The bureaucrat myth debate

Bureaucratus' summary of the Office of Personnel Management's assessment of poor performers in the federal work force should have devoted closer attention to the methodology ["Exploding the bureaucrat myth," FCW, Aug. 30]. OPM did not interview 3,000-plus federal employees; they interviewed more than 200 federal employees who supervise more than 3,000 employees and extrapolated from that base. The method is better than individual anecdotes but not the basis for strong confidence in the survey results.

There is plenty of evidence that could corroborate the analysis, if corroboration were possible. For example, federal agencies gave less than fully successful performance ratings to 0.4 percent of the work force, but performance ratings had degenerated into feel-good exercises long before OPM abandoned them in favor of a headlong rush to pass/fail. Moreover, performance ratings are problematic measures even in the private-sector work force - for many of the same reasons that limit their reliability for assessing federal employees. Indications of the vulnerability of this figure, however, are abundant. Discussing this report before a conference of inspectors general shortly after it was published, I asked, "How many of you believe the 3.7 percent figure?" - the percent of federal employees the study identified as poor performers. Out of more than 50 IGs and senior staff present, only one concurred. This provided an initial foundation for suspecting that the report was - at best - marginally credible among people whose responsibility includes observing poor performance among federal employees.

Consider other evidence of poor performance that slaps you in the face regularly:

Walk into any post office, observe the length of the line and look at the number of windows/

registers open for service. Compare your experience there to a grocery store: How often do you see grocery store employees sitting on coffee break while the checkout lines are backed up?

Review the Internal Revenue Service's accuracy rate for telephone advice given to taxpayers. Compare it to the lawyers and accountants who wind up defending taxpayers when the enforcement arm of the IRS pursues violations that result from taking the telephone advice.

Look at the rates of operational errors among air traffic controllers. Or worse, the extended separation requirements being imposed on aircraft because of the labor relations hostility being vented by the controllers' union.

Talk to attorneys in different agencies and assess the portion of cases that they have to throw out because of inadequate investigative work.

Review some of the administrative decisions issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's administrative judges and ask yourself: If I were an agency executive, would I find this decision convincing?

Performance of the agencies must be the primary indicator of the performance of the employees, and federal agencies are not working as well as either the performance ratings or the OPM report would have people believe.

The critical question is not the comparison with the private sector, which has abundant performance problems of its own, but the availability of options.

When U.S. Postal Service employees do not perform, more business goes to electronic commerce, telephone, UPS, Federal Express, Airborne Express and the emerging market of competitors. We don't have the opportunity to compare alternatives to many federal agencies, and, if performance were really at levels that OPM reports indicate, I suspect that we would have fewer competitors developing in areas such as commercial prisons.

The quality of the work produced inevitably becomes the measure of performance. Agencies that actually had only 3.7 percent poor performers in their midst would not be resisting the development and publication of the performance measures required by the Government Performance and Results Act.

Edward J. Lynch

The true poor performers in the federal trough are [large corporations] who get cost-plus contracts to develop systems.

Cost plus means they get paid whether they deliver a decent design or not. In the case of the F-22, the General Accounting Office reports [Lockheed Martin Corp. has] scarcely met a performance requirement in its development contract, but it will get paid and receive a fee. We'll probably buy the airplane and get nothing much other than an air-show display.

Other defense contractors and their products are similarly disappointing.

So when they degrade civil servants, ask them if they understand cost-plus contracting. There's no relation to value in those.

Ed Herger

Thanks for the article. It says what I have always believed. I have over 35 years in the federal government, 20 as active military and now more than 15 as a civilian employee. I am currently a manager, but I have never been in a government organization where I and most other employees were not 100 percent-plus employed.

Over the past five to 10 years, with the drawdown in the military, 10 to 12-hour days are the norm for military andcivilians. Most of these hours are given at no cost. Civilians can rest assured they are getting more than their money's worth from their government employees.

Garry Lee

As a federal manager, I've always enjoyed [Bureaucratus'] articles, especially the one in the Aug. 30 issue. The OPM study told me what I already know: Poor performers are indeed a tiny minority.

What we collectively miss the boat on is the more insidious problem: organizationally destructive employees. They can be good technical performers, but personal, ethical and other baggage that comes with them tears at organizational efficiency and health. These people are everywhere, including top management. Here are some examples:

Good producers whose back-stabbing attitude is hurtful to peers. They continually stir the pot and unfortunately think they are actually helping the organization. How many times does the executive steering group talk about how the same two or three people will react to a decision?

Managers who suffer and permit employees to perform outside their position description and are indifferent or react adversely to the employee's request for relief. Then they wonder why they file grievances or leave. This is caused by promoting technically competent people to management positions despite a lack of leadership development or skill.

Senior managers who pocket power and information and are virtual obstacles to getting anything done. If your organization seems like it is "accomplishing feats of ease with the greatest of difficulty" then your senior management is in the basket-case category.

In any organization, you have 1 percent to 3 percent of these individuals at all levels. That kills productivity, quality of work life and, by extension, quality of home life. So far, we have lacked the organizational backbone to attack this very real problem because we fear the quick involvement of lawyers.

Well-meaning poor performers are easy to deal with. It is also easy to tell the destructive person to stick a sock in their mouth.

However, we must live with the consequences of doing the right thing. In the long run, life will be much easier and more productive if we aggressively dump the destructive baggage. I have yet to find a good manager who couldn't visualize a profound improvement to a 200-person organization by simply dumping a handful of people out the door.

Name withheld by request

I was a federal employee, and I ran across a few persons who were promoted beyond their technical abilities. Generally, the federal employee worked more than 40 hours a week to get the work out.

I worked for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week computer data center that supported the Navy for materials, supplies and payroll. We were on call [around the clock] for any trouble. However, you did get paid if you solved the problem over the phone. We carried pagers but did not receive any compensation for this extra responsibility.

Initially, we were patriotic in keeping the data center operating 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Most of the programmers would get calls from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. and still have to go to work at 7 a.m.

With the base realignment and closure and consolidation of services, the workload increased for each person. With management behind the power curve, it made it a hostile environment to work in. Our section inherited a manager whose obnoxious memos and verbal berating would turn happy employees into raging infernos.

During the changes, we had to present our projects through a Change Control Board, which was illiterate in computer-technical terms.

Also during this period of time, our users were abused and ignored by the new management. Because everything was, "See ya," nothing was accomplished to improve working conditions or provide employees with viable solutions to be [subject to a reduction in force].

A former civilian service employee

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