Editorial: Can we talk?

We were not surprised when Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia essentially blocked provisions of the Bush administration's proposed changes to the Homeland Security Department's personnel system. Collyer ruled that the administration did not adequately consult with federal employee unions.

We have commented in favor of some of the personnel reforms the administration has been seeking, and most federal workers acknowledge that the existing system is inadequate. Employees who go above and beyond the call of duty are not always rewarded, and by contrast, mediocre workers can generally get by. The often-voiced complaint is that the current system is management by lowest common denominator.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration moved forward with its proposal largely without talking to interested parties. That is understandable to a degree. Managers often complain that federal employee unions act as obstructions rather than partners.

It's easy to understand why employees would be less than enthusiastic about more changes to personnel rules. Politicians often score an easy applause line by criticizing the federal workforce and campaigning against the bureaucracy, but those same politicians expect workers to toe the line.

Times have been hard for federal employees, who are increasingly told that they must conduct their activities more like private-sector organizations. Feds must compete to keep their jobs and are now being told they will be assessed based on performance, much like private-sector workers.

It seems unfair that federal employees should face all the negatives of private-sector jobs without the benefit of those jobs' higher pay.

We give the Bush administration credit for taking on such complicated issues. Personnel reform is not glamorous and generally doesn't win anybody many votes. Federal employees deserve a fair system, and they have legitimate concerns about tying pay to performance.

But the administration could have addressed many of those issues with some consultation. Even the Government Accountability Office chided the Defense Department for failing to adequately discuss its personnel changes with employees.

Even if the much-discussed federal workforce crisis never materializes, agencies should be a home for the best and brightest. The most effective way to do that is to find a system that is fair for both sides.

— Christopher J. Dorobek

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.

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