Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA).
That reform had died just a few days earlier with the firing of its management CEO Jeff Pon and that power transferred to swamp headquarters at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The OMB coup over the CSRA established Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was made official by appointing OMBs management head as acting director of OPM but retaining her position with swamp headquarters, where a thousand careerists sit adjacent to the White House so they can run the government in their interest — using the president’s name.
The CSRA was the first reform of the civil service in a century and will certainly be the last. The Act resulted from a politician actually keeping his promise to the voters, who promoted an unknown Democratic Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter to president based on that pledge.
President Carter was a big believer in the modern centralized progressive state as provider of education (he created that department), health, and welfare for all. But the bloom was off the rose when the public turned against the Feds for being unable to produce positive results.
Recognizing this, Gov. Carter devised a platform supporting welfare goals but criticizing how the bureaucracy implemented them. The federal government could be successful, he argued, if its bureaucracy worked.
Carter repeatedly censured the government for rating 90 percent of its employees at the same level of competence making it impossible to fire any of them.
Once elected, he selected arguably the top public administration expert in the nation, a Syracuse University professor named Alan "Scotty" Campbell, to lead the reform effort.
His theory was simple.
The problem with the bureaucracy was that it was isolated, entropic.
Most government employees were reasonably competent, but it was more like a club than a business. There was no profit-and-loss as an outside measure of performance.
Indeed, failure was used as a reason to demand greater funding and resources to keep doing the same things with more people and more managers, allowing everyone to move up the pay scale to the most generous retirement in the world.
To make government responsive, Campbell argued, some outside element had to be introduced to stir things up. In a democracy, the legitimate means is an election and a new president. But in an organization of two million employees, he obviously cannot do everything himself.
The bureaucracy solution is to let the internal experts make the decisions without outside disturbance. But the democratic solution is for the president to choose political subordinates to oversee the president’s election-endorsed program to see that it is enacted, to assure the bureaucrats actually do what the voters want.
Making bureaucrats responsible to democratic elections was the core idea of CSRA.
This required that a sound performance appraisal process at each level of government actually evaluated employees differently over five or so rating categories and then pay and promote them on the basis of that performance, giving the best performers more.
Campbell was able to convince Congress to adopt merit pay for executives and middle managers but not average workers. Yet, all were subject to a more effective performance appraisal with some connection to compensation. That did make a difference.
After using his winning ways to pass the CSRA, Campbell spent the next two years creating the infrastructure to implement the Act. In one of those great coincidences in life, I happened to have been a student of Campbell’s at Syracuse University’s graduate school and succeeded him as director of the Office of Personnel Management.
But Carter’s loss in the following election meant poor Scotty never had the opportunity to see it operational. By the time he handed control to me, all I had to do was throw the switch. There were problems aplenty and Campbell had to give much to unions and employee associations to get the Act passed, but in my biased opinion, it actually worked.
But the swamp did not like the CSRA and fought it at every turn, often led by OMB careerists, especially on pay and pensions. Unions used political pressure to defeat plans to extend merit pay to the whole workforce.
Career management performance appraisal ratings started to congeal into a single rating again, even as successor OPM directors tried to spread them. By the end of the George H.W. Bush administration manager merit pay was gone, against OPM opposition.
Perhaps it's appropriate that CSRA is now dead.
The CSRA represents real-world proof that Campbell’s hope that a leviathan welfare state could be managed effectively was wrong.
Every outside expert today knows the federal bureaucracy is overloaded. If we do not send most of what it’s doing back to the states there will be complete stagnation, stasis.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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