Homeland-Security Staffing Raises Delicate Questions

The summer-long debate over the appropriate powers of the president of the United States to hire and fire employees of the new Department of Homeland Security has highlighted a more fundamental question about the nature of the federal civil service. Can federal workers be managed like civilians, or must they be ordered about like soldiers?

The proposed new department will embrace 170,000 existing federal employees, plus 30,000 to 40,000 new federal airport-security workers. They come from 22 major government bureaus, each formerly housed in a department or independent agency, and each with its own management practices, personnel rules, salary and benefit systems. They used at least seven incompatible computer systems. And the new department’s workers currently are represented by 17 different unions.

Merging these agencies and people could take years, unless — as seems all too likely — it’s never done at all.

The federal official who ought to know the most about this sort of thing is the director of the Office of Personnel Management, Kay Coles James. She has said the consolidation threatens to be a “management nightmare.” Arguing for the new department to have unprecedented management power, she said recently, “If we don’t have flexibility, it would be impossible to manage this mess.”

The Meaning of Flexibility

James says that flexibility means “The Department of Homeland Security will be subject to the principles of merit and fitness. The plan is to develop a world-class agency with a personnel system designed to attract and retain good people, to pay them at market rates, to offer incentives for exceptional contributions, and to ensure accountability for individual performance.”

Civil-service unions and their supporters in Congress, however, consider flexibility a code word for union-busting: Dismantling work rules, eliminating job security, ending hiring preference for veterans, shutting up whistle-blowers, discriminating against minorities and the disabled, politicizing appointments, paying workers differently for the same jobs and depriving them of due process and fair treatment.

Said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, “It’s really not only irrelevant but in my opinion an insult to public employees who are unionized to suggest that for some reason they can’t carry out their jobs as customs inspectors or border patrol just because they are members of a union.”

Sen. Lieberman has the horse pushing the cart. The question should be whether employees who choose not to perform well in their jobs can lose their jobs. And it’s no insult to say that there are some: About 100,000 federal workers receive unsatisfactory job-performance ratings each year. About 3% lose their jobs — but about 88% of them receive their annual “merit” raises.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, added a nice sound bite to the debate: “We don’t make our homeland more secure by undermining job security.” Oh, but we do, or we would if we dared. Unearned job security ruins responsibility and initiative. If we cannot expect devotion to duty at more workaday government jobs, we will not be able to demand it in the provision of homeland security.

The federal pay system is symptomatic: Rigid percentage increases are awarded for time by grade, and grades go up with the passage of years. A job, once won, is likely to last a lifetime. But a more telling problem with federal pay is that Congress long has capped the pay of almost all federal workers at the level lawmakers have decided to pay themselves. There are grudging exceptions, but this pretty much guarantees that federal lawyers, physicians, engineers and especially managers will be one of two types: Those most idealistically devoted to government service or a political cause, and those who value leisure time over monetary reward for intense personal effort.

As discouraging as this may be for professional workers, it is much worse for managers. Government executives ought to be as devoted to bottom-line efficiency as those in the private sector; paying salaries below market excludes the nonideological, hard-charging efficiency experts government needs most. And look what the pay cap says about Congress itself: The members are too self-important to imagine that anyone else could be worth more than $130,000 a year.

It would be useful if the administration really were trying to bust the federal unions: Then managing the Department of Homeland Security might prove to be an inspiration for managing the bigger mess that is the federal government at large.

Ms. James recently told the National Commission on the Public Service that “The current system simply does not support strategic management very well. There is nothing strategic about lock-step advancements. The government is burdened with an outdated compensation system that does not reflect market pay levels, and its procedures effectively preclude agencies from tailoring pay programs to their specific missions and labor markets. The federal government is operating with a 50-year-old compensation system that was custom-built for the process-obsessed age of the file clerk. Continued reliance on this antiquated system is comparable to insisting that today’s offices use carbon paper and manual typewriters.”

Ceremonial Mission

The important debate about the civil service has been covered over with a veneer of patriotic fervor: Both sides strongly wished to be able to create their versions of the new Department of Homeland Security before Sept. 11 of this year. But the clash of interests concerning civil service may have made it impossible to have the symbolic bill-signing ceremony on time.

With luck and a little more clashing, the ceremony may never take place at all. Because a new Department of Homeland Security probably won’t ever improve homeland security — just as so many other government departments, created to address other pressing areas of legislative concern, have fallen short of their objectives.

To list those created in the 20th century is to laugh, or weep: the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and above all, the Department of Defense. And just because a department is more than a century old does not give it high standing: the departments of Agriculture and Interior suffer as much from failures of management and organization as any of the newer ones.

The creation of the Defense Department — which married the War Department and the Navy Department and birthed the Air Force Department, then demoted all three services to sub-cabinet status — was a major part of the enormous 1947 federal reorganization of the military and spy services. It would be generous to say that it worked at all — it certainly did not end or even reduce the bureaucratic battles that have always plagued the armed services. And it took years for the services to reach a new equilibrium in matters of appropriations and missions.

Defending America

Oddly enough, only two of the 22 major agencies in the new Department of Homeland Security will be transferred from the Department of Defense — a small communications agency and a newly-created biowarfare agency. Everything else military stays where it is. And more than 78 other federal agencies the administration counts as playing a role in homeland security will not be transferred to the new department — not the FBI, not any of the spying agencies, not the federal structure of the National Guard, not the consular offices that decide which foreigners will receive visas to enter the United States.

Citizens should question the strategy for homeland security that led to this reorganization. And perhaps they would, were it not painfully clear that the reorganization preceded the strategy, and that the strategy still does not exist.

Defending the people of the United States from terrorism will require clear strategies and effective management. The people should demand that Congress provide them. The best way? Abandon the Department of Homeland Security and all its agencies’ civil-service connections, past and present. Homeland security is a military mission, so the homeland-security agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service and more should be brought under military discipline in the Department of Defense.

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