This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
It seems that every time I look at the Washington Post, Federal News Radio, Government Executive or Federal Times (or any other media targeted at the federal market), I see more talk about ways to hold federal workers accountable for performance. Much of it is focused on the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the idea of making it easier to fire federal employees is popular with a lot of people on the Hill, many federal managers, federal employees in general and with the public. That talk invariably gets around to the idea of making federal workers “at-will” employees who can be easily fired.
The biggest fear I have about at-will employment is that it could return the government to a spoils system and lead to the end of a merit-based civil service. At the same time, I understand the interest in making it easier to deal with problem employees. Federal employees have been saying for years that agencies should deal more effectively with poor performers. Only 28 percent of respondents in the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey believe that it is happening in their agencies. With that being true, it is no surprise that people in agencies and in the Congress would look for ways to address the problem.
So how do we make it easier to deal with poor performers without having a spoils system? I believe there are seven characteristics of any reform that are essential for accountability to be real and to avoid a spoils system.
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If we start with those seven basics, we could have the potential to design a more accountable civil service that is free of political influence. The at-will alternative is unlikely to have the same result and, for that reason, I believe it is bad public policy.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.