Gov Careers

By Phil Piemonte

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Favoritism and other pernicious practices

More than a few readers of this blog have indicated that they believe favoritism is alive and well in the federal workplace.

And as all — or most or perhaps many — feds know, there is a clear prohibition against favoritism spelled out in Merit Principle No. 8, as follows:

“Employees should be —

(A) protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and

(B) prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.”

Then again, the articles of the Constitution seem simple enough on the surface, too. The first part of No. 8 — Part A — protects feds against favoritism from above, as well as from political pressure and arbitrary actions against them by agencies. At the same time, Part B protects feds from other feds, in terms of any political pressure they might apply to one another.

According to the Merit Systems Protection Board, Part A incorporates an idea that traces back to the Pendleton Act of 1883 — that feds should not be subject to a patronage or “spoils” system. Under that system, civil servants’ continued employment depended on whether they voted the way their bosses told them to vote, and bosses hired employees according to their personal preferences rather than based on a person’s merit.

At the same time, Part B puts a restriction on feds themselves by barring them from using their authority or office to influence nominations and elections. In applying Principle No. 8, MSPB notes that the right to be free from political coercion is so important that it is “extended even to probationary employees who do not have the same appeal rights that tenured employees have.”

The prohibition of the activities in Part B is enforced primarily through something called the 1939 Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it’s usually referred to by the name of its author, a senator from New Mexico named Carl Hatch.

The Hatch Act, if you’ve been properly informed, prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities while on duty, wearing a uniform, or using a government vehicle or computer, among other things. The bottom line is that feds are forbidden from using their official capacity in any way to influence an election.

Although some feds commenting on this blog have expressed different opinions on MSPB’s effectiveness in enforcing Part A, the section on favoritism, they should note that MSPB also does pre-emptive work on the issue by vetting — and sometimes turning back — regulations that might open up feds to violations of Principle No. 8.

And of course, the board’s Office of Policy and Evaluation also does a good bit of research on how well the merit system and the federal workforce are faring. It did that in a December 2009 report, “Fair and Equitable Treatment: Progress Made and Challenges Remaining,” which showed that “a substantial percentage of federal employees harbor concerns about the impact of favoritism on management decisions.”

So fear not, MSPB — like many readers of this blog — also knows that favoritism is alive and well in the federal workplace.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Aug 09, 2011 at 12:13 PM


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