Ready, Aim … Fire

What’s the best way to reduce government staff?

Once you’ve decided which city employees are unnecessary, then comes the hard part. Firing them. It’s not as easy to pry people out of government jobs as it should be, but there are some helpful tricks:

Turkey farming. Inside the District government, this is also known as Pass-the-Trash. The usual version of turkey farming is only a local solution, doing nothing for overall efficiency: Office A wants to get rid of Bureaucrat Boob, so it passes him off to Office B, issuing its glowing recommendation with an internal wink and a grin. But turkey farming can be a useful tool. If you have an employee doing nothing and you’d like to empty out his desk, the trick is to find out what, if anything, he does well. The grumpiest front-office counselor in D.C.’s Department of Employment Services might just be brilliant at some job in back where he doesn’t have to deal with the public.

Old-fashioned firing. Of course, if that employee’s just plain incompetent, you can get rid of him, even with all those intimidating civil service rules. “People always blame the regulations for keeping a deadbeat around,” says one veteran D.C. administrator, “but you can get rid of someone if you’re willing to take the heat and do the work.” Since documenting a case for termination may take months, many managers decide that they don’t have the patience for the inevitable accusations, appeals, and even lawsuits. But D.C. managers do have the discretionary power to fire with impunity the city’s nearly 200 political appointees and 3,800-odd probationary civil servants and temporary workers. And even after the employee is entrenched, the regs only require giving 30 days’ notice—during which a manager must make an effort to help the staff member solve workplace problems and order an independent review of the case by a “disinterested designee.”

The catch is that the District’s iron-clad personnel “penalty guide” severely circumscribes what, precisely, a manager can fire someone for. Right now, the worst punishment an employee can receive for supplying false information to superiors or the City Council or Congress is a five-day suspension. Same with being drunk or stoned on company time, gambling on the job, or even committing a criminal act off-hours that “discredits the D.C. government.” But the mayor can propose revisions to this and all the city’s other civil service regulations, and lobby the City Council to pass them. Congress, which technically must approve any such changes, has rarely overturned Council actions.

Consolidation. If you had a single clerk whose job consisted of doing absolutely nothing, your best move would be to simply abolish the job. If you had an office that was doing nothing, you’d dissolve it. Problem is, the jobs and offices that could be slashed without any penalty at all exist only in parodies or business school textbooks. Most people in city government do something important—but they may spend only a fraction of the day doing it. The new administration’s task will be to identify the meaningful tasks a worker performs; suspend the pointless duties, memos, and meetings; and splice the worthwhile functions together into fewer job slots.

While reduction in force (RIF) procedures, which reduce the work force by a given percentage or a set number, allow the cleanest cuts, they have one substantial built-in flaw: They operate by seniority, which means the office’s freshest blood is the first to be let. The worker you wind up with may be just the oldest, not the best. Here, D.C. has already borrowed a tip from the feds: To give managers more flexibility in keeping the bright young things, it has revised its civil service manual. Nowadays, an employee who receives an outstanding evaluation gets four years of seniority points along with his performance bonus. Outstanding ratings can, of course, be handed out to cronies as well as to great employees. So the new mayor and her team have to keep an eye on who’s getting them and why.

Even a whole office that seems fairly pointless—D.C.’s Office of Inaugural Expenses, say—usually performs at least one essential function, like making sure that public money isn’t squandered on private extravaganzas. An aggressive manager will abolish the agency and salvage that legitimate function by assigning it to a better-defined unit, cutting out half a dozen managers in the process. (He should also try to place good workers from the folded unit in other, more productive operations.)

Incidentally, in the District you can do this without a RIF, with two crippling caveats. First, the office must not be one specifically created by City Council mandate—the trade-school monitoring office of the Educational Licensure Commission, for example, would require a Council vote to be abolished. And second, you must transfer the “separated” staff instead of firing or demoting them. (Again, Mayor Dixon should convince the Council to elimi- nate or at least loosen these restrictions.)

Contracting out. Another way to close an ineffective office with a valuable function is to contract that function out. Take the library at the U.S. Census Bureau: Administrators there thought the library was a million-dollar drain on their budget and the librarians a drain on their patience. So they simply contracted the whole thing out and transferred or fired the unpopular staff. The library still sits in the building, but the cost is hundreds of thousand of dollars less, and the administrators’ grave problem—impolite librarians—was solved. To be sure, this is a technique to be used with caution—pocket-padding contractors can be more expensive and dangerous than languid bureaucrats. But the virtue of legitimate contracting is that the courts have consistently upheld the manager’s right to use it to cut staff.

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