A few weeks ago, a subscriber to Ethical Musings raised some interesting questions about government employment:
- Government salaries/wages too high? Pensions too generous?
- Are government jobs sinecures?
- What's wrong with the government bureaucracy? What can we do to fix it?
Those questions prompted these musings.
First, civil service systems (e.g., in the United States and United Kingdom) emerged as a way to insulate government employees from the worst vagaries of political influence and to improve the quality of services provided to the public. A civil service in which an elected government can replace all of the employees will tend to attract ideologues and incompetents. Competent, career-minded potential employees will generally choose to avoid the uncertain, temporary nature of a job in which tenure depends upon an uncertain political outcome.
Second, many government functions require a reasonable level of competence, knowledge, and perhaps experience. Obvious examples include positions involved in testing new drugs, formulating regulations pertaining to public safety, law enforcement, and financial management. In other words, the preponderance of government positions require more from incumbents than the type of skills, knowledge, and competence associated with most low wage, manual labor jobs. Increased reliance on computers is substantially reducing the number of clerical employees, which results in a diminishing number of low wage, low skill government jobs.
Third, growing numbers of people regard government employment unfavorably, a change especially noticeable in the United Kingdom. This diminishes the status of government employees, making it more difficult to attract highly qualified individuals and thus making compensation more important in an individual's decision to accept (or reject) a government job. Ironically, the civil service systems created to insulate employees from inappropriate political influence have now made it difficult for elected leaders to exert appropriate guidance (e.g., civil servants may simply engage in delaying tactics until a new incumbent arrives) and for the exceptionally competent to rise speedily within the organization.
Fourth, most government programs and offices have external constituencies with some measure of political influence. These external constituencies, widely known as special interest groups, seek to use the government program or office to achieve the group's agenda. Consequently, eliminating redundant, anachronistic, inefficient, or undesirable programs, policies, etc., is exceptionally difficult. In the U.S., political gridlock exacerbates these problems. Bureaucratic inertia contributes to these problems everywhere.
Fifth, political pressures, potential media interest, and external interest groups all create an environment for government unlike anything found in the private sector. Not only is there generally zero tolerance for fraud, waste, or abuse but the outward appearance of any of those is not tolerated. Businesses, for example, will generally weigh the cost of reducing fraud, waste, and abuse against the cost of prevention. Thus, a business will not spend $10 to avoid the risk of losing $1. Governments do.
Sixth, job security, intended to insulate personnel from inappropriate political pressures, has had the unintended consequence of deemphasizing job performance. This can sap employee morale and make terminating employment of the occasional misfit or incompetent so costly that management may avoid taking those steps even in the most egregious situations.
What can we do to improve government?
- Rationalize management. For example, let's accept fraud, waste, and abuse when the cost of prevention exceeds potential benefits. The real cost of our current approach to prevention is to make government more costly and less responsive.
- Raise the status of civil servants. Serving the public interest is highly honorable, something as true for civil servants as military personnel. Most civil servants I have known, in both the US and the UK, wanted to perform well in serving the public good.
- Improve the civil service system to make hiring, firing, and promoting individuals easier. Yesterday's ills are not today's problems.
- Give managers more latitude to determine optimal methods for achieving the goals and outcomes set by elected or appointed political leadership.
Collectively, these changes will improve the conditions of government employment and make that employment more satisfying, attracting a higher caliber employee.
Government salaries, pensions, and other benefits have historically helped to raise employment compensation standards. Today, government compensation – for senior managers – is far below what comparable civilian posts pay. Raising this compensation to competitive levels will attract some of a nation's best and brightest, improving the quality of government.
Conversely, government compensation for many other workers offers a pension plan that is unaffordable and unrealistic because the plan is premised on both a shorter working life and total lifespan than people have in the twenty-first century. Fixing the pension plan without concurrently addressing the other issues will simply compound existing problems.
Grand pronouncements about cutting government waste or size are not the answer. Citizens rightly value the vast majority of the services that government provides. The challenge is to improve quality, enhance efficiency, and cut costs – all of which are possible.