Commentary by Jeff Neal Founder of ChiefHRO.com & Senior Vice President, ICF International
This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
The recent news about the Department of Veterans Affairs has generated a lot of talk about performance — lack of it, failure to deal with problems, rating inflation and so on. During a June 20 hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA revealed that none of its senior executives had gotten a rating below fully successful in the past four years.
While that may seem shocking, the VA is not that out of the ordinary. Sub-par ratings for SES members are not common and firing them is even less common. Firing anyone in a management job is rare. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a selection process that weeds out unqualified applicants long before they could be selected and a lack of will to deal with problem employees.
The raw numbers of removals for employees below the SES level are higher, but overall there are not large numbers of supervisors and managers who get less than fully successful ratings.
The overall number of permanent federal employees who have been fired in recent years is not large. A recent article in Federal Times cited numbers of 11,564 in FY 2009; 11,733 in FY 2010; 10,373 in FY 2011; 9,980 in FY 2012 and 9,513 in FY 2013. That ranges from a high of 0.57 percent of federal employees fired in 2009 to a low of 0.46 percent in FY 2013. Those numbers may actually be a bit higher than the true number of people fired for poor performance or misconduct, because they include people who were terminated because their appointments expired and for other reasons.
The Federal Times article points out the higher numbers of people fired from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA is exempt from most federal employment laws as a result of authority it has in Section 111(d) of the aviation and Transportation Security Act) and the higher number of people at lower grades (particularly GS-5) who are fired. The high number of GS-5s is not surprising. More people enter federal service at the GS-5 level than any other grade and, as new employees, they are much more likely to be let go. GS-5s also represent the largest number of resignations of any grade.
Text continues after the image.
The raw number of SES terminations and removals is very low:
Federal Times noted that lower graded employees are fired at a much higher rate than higher grades. What is not often mentioned is that SES members are fired at the same or higher rate than GS-14s and GS-15s. In fact, the FY 2012 SES firing rate was almost twice that of GS-15s and one-third more than the rate of GS-14s. In 2012, 7 of 7,815 SES (.09 percent) were fired for performance or misconduct, while 28 of 59,216 GS-15s (.05 percent) and 86 of 119,507 GS-14s (.07 percent) were fired.
Firing rates for higher grades are most likely lower because those employees have been screened repeatedly as they have moved up through the grades. Another factor may be the familiarity that more senior people have with one another. Firing anyone is hard, but it is easier to fire someone you don’t know as well. Firing the people you work most closely with every day is much harder.
All these numbers about firing lead to the question — why aren’t more people being fired if we want to make government better? A June 24 Government Executive article on a House/Senate conference committee was headlined “VA Conferees Agree on One Thing: Fire More Bureaucrats.” Wouldn’t it be better if we gave managers the ability to fire people much more easily so they can clear out the deadwood? Wouldn’t that lead to a general housecleaning that would make government far more effective? Shouldn’t government fire people at a rate similar to the private sector?
In a word, no.
The simple idea that it should be easier to fire people sounds good in theory. If we let good managers make good management decisions about letting poor performers go, they will get rid of the poor performers. Like many simple ideas, that one is too simple. The real world is a bit more complex. Here are just a few of those complexities:
The simple view assumes managers will manage. This post started with the story about every SES member in the Department of Veterans Affairs getting a fully satisfactory or better rating. The numbers are not a lot better in other agencies. Most managers who talk about how hard it is to fire people have never tried to fire anyone. Keep in mind that MSPB’s 2005 report, The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity, says that 1.6 percent of competitive service employees are removed from their jobs during their probationary period. Those are employees who can be fired easily and have little avenue of appeal. Firing them doesn’t require a lot of documentation or time. Firing probationary employees is as simple as it gets, yet only 1.6 percent of them are fired every year. Why should we believe a quick and easy process for firing everyone else would have different results?
The simple view assumes federal employees who cannot perform are the reason for many of government’s problems. In that scenario, there are tens or hundreds of thousands of employees who contribute nothing and wiping out large numbers of them will make government better. That view doesn’t assign the blame for government’s biggest problems to the people and cultures that are actually responsible for them. Federal employees do not cause duplication of services across agencies. They don’t cause money to be appropriated for wasteful projects. They do not cause most of the problems of the federal government. For the most part, the ability of anyone other than the most senior employees to dramatically change anything is next to non-existent. By shifting the focus to them, we lose focus on the bigger systemic problems our government faces and guarantee we will never deal with the underlying causes. Are there poor performers in government? Yes. Is the number massive? No. Will rolling a few heads distract attention from the bigger problems? Absolutely.
The simple view also assumes those managers who do have the backbone to deal with poor performers will deal only with poor performers and not the people they do not like for personal or political reasons. The federal civil service was designed to protect government workers and the American people from a government spoils system and the toxic results it produced in the past. The great champion of the civil service, President Theodore Roosevelt, said “The spoils-monger and spoils-seeker invariably breed the bribe-taker and bribes-giver, the embezzler of public funds and the corrupter of voters.” President Roosevelt was right. “Reforms” that would lead us back to a spoils system would do far more damage to the interests of the American people than any harm that can be done by a 10 or 20 or 30,000 people who do not perform.
The simple view assumes performance is an individual accomplishment. I have worked 33 years in government and six years in the private sector. During all of that time, I have seen very few accomplishments that are the result of just one person’s actions. Virtually all good results come from teams of people working together. Most bad results are failures of a team or an organization. They fail to deal with systemic problems. They fail to provide training for their employees. They fail to provide the technology that would enable success. They fail to create a culture that gets good results. Yet, when they have a failure, they always seem to default to finding someone to blame, so they do not have to accept the fact that they might be part of the problem too.
We seem to have reached a point where the solution to a problem is to hunt down the offending party and say, “You’re fired!” Maybe it makes us feel better to think we made someone pay for their failure. While we would be better off if we dealt effectively with poor performance, the truth is that government is so complex, cultural norms in agencies are so powerful and our political process is so broken, that there is rarely a single person or even a small group of people who are truly responsible.
If we want to make government better, we need to deal with cultural issues that drive the kind of problems we have seen at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We need to deal with the political dysfunction that can make congressional oversight more of a sideshow than the powerful tool it was designed to be. We need to deal with the lack of training for federal managers that would help equip them to deal with problem employees and problem organizations. We need to deal with the unresolved questions of the scope and reach of government.
None of those is easy. None is likely to be completed within a daily news cycle, and none of them gives someone the satisfaction of finding someone to blame and firing that person. But, if we want to make our government better, they are what we have to do.
Jeff Neal is founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.