Federal slackers: What's the real story?

FCW cartoonist John Klossner suspects the frequent stories about underperforming feds is creating an unrealistic picture of the federal workforce.

cubicle nap

In the numerous articles, blogs and comments sections I have been consuming, there is one person who is almost always a leading player in any account of the federal workforce. It's gotten to the point where, whenever I'm reading another piece about public workers, I await this player's entrance. It can be a subtle appearance, a sentence or two hidden among the accounts, or the full-blown lead, screaming in the opening.

I'm referring to the under- or non-performing public employee.

Who is this person?

It's almost as if there is a requirement, when writing about government employees, to mention that certain feds aren't doing the work. I imagine it was collectively bargained at one point: "OK, we'll give you full medical with dental, and a solid pension, but whenever you talk or write about government workplaces, you have to include at least two sentences acknowledging underperforming workers. Let me know if you'd like to use our template."

It comes across as an agencywide insecurity: "Yes, we accomplished A, B and C. Would anyone like to see pictures of our underperformers?" You could be writing about an agency that has found a cure for cancer while putting out wildfires as it negotiated a Middle East peace deal, but you still must mention that, of course, there were underperforming employees involved.

Is this an accurate picture? How have underperforming employees become representative of the public workplace as a whole? Do these caricatures – the lava-lamp employee at the post office, the over-caffeinated snarler at the DMV, the teacher who is out of the parking lot before the kids are on the bus – really represent the public employee community?

I found a statistic (sorry, this was the most recent I could come up with) stating that, in 1999, the Office of Personnel Management estimated that underperforming employees comprised approximately 3.7 percent of the federal workforce. Allowing for COLA-level growth (or undergrowth), that is still a small number to be so representative of the entire workforce. So how and why are they the face? (And how do you come up with estimate of underperforming employees? Do you send out a questionnaire and figure that anyone who has the time to answer must be a slacker?)

It's not that there isn't a problem here. As discussions about how to make government more efficient continue, one of the topics constantly visited is how to best compensate public employees, with a focus on how to implement a pay-for-performance system.

The problem seems to be systemic. There are numerous anecdotes of management being unable to follow a simple process for employee evaluations. Online comments tell of employees who feel that their managers don't give proper performance reviews, and managers tell of having their hands tied when trying to deal with underperforming employees.

Is the problem merely human interaction? A group of people working on high-cost projects in a stressed-out economy with heated partisan oversight – I'm pretty sure this would qualify as one of those lab tests where the rats start eating each other. Which, if you follow reader comments, is a pretty accurate metaphor for what is going on.

Maybe we need to better identify the underperformers, in order to let everyone know how little their numbers are? I suggest giving underperformers special seating in office spaces, meeting rooms and cafeterias – and perhaps requiring them to wear color-coded clothes or IDs – so that everyone can get a better idea of how small this group actually is.

Great, another project that the other 95-plus percent public workers will have to take care of.

pay for performance

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