Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

The government performance problem

ASK THIS | August 04, 2009

A Harvard professor calls a major government-wide investment in the workforce necessary both to improve critical services and to prepare for an imminent tidal wave of retirement. Here's how reporters can advance the story.

By Dan Froomkin

As the American people become increasingly aware of the impact that the federal government has on their lives, Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes is calling attention to the desperate need for improvement in the way government offices go about their work.
“All over the country – all over the world – we have these programs that really are not functioning properly,” Bilmes says. And the reason is simple: “They don’t have the right people.”
The basic problem is that the federal government is not keeping up with the private sector when it comes to dealing with human resources. As Bilmes wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed this spring: “The federal government's people management remains rooted in another era. The idea of investing in the workforce - which is what drives superior performance at America's best companies - is still largely foreign to the civil service. While we entrust federal employees with public safety, security, and health, we spend less than one-third per capita on their training compared with private firms and the military.”
Reporters interested in documenting the government’s difficulties  “don’t have to look very far,” Bilmes says. Over the past several years, government failures have often made headlines – from the faulty intelligence that led to war in Iraq, to the conditions at Walter Reed, to the backlog for veterans’ disability benefits, and from the log jams at the Patent Office and the response to Hurricane Katrina, to the regulatory failures that led to the current financial crisis. Some government failing are at the policy level, of course, but in many cases, Bilmes says, “the root of the problem is that you don’t have the right people doing the jobs, or that they are not trained adequately, or that they don’t have enough people who are trained adequately.”
Noting that of the 1.9 million federal workers, 85 percent are outside Washington D.C., Bilmes suggests that reporters wherever they are go visit federal government offices in their geographic areas or on their beats, talk to people who work there, including in the HR department, and ask:
Q. How well is the office functioning?
Q. How much of its problems are caused by not having hired the right people, or not having provided the right training?
Q. What are the new hires like? Is the office attracting appropriate, high quality applicants?
Q. How will the office function in a few years, when many of its top employees retire?
Bilmes says that as bad as things are now, if unaddressed they will get much worse in the next five years as nearly half the federal workforce becomes eligible for retirement – including nearly 90 percent of the senior executives who run the biggest programs.
Recruiting is a distinct problem, Bilmes says. “Do we recruit people who have the right kind of aptitude and emotional wherewithal to do this kind of job in the first place?”
Her research finds that top college grads are too frequently turned off from government service, either because they don’t think government offices embody the values they’re looking for in a workplace – or simply because the application process is so painful. Earning particular scorn from Bilmes is the USA Jobs Web site “It’s actually referred to as a black hole,” she says. “You apply on line, and then three months later or more you get a snail-mail postcard back saying they have received your online application.” And then the real wait begins. Top graduates don’t have that kind of patience. “Government is not ending up with the best pick of college graduates,” Bilmes says.
Bilmes has a solution. In the program she proposes (see her new book, The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service) Bilmes proposes shrinking the government slightly and making the remaining employees better paid and better trained. The requisite $10 billion investment over five years would be paid for, appropriately enough, through a small tax on federal contractors. And the relatively trivial investment would yield $300 to $600 billion in productivity gains, she says.
The alternative is not good. “Many vital services are in danger due to the fact that we have not paid attention to these tedious but critical issues about how do you recruit people, how do you retain them, and how do you develop career plans,” she says.
So where are the problems most severe? The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service puts out a biannual guide to the Best Places to Work in the federal government, and although their focus is on the top scorers, it’s not impossible to generate a list of the worst.
The worst-rated offices include, in the Department of Education, the Office of Postsecondary Education (ranked 216 out of 216) and the Federal Student Aid office (209); in the Justice Department, the National Drug Intelligence Center (215); in the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration (214); in the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration (213) and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (210) (no surprises there); in the Department of Treasury, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (212); in the Department of Defense, the Defense Contract Management Agency (211) and the Defense Contract Audit Agency (tied for 202); and in the Department of Agriculture, Forest Service (206). Bilmes also urges reporters to take a look at the world of food inspectors, military fraud inspectors, Veterans Administration disability administrators and – perhaps most alarmingly of all -- Air Traffic controllers.
By contrast, reporters can find some good-news stories in agencies like the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Logistics Agency, which she says have dramatically transformed themselves by making the kinds of workplace investments that are old-hat in the private sector.
Bilmes is hopeful that change may be coming – from the top of the federal food-chain. “I think we have a particular opportunity now, with a strong and youthful leader, to lead a culture change and a change in attitude toward public service in general,” she says. “We also have a window of opportunity at the moment because the country has woken up to the fact that government actually matters a lot, and that leaving everything to the private sector doesn’t work out too well.”  

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.