End Civil Service 'Merit' Protection

Scott Walker’s proposal to end tenure in Wisconsin state universities is a great idea.  Here is another great idea that Governor Walker or some other brave Republican governor and legislature ought to implement: end the merit protection for state government employees.  Once that is demonstrated to work, propose the same reform at the federal level.

The Merit System was one of those odious “progressive reforms.”  It was intended to prevent politicians from placing their cronies in government jobs as a reward for support during campaigns and to prevent politicians in power from forcing government employees to support them in campaigns.

Has this reform “worked”?  It has worked about as well as all those other progressive reforms, which is to say that the Merit System has been a ghastly failure.  Witness the string of news stories following the VA scandal, the IRS scandal, the Secret Service scandal, and so on, all of which end with a variation of the phrase “so far, not a single employee has been fired.”  The Merit System makes it almost impossible to ever terminate a government worker.

One consequence of this fact is that supervisors never give government workers bad employee evaluations – that would be inviting even worse behavior – and when real horror stories break, the culpable employee has a sterling record of good evaluations, regular promotions, bonuses, and so on.  It also means that many more government workers are needed to do a job than would be needed in the private sector, because there are so many government workers doing little, if any, work.

What Scott Walker or some other bold Republican governor ought to propose is a modification of the Merit System so that virtually any government worker can be fired without cause.  Would that cause state governments to fire workers who support the governing party politically?  Well, government employees are not supposed to contribute or support candidates anyway.  

Why not tighten that ban even more, so that government employees who helped any politician would lose their job?  In fact, all government employees in a particular agency belong to a political lobby that insists continually that the agency itself lacks sufficient money and staff – isn’t this what we hear at the federal level from the IRS today, even after all the scandals? – and so the more restrictions on political activity by these workers, the better for the taxpayers.

Besides all this, no politician ever tries to hurt potential voters, even those lined up on the other side.  Firing a government worker makes enemies, and not just the employee involved.  Family and friends get upset as well.  The only benefit politicians would have in ending the Merit System would be to place friends and supporters into government jobs. 

That is why the reform of the Merit System ought not to affect at all the competitive process for hiring government employees, with specific minimum qualifications, standardized tests for applicants, interviews of the most qualified candidates by committees, and so forth.  If politicians have absolute control over the firing of bad employees but almost no control over the hiring of new employees, then politicians running governments and agencies will have complete control over the termination of lazy, crooked, or rude state workers but no way to put friends into jobs.

Would state employees have a fit if this reform was proposed?  Some would, but very quietly many would think, “Thank God!”  Government is marbled with thick layers of fat, which means the productive workers have to do the work of the slothful and incompetent workers.  These bad employees are often quite disagreeable to work with as well.

State executives would now have an excellent tool for reducing the cost of government without reducing government services.  Most honest state government supervisors will tell you that they could run their department with only 60% of the current staff, if they could pick which 60% of the staff was retained.  This sort of reduction in agency staff would also significantly reduce the state pension problems many states face today.

Republicans who run state governments – like Scott Walker in Wisconsin – ought to try this reform.  If it works, if government quickly becomes more courteous, more honest, and cheaper when government employees can be easily fired, then we have a reform that every state that wants to compete with other states would soon follow.  It would also be great at the federal level.  Like Scott Walker’s plan to end college tenure, this reform would make those paid out of the taxpayer’s wallet accountable for their work.