Our Unfireable Federal Employees

We know from the recent scandals about the poor care received by our veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs is a poorly administered mess.  Now the VA may be helping to illustrate a deeper problem with our federal bureaucracy — the lack of accountability on the part of federal employees, and the inability to mete out disciplinary action that is a standard part of most regular, non-governmental jobs.

The VA story is about two administrators who were accused of manipulating the agency’s hiring processes.  The VA’s acting inspector general concluded that the two officials forced lower-ranking managers to accept job transfers and then took the vacant positions themselves, keeping their  pay while reducing their responsibilities.  One was accused of using the reassignment to obtain nearly $130,000 through a lucrative government relocation stipend program, while the government paid $274,000 to relocate the other from her position in Washington, D.C. to the job in Philadelphia.

us-deptofveteransaffairs-seal-largeThe VA demoted the two — rather than firing them outright — but the officials appealed the demotions under the federal government’s civil service system.  In both cases, administrative law judges with the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled for the officials, finding that they had not tried to hide their actions from their own supervisors, who had done nothing to stop the actions, and that other VA officials had engaged in similar conduct without being disciplined at all.

In short, the VA is so poorly managed — or so removed from the pressures of normal jobs — that officials looked the other way when employees gamed the system, and the failure to act or discipline those other employees sets a precedent that protects employees who engage in later, similar misconduct.  It’s a topsy-turvy world that would never be tolerated in a normal business.

The American civil service system was developed in the years after the Civil War to try to shield government jobs and career employees from cronyism and politicization when new Presidents were elected or new Congresses took office.  It was a good idea, but the system has become calcified, and in many instances now serves to protect employees from being held appropriately accountable for their actions.  The VA’s example tells us it’s time to take a fresh look at the civil service system.