COLUMNS

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January 19, 2017

State of the Union

Government employees are overly protected from employer sanctions.

One of my most dreadful experiences last year was stopping at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to take my written road test. The appointment I made a few days prior meant nothing, as its ticket-calling system malfunctioned minutes after I took a seat. I ended up waiting more than three hours in line, only to have an employee break up the lines because of a logistical issue. I then spent an additional two hours in a different line only to have an employee behind the counter mutter about how I was giving her more work to do by taking my written exam. Needless to say, I was quite vexed by the DMV’s sheer incompetence.

It is not a foreign concept that some government agencies are awfully slow and are experts at giving low quality service. Surely, in a private company that offers comparable services, effective managers could make a tangible impact on the quality of service. Alas, the solution will never be as simple for federal organizations with the current system. 

Lawmakers passed numerous government worker protection laws as part of the civil servant protection system to shield them from arbitrary or political terminations. Today, government employees have been afforded a staggering amount of job overprotection.

An investigation by CBS News reported just how difficult it can be to fire a government employee. One official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was allowed to keep his job after being caught watching porn for several hours per day. Two managers from General Services Administration (GSA) were rehired and even received bonuses after initially being terminated for spending almost $1 million on luxury goods for a conference. 

There is absolutely no reason why they should be allowed to avoid proper disciplinary action for their professional shortcomings. When employees are allowed to keep their job even when watching porn, performing poorly, slacking off, and participating in other unprofessional and unethical activities, it creates a toxic culture of apathetic mediocrity. There is very little incentive for people to do their jobs adequately if they are almost certain to not be fired. This morale-killing culture is exactly why agencies like the DMV are saturated with incompetent and rude staff.  

These protections not only make a high-performing federal employee a rarity, but also cause a lot of taxpayer money to be wasted. New York City’s infamous rubber room exemplifies this waste. Due to tenure and union agreements, teachers who are accused of criminal conduct are sent there until they receive hearings. While they wait for their hearings for an indefinite time in the Rubber Room, they continue to receive their salaries and increase their pensions while literally doing nothing. NYC hemorrhages $22 million per year from taxpayers’ wallets, keeping these teachers in limbo because union agreements make the firing process unbearably long and complicated. 

Clearly, the American public suffers from these practices. However, the intricate web of bureaucratic regulations and union decrees make it anything but easy to effect change. There may only be one Scott Walker, but more people should be cracking down on unions. Making it easy for a manager to fire an employee for simply doing a bad job shouldn’t be a liberal or conservative issue—it’s a common sense issue. 

The term “civil servant” implies a great amount of accountability and loyalty to one’s country. Indeed, public employees like soldiers, policemen, and firefighters risk their lives every day to defend peoples’ lives. The EPA strives to sustain a better planet to live in. The Food and Drug Administration serves to protect public health. These responsibilities were handed to federal agencies because they are presumably more trustworthy than private institutions and corporations. This greater purpose though, is often completely eroded by the sheer lack of accountability of federal agencies’ employees. With ghoulish bureaucratic procedures, strong union protection, and tenure, it can be very difficult to translate an individual agency’s mission to the United States down to its employees, and this undermines the honor the job is supposed to carry. It’s time government workers are held accountable for their actions and performance.  

Brian Dong is a first-year in the College majoring in political science.

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