls for an influx of new talent.
"The general impression is that we've got a pretty good workforce that isn't getting better," he said.