The Corner

The Rot Runs Deep: Thousands of Bureaucrats Need to Go

Here are two stories in juxtaposition. First, from NRO on Monday:

Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson fiercely rebuked calls to reprimand or fire employees of the VA during a visit to a Fayetteville, N.C. medical center.

“This idea that ‘let’s fire everybody, let’s pull everybody’s bonus away’ — that’s a bunch of crap” he said, according to WNCN. “I’m not going to see people sit there and say that we got 350,000 people that aren’t worth a crap.”

Next, let’s pull a few paragraphs from James Taranto writing in the Wall Street Journal online:

“VA officials were not immediately available for comment Monday,” the Washington Times reported yesterday. “Representatives at the national VA declined to comment on the record for this story,” the Daily Beast informed us late last month. “The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment,” according to a mid-May NBC News report.

Those are the first three of some 70 no-comments compiled by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for a webpage optimistically titled “VA Honesty Project,” whose purpose is “to highlight the Department of Veterans Affairs’ lack of transparency with the press and the public about its operations and activities.”

“Because the Department of Veterans Affairs is a taxpayer funded organization, it has a responsibility to fully explain itself to the press and the public,” the committee’s site declares. “Unfortunately, in many cases VA is failing in this responsibility, as department officials–including 54 full-time public affairs employees–routinely ignore media inquiries.”

I point to the VA public affairs office not as proof by itself that thousands of federal workers are incompetent or corrupt enough to be fired but simply as an example: Examine virtually any portion of the sprawling federal bureaucracy, and you’ll find the kind of conduct Taranto describes — bureaucrats either failing to do their job entirely, failing at their job, or simply abusing the power of their office. And it’s no wonder — our Orwellian-named “merit” system for federal employees offers extreme levels of job protection. How extreme? Here’s USA Today:

Federal employees’ job security is so great that workers in many agencies are more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off or fired . . . The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 — 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance, says John Palguta, former research chief at the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, which handles federal firing disputes.

I’ve posted the USA Today story before, but it’s worth the repeat. When dealing with the federal bureaucracy, we’re dealing with a collection of individuals who simply don’t live with the kind of job insecurity that hangs over the heads of most Americans. Most people live with the reality that not only are their job fortunes tied to the overall financial health of the corporation, but also that poor performance will lead (frequently) to rapid termination even if the corporation is doing well. The incentives — both to help the company thrive and to personally perform well — are obvious. But people are people (highly imperfect), and even in the face of these strong incentives, poor performance can abound even in the private sector.

The situation is much worse in the public sector, where the incentive structure is dramatically skewed, layers of bureaucracy protect poor performers, and politics is seeping down to the lowest levels — transforming many of our key public-sector institutions into vast, costly, and inefficient extensions of the Democratic party.

So the VA that Sloan Gibson fiercely defends is the same VA that not only makes headlines with its systematic corruption and deception — corruption that costs lives — but also can’t even handle small things like answering press inquires with their 54 full-time public-affairs employees or (to take one example from personal knowledge) firing an employee caught snorting cocaine in the parking lot. 

No one is saying that all 350,000 employees are bad. But thousands are, and their continued employment and — even worse — continued protection from the top-down of a dysfunctional bureaucracy harms the government, harms the employees that work with them each day, and — most important – harms the American people they’re supposed to serve.

So, Secretary Gibson, spare us the crocodile tears until you can show us that your 350,000 people can do the jobs they’re hired to do. 


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