How to spot a turkey farm
There once was a name for agencies with an overabundance of low- or non-performing federal employees: turkey farms.
Sometimes, managers would know of particular program or directorate where leadership was lax, and would send their problem employees that way. In other cases, turkey farms would develop within an agency where managers let poor performance slide. In either case, experts say, the root of the problem is red tape that makes it hard to take disciplinary action, sometimes coupled with a personal reluctance on the part of managers to act.
In the Nixon administration, a document referred to as the “Malek Manual” after Nixon’s special assistant Fred Malek, outlined ways to deal with unwanted employees while staying within the bounds of the federal merit system. For example, a manager could promote an employee to an insignificant assignment, disguised as a chance to head a new initiative outside the agency. Another strategy was to recommend an employee for another agency, promising the departing person a good recommendation along with the thinly veiled threat that fighting the decision would mean bad news.
Political turkey farms -- agencies filled with former campaign staffers with thin resumes -- made the headlines in the 1990s. In the George H.W. Bush administration, the Commerce Department became known as “Bush Gardens.” The General Services Administration and the Housing and Urban Development Department were similarly nicknamed because political slots were filled by family members of large contributors rather than qualified individuals, according to a 2009 working paper by David Lewis, a William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, and Gabriel Horton, a then-undergraduate student at the same institution.
It is a strategic move to place those people where any mistakes can go undetected, to pay back political debts, Lewis told FCW. “Every administration has this problem of where are we putting people who politically are important for us ... but practically they may not be the best qualified,” he said.
In 1992, an interim congressional report called out Federal Emergency Management Agency as a turkey farm in response to the agency’s failure to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. “FEMA is widely viewed as a political ‘dumping ground,’ a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment,” the report stated.
Whether an employee – career or political – has been turkey-farmed is a matter of perception, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service. A political turkey farm may happen when an administration does not value the mission of a particular agency and is less concerned about the effective operation of the agency, he said.
“We all know the right thing to do is take proactive action to improve their performance to an acceptable level,” Palguta said. The law also supports that, stating that an employee who will not or cannot move to an acceptable level of performance should be separated. However, the law also protects federal employees from firings and separations due to nonmeritorious reasons, meaning, for example, a change of political parties.
While agencies have long needed cause to remove an employee, up until the 1940s there was not much of a due process if an employee was let go for the wrong reasons. They could complain but there was little opportunity for them to air grievances to anyone who could take action.
Since the 1940s, administrative procedures have been implemented that grant employees the right to hearings. Employees who feel their termination has been unfair can also seek the aid of the Merit Systems Protection Board to review records. Strong support from unions also help employees fight arbitrary terminations.
While these protections are great for the employee, they create red tape for managers when legitimate performance issues surface.
“A federal manager who simply wants a poorly performing or non-performing employee to go away, to fire them may take more work than they want, so the notion is ‘I’ll just put them in a corner somewhere and give them make-work, and in the worst-case scenario, they can just sit there and figure out how to spend their time,’” Palguta explained. And while that may be an easy out for the manager, he said, it "is very irritating to the taxpayer."
Although turkey farms can be inconspicuous to outsiders, those in the know say certain titles can be a tip-off. Positions such as “special projects,” “special assistant” and “outreach” often indicate turkey-farmed individuals, said one former federal manager who spoke on background.
Getting an actual estimate of how many turkey farms or low performers exist today is not easy.
“There’s no data gathered because there’s not an official category with personnel records of someone being assigned to a turkey farm,” Palguta said.
The most recent numbers are from 1999, when the Office of Personnel Management’s study "Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story" found that 3.7 percent of the federal workforce are poor performers and 1.5 percent are rehabilitated poor performers.
An OPM spokesperson told FCW the agency no longer produces that particular report. One insider suggested the office may have discontinued the report due to the lack of common definition of a low performer.
“Also, keep in mind that if such a number was published, the political fallout would probably be enormous - from both sides of the aisle,” said the source.
The experts FCW spoke to had different opinions on whether turkey farms are as common today as decades ago. “I don’t think we have any evidence that we have less of it today,” Lewis said. Today, there is some constraint in terms of the qualifications of an appointee, and presidents have to be mindful of their choices to avoid making headline news. However, there are nearly twice as many appointed positions available today compared to the 1950s -- and the number of people presidential campaigns are indebted to is also greater, Lewis pointed out.
Stewart Liff, an expert in human resources management who spent more than 30 years in the federal government, said turkey farms remain an issue most supervisors struggle with governmentwide.
“I haven’t been to one [agency] where it wasn’t a problem,” he said. As for how many federal employees are poor performers, Liff said he has heard estimates ranging from less than 5 percent to upwards of 10 percent.
Palguta, however, said turkey farms are less prevalent today, mostly because the federal workforce has changed. Where once many government employees did clerical work for low pay, today the workforce is highly skilled, with an average salary hovering around $80,000. In such an environment, low performance “becomes less tolerable; senior managers become more demanding” and expect a fair return on investment, he said.
“That’s starting to happen more than it used to,” Palguta said. “Tight budgets are working against those employees who aren’t carrying their weight. That’s not a bad thing.”
William Bransford, a partner at Shaw Bransford & Roth, which represents federal executives, managers and employees before district courts, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, among others, shares Palguta’s belief that turkey farms are more rare than they once were.
“But they happen occasionally,” he acknowledged. Today’s managers are more likely to deal with problem employees and put them on a performance improvement plan, he said. However, turkey farms do not come to be because of poor management so much as a “lack of training and the support from higher-level managers to lower-level managers,” said Bransford, who serves as general counsel to the Senior Executives Association.
Why do turkey farms happen?
Turkey farms develop mostly because managers fail to deal with poor performers, the experts said. Agencies also tend to think there is too much documentation involved in addressing a problem employee. The perception is that these employees might file grievances or complaints or press charges -- or simply bog down their managers with so much paperwork and legal issues that doing one's actual job becomes impossible.
For example, in the event of a conduct case, the standard of proof means managers must prove their case by 51 percent. To fire someone for low performance, the standard of proof is much lower; managers must simply show substantial evidence. Those cases, however, often move much more slowly because employees typically need to be be counseled or given performance improvement opportunities, Liff said.
“But the problem is not the system; it’s how the system is implemented by government managers,” he said.
The most important thing is to deal with the problem instead of shuffling employees around, he said. “The key is that there has to be reliable consequences to every level of performance and behavior, whether the management likes the employee or not,” Liff said.
Turkey farms “can spring up like mushrooms because nobody is paying attention,” Palguta said. “It’s not even the case of a manager saying, ‘I’m just going to put this person over here and ignore them,'" he said. "It’s that the person is left alone and not getting any feedback on what they’re doing or should be doing.”
The antidote is to have good performance measurements, offer feedback to employees and develop competent managers, the experts said. “When you don’t have good managers or leaders, things tend to go awry,” Palguta said.
Or as Liff advised managers: “You have to have the will -- that’s the most important thing -- and you have to have the skill.”