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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Carter’s Uphill Fight to Acheive Reforms in Civil Service System

Civil service reform–getting a better performance from happier government employees–is the centerpiece of President Carter’s campaign pledge to improve the federal government. Yet he is having a difficult time communicating a sense of excitement about his proposals both on Capitol Hill and among the public.

To be sure, the jargon of civil service reform is dull and ponderous. And the principles are contested in arcane or abstract ways. But whether government employees perform one way or another because of workplace conditions, tenures and supervisory backup generates very real and personal impacts on millions of Americans.

Consumers, for example, look to federal civil servants to protect them from cancerous additives in food, filth in meat and poultry products, defects in cars, radiation in electronic products, pollution in the air and water and monopolistic practices in the marketplace. Health, safety and fair prices are not arcane or abstract. So the managerial improvement of federal agencies and more responsible and sensitive federal employees are everybody’s business.

If federal meat inspectors cannot do their job conscientiously without risking an arbitrary transfer to a remote post, consumers will suffer at the dinner table. When supervisors do not lead and inspire; when instead they tolerate sloth, bias or worse situations, the tasks of upholding the public trust and respecting the public purse continue undone. That could mean more inflation, higher taxes, and the crushing of a thousand legitimate hopes for a productive democracy.

The challenge most immediately apparent for Mr. Carter is to make the civil service more concretely related to people’s aspirations and everyday lives. People also make up the civil service and their unused strengths and perceived frustrations merit higher visibility.

Next month a book titled “The Private Lives of Public Servants” (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Ind., $10.95) will be published. Written by Maryland lawyer Kenneth Lasson, a former associate of ours, the book takes readers through a day in the lives of six civil servants. Interspersed between the day’s unfolding events or non-events are the thoughts and observations of these federal employees. Surprisingly, the pages are engrossing and Mr. Carter, an avid book reader, should add this to next week’s list.

In a few days the House of Representatives will debate his badly mauled reform package as reported out of committee. Since the Senate already has passed a version fairly acceptable to the White House, the House vote, in the waning weeks of the session, is crucial.

The Congress, for all its curtseying to the lobbies working to weaken or add their favorite non-germane amendment to the legislation, has come through on the critical whistle-blowing protection provision. The White House lobbyist, Simon Lazarus (sometimes called a genteel populist), astonishingly opposed effective safeguards for federal employees who speak out on corruption or waste.

Mr. Lazarus, reflecting concerns of OMB officials Harrison Wellford and Peter Petkas, feared that lazy, incompetent or program-disloyal jobholders would use these protections as a pretext and severely upset the necessary managerial flexibility in running agencies with people suited to the agencies’ missions.

Congress did not buy this argument, citing far greater abuses of conscientious civil servants over the years that have chilled the exercise of individual responsibility and courage. The White House has conceded defeat on this issue and will go along with the congressional changes.

This does not, however, dispense with the importance of managerial authority to properly discipline or remove government employees. Clearly some balance must be struck. Otherwise a president can win an election and find it practically nullified by an intransigent civil service right up to the highest sub-Cabinet levels. In fact one of the reasons why elections mean so little, in terms of policies and programs, is that the bureaucracy remains unaffected, no matter who is president.

Carter’s proposal to establish a Senior. Executive Service (SES) for about 9,000 top managers could extend the electorate’s mandate beyond the White House. SES managers would be held more accountable for the performance of their workforce through a system of sanctions and incentives. In short, they can be more easily fired or they can receive more pay. The former is more in need than the latter, given the recent pay increases.

Congress further improved the provision by giving SES managers the same kind of whistle-blowing protections that other government employees are to be given.

The outcome in the House of Representatives may ultimately rest on whether the government unions try to overload this particular legislation to make themselves more powerful or try to make citizens more proud of their public servants.