Schedule F could hurt public’s trust in government even further

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The debate over the Trump administration’s order to create a new civil service Schedule F – most of it has focused on the effects on career employees. But what about the public? My next guest says it will erode trust in government. Bob Tobias, professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more insight.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, I think it’s fair to say you don’t like this executive order much.

Bob Tobias: I think it’s really wrongheaded, and will be particularly bad for the public, bad for the Career Service, because so many people will be political employees.

Tom Temin: Well, let’s talk about the public perception first.

Bob Tobias: Well, I think that it’s really important for the government to be trusted. So when the government says that a hurricane is going to hit in such and such a place, the public has to trust the expertise that led to that conclusion. When the FDA says a vaccination is safe, the public has to trust that that is true, because if they don’t trust that, they won’t vaccinate, and it’ll be bad for everybody in this country. So trust is critically important. And if the people who are making these decisions are political appointees, without expertise, that erodes the trust that people might have in the federal government.

Tom Temin: But that’s making the presumption that those that would be hired by any president, Republican or Democratic, are hired not on the basis of expertise, but on the basis of some other political affiliation or belief. But we don’t really know that to be true, though.

Bob Tobias: Well, here’s what we do know, that the reason the Pendleton Act was created in 1883, was because all positions in the federal government were political appointees, and Teddy Roosevelt said, actually, in The Atlantic magazine in February of 1885, when office mongers seek and dispense patronage from considerations of personal and party greed, the tone of public life is necessarily lowered, that the bribe taker and the bribe giver and the blackmailer and the corruptionist find their places ready, prepared for them. So the whole idea of the Pendleton Act was to replace political appointees with Career Service people selected on the basis of merit. And while it’s true that some political appointees may be selected on the basis of merit, it doesn’t preclude the selection based on loyalty.

Tom Temin: Well, perhaps there’s the perception, maybe by the Trump administration, but I think probably any administration would have this sense–that people in place, already the career workforce, when they get there, that is, the new administration gets there, that the workforce may drag its feet because it doesn’t agree with a certain policy, or it just doesn’t want to change the status quo. And how do you get around that possibility, where people just slow-roll things that an administration wants because the people that are charged with carrying out policy just don’t want to do it?

Bob Tobias: Yeah, the current structure of government is political appointees are the deciders. They make the final political decisions about policy, and about the implementation of policy. Then you have a level of people who are the recommenders. And then the people who are the analyst and data gatherers. Currently, almost all of the recommenders and the data gatherers are career people. So if we were to replace the recommenders and the data gatherers with political appointees, we wouldn’t have any expertise, Tom. So it wouldn’t be about slow rolling, it would be about no rolling, because there will be no expertise to be called on for the deciders to make decisions.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, professor in the key Executive Leadership Program at American University. Well, what about when there’s gray areas, and I’m thinking of, say, an EPA decision, a type of example I’ve used before. And the scientists at EPA, they use science and engineering to say this is the right amount of emissions or parts per million of this particular medium. And these are complicated calculations, because they have to take in account the cost industry, and also the public health benefits. And sometimes those two are in conflict. And so very often the political leadership has to choose some midpoint where, well, we’ll have to accept the possibility that there might be 1,000 more deaths, if it’ll save $100 billion. That’s an extreme example. But there are calculations developed by the government on the value of a human life and what they’re worth in terms of other costs and so forth. Very complicated stuff. Ultimately, it’s not the scientists that decide, though, but the politicians.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct, as it should be. And then the public will decide in the next election, whether the equation you just articulated is appropriate or inappropriate. But the problem with Schedule F is the scientists are eliminated.

Tom Temin: Got it. OK, so you’re saying it goes down another layer to where that expertise is, and then the political decisions won’t be well-informed?

Bob Tobias: That is correct.

Tom Temin: All right. Let’s talk about another aspect of this issue, which is this the sheer turnover that’s possible from administration to administration. I had a guest on last week who mentioned, well, maybe any new incoming administration would want that standing workforce, even if it was there before, because of its expertise. So I guess that could work both ways, too.

Bob Tobias: Well, many things in the government are long-term. Political appointees last 18 months to 24 months. But the installation of a complex IT system takes more than 18 months. Planning to put a person on the moon around Mars takes much longer than 18 or 24 months. So there are many projects and programs in the federal government that need continuity in order to plan, design and implement. But if up to somewhere around 270,000 people plus the current 800 or so Senate-confirmed and 1300 political appointees turn over, the federal government could never ever carry out a long-term project because there would be constant turnover in the federal government.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so then you’ve got the issue, also, of people, like you say, that are on long-term projects. It’s likely that something like the idea of going to Mars, which I think has pretty much bipartisan support, but it requires long-term support, both of Congress, of course, which is volatile, but also the long-term support of the knowledge behind that program. So you’re saying that, that knowledge could also walk out the door?

Bob Tobias: That’s correct. And it’s not just a trip to Mars, it’s the design of an F -35 airplane that has taken 10 years to put into practice.

Tom Temin: So far.

Bob Tobias: So far. And so, if people were churning all the time, it would never get built.

Tom Temin: And another point you’ve made, too, is the need for internal dissent. Even if everyone says, “Well, we got to get behind the policy, once it is decided, often the dissent and the argument beforehand, can lead to a better decision, even though it has to be made on some political basis by a political person.

Bob Tobias: I think that’s right, Tom. As the decider, I ought solicit opinions from those who agree with me and those who don’t agree with me so that I’m fully informed of the range of options that I have to make. And if I’m the political appointee, if I’m the president, I make them. But if I only make them with people who support my position, I’m going to be wrong a lot of the time.

Tom Temin: I guess, too, in favor of that idea is the fact that you simply need people with historical knowledge that could say, “Well, yeah, we did that back when XYZ was president, and here’s what happened. You can try it again. But I was here, and this is what happened.” And you might not like that outcome.

Bob Tobias: Yeah. You know, a lot of incoming political appointees say, “Well, this is the way we’ve done it in the private sector,” or “This is the way we’ve done it,” or so forth, and so on, who really have no cognizance of the fact that Congress exists and Congress appropriates and the courts decide facets of decision-making that an awful lot of people are totally unfamiliar with. So someone who’s there who says, “Yes, we tried it, and it failed, and if you want to do it differently, you can do it differently, and this is what you have to do.” So that historical knowledge and continuity, I think, is critical to effective decision-making in the federal government.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. It’s good to know the civil service has you at their back, Bob. I have to say that. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bob Tobias: Thank you very much, Tom, for having me.

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