By William Wiley, November 15, 2017
Here’s one of the things wrong with Congress that affects you personally.
Recently, we’ve seen proposed legislation that would change the probationary period for new federal employees. During a probationary period, a bad civil servant can be fired with a snap of the fingers. No procedures, no burden of proof. It’s always a good idea for the supervisor to be able to articulate a reason in case the employee files a discrimination complaint. But otherwise, it is a relatively easy process to implement accountability during probation.
The probationary period in the federal service generally is a year long. I tried to do research to find out how long it has been that way, but I could not find when it started. At a minimum, we’ve had a one-year probationary period for at least 60 years. For what it’s worth, my research revealed that in the private sector, probationary periods are usually 30 days, maybe up to 90 days for some more senior positions.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is now considering extending the probationary period from one year to two, The Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service Act (EQUALS). Sounds good, doesn’t it? Snappy acronym. Make it easier to fire bad government employees by delaying their property rights and appeal rights for an additional year after first hire.
Well, why the devil are they doing this? Seriously. Enacting legislation is hard. Subcommittees, committees, witnesses, reports, bicameral legislature so that it has to be done twice. If you’re going to go to all this trouble, shouldn’t it be for something really worthwhile?
Look. There’s nothing really wrong with extending the probationary period. Given this area of increased accountability in the civil service, this proposal would increase the pool of easy-to-fire federal employees. But we can’t really say that this particular pool of employees was causing us a problem anyway. If you look through MSPB’s decisions, you won’t find a whole bunch of employees who could not have been terminated during the first year of service because they were good employees, who then suddenly in the second year of employment became worthless dirt bags. MSPB’s data base supports the gut feeling that most of have in this business. If we’ve mistakenly hired an individual who demonstrates he is a bad employee, those shortcomings show up in the first year. If they do not, I know of no studies that show he is more likely to mess up in the second year than he is to mess up in a subsequent year.
Sure, some individuals get though probation and then demonstrate unacceptable performance the next year. However, my experience is that had the immediate supervisor been more careful, that unacceptable performance would have been detected during the first year. If it was, and the supervisor did not act proactively to terminate the employee during probation, it’s not the one-year law that’s a problem; it’s poor management that’s the problem.
Maybe we do need new laws to make it easier to fire bad government employees. Maybe we even need to do away with civil service protections altogether, allowing agencies without MSPB (or other) oversight to provide due process prior to termination. Perhaps it’s time to void the concept of a protected federal work place and shift completely to an employment at-will federal government workforce. Here at FELTG, we’re committed to an efficient accountable government. If that involves a protected civil service, that’s great. If it involves a different way of providing government services, we’re open to that, too.
The problem that Congress is causing you is that it does not take the time and effort to answer these fundamental questions as to how our federal government should be run; who should be employed to provide government services, and how they should be managed. Instead, it nibbles around the edges of our system. It thinks that increasing the probationary period by a year will make a difference. It reduces the notice period for a removal in DVA to 22 days compared to 30 days in all the other agencies. It empowers OSC to order agencies to propose the removal of whistleblower-reprising supervisors. These may or may not be decent ideas in isolation, but they do NOTHING to positively affect the structural design of our civil service.
Hey, Congress! Here’s a brilliant idea. Reserve a conference room somewhere, get a bunch of flip charts and coffee pots from the supply room, and stick the best and the brightest civil service scholars and practitioners in there with a lock on the door. Tell them that they won’t again see the light of day until they come up with a comprehensive plan for civil service over-haul. Over time, maybe they’ll decide that what we have now isn’t all that bad after all. Or, maybe they’ll decide that we need to scrap the whole system and just hire and fire civil servants like they hire and fire employees in the private sector: at will. Or, something in between. But at least we’d get a soup-to-nuts overview of what we want our government to be rather than this nickel-and-dime approach we’ve been seeing recently with these pitiful excuses for civil service reform.
Nibbling is bad if you’re on a diet trying to lose weight. It’s also a bad way to run the civil service. Wiley@FELTG.com