“You’re Fired!”: Why Government Cannot Be Run Like a Business
Written by: Paul R. Verkuil
Paul Verkuil, author of Valuing Bureaucracy The Case for Professional Government (2017), on the recent Comey firing and the perils of running a government like a business.
In Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government, I emphasize the importance of professional government and the civil service system. This week’s firing of F.B.I. director James Comey puts my theme into stark relief. The intimidation effect of the firing challenges the career officials at the F.B.I. to stay the course of the investigation. The political appointees of the Department have no less a duty to do so as well. To date, the New York Times reports that fewer than 30 of 500 key senate confirmed positions have been filled by the Trump Administration, which in reality means that career professionals are acting in leadership positions at many agencies. They have the civil service protections of tenure and independence for a reason: they are the ones running the government. Civil service “reforms” in bills currently before congress that propose to cut back job protections and substitute “at will” employment for new federal government employees are misguided. While the system needs improvement, that is not the way to do it. This country has worked too hard to achieve a dedicated and reliable work force to jeopardize it in this way. This may be the most important reason why government cannot be run like a business.
My book is based on lessons learned in my 5 1/2 years of service as Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States during the Obama Administration. ACUS is an independent agency in the Executive Branch, started by President Kennedy, that brings together key agency officials, former officials and academics to debate and recommend improvements to agency performance and process. It is bi-partisan and respected by congress, the courts and the executive for its unbiased and thoughtful work. My experience with government officials, both career and political, has been positive that it compelled me to speak out for what I call “professional” government. One of the key performance variables, in my view, has been the increasing reliance on contractors to do jobs normally delegated to public officials. I document numerous agencies where the heavy use of contractors has imperiled the performance of the career and political officials who are constitutionally responsible to run the government and fulfill the President’s duty “to take care” that laws are properly implemented. Since contractors have appropriate roles to play, using them properly involves a resetting of incentives in the civil service system to increase the ability of agency leaders to hire, incent and, if necessary, terminate, public employees.
I also consider several examples from the states where the unchecked use of contractors, coupled with the rise of “at-will” public employment regimes, has reduced the professionals at the state level and effectively “hollowed out” government. The performance consequences are predictable and disastrous in many circumstances. I conclude my work with two points: by reminding the reader why Teddy Roosevelt and other reformers fought so hard for a civil service and why that once accepted concept seems in jeopardy now; and by suggesting ways that the system can be reformed to make government at all levels more effective. It is my hope that the Trump Administration will see the virtues of reform and convene appropriate bodies to make it happen. We desperately need investments in both physical and human infrastructure. In fact, we can’t do the necessary physical infrastructure improvements without a professional government to implement them.