The debate about whether federal employees are overpaid in comparison to private sector employees is never-ending. Attempts at comparison are criticized for involving small sample size, for not accounting for differences in education level, and on the basis of other factors. The Weekly Standard now weighs in on this ongoing debate with an article that concludes that, in fact, federal workers are overpaid. I’m sure that the article will not be the last word on the subject. It does, however, provide ammunition for those who think that we can safely freeze federal employee compensation without losing out on qualified workers.
I’m not sure that debating the compensation levels of federal employees versus private sector employees is really all that meaningful. To me, the more pertinent question deals with productivity and performance. Speaking as someone who has worked (twice) in the federal government and also in the private sector, I am convinced that private sector workers must work harder, be more productive, and maintain a higher level of performance. If you are a salesman, you have to sell up to your quota if you want to keep your job. If you are a mechanic who botches a few repair jobs, you will find yourself out on the street.
How many federal employees get fired for poor performance? Not as many who should be, no doubt, because the process of firing federal workers is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. The result is that crummy workers keep their jobs, and the government hires additional employees to do what the poor employees can’t, or won’t, do. The lack of a meaningful threat of discharge inevitably results in a bloated workforce. The real answer to cutting the federal payroll is not to freeze salaries, but to get rid of the absurd limitations on discharging bad employees and require federal employees to meet the same meaningful productivity and performance standards that are applied to private sector workers.