[Paleopsych] WP: A New Deal
checker at panix.com
Thu Mar 31 20:35:58 UTC 2005
A New Deal
[Working for Uncle Sam was an esp. good deal under the old retirement
system that you couldn't join after 1984. I wouldn't advise a young person
to start a career in the Federal government, if the job security is
actually going to go down. We shall see. I do advise putting aside 25% of
one's income from the start of your career so, if you become unemployable,
because of transhumanist developments or just bad luck, you'll have enough
saved by the time you are 40 to live out your days as a college student.]
How to Shake Up the Bureaucracy? Change the Work Rules.
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page C01
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers made a deal when they signed
up with Uncle Sam. Whether they were janitors pushing a broom or naval
designers floating tiny model destroyers or econometricians
micro-simulating Social Security scenarios, the deal was the same:
They would do good work, even rewarding, satisfying work. It wouldn't
be sexy work, and it wouldn't make them rich. But what they would get
was stability, the federal holidays, transit subsidies, Cadillac
health care, the flextime allowing every other Friday off. The hours
would be regular. The raises would come -- click, click, click up the
general service scale. No one would insist that a GS-5 or GS-15 be
anyone's political crony. And, when the day came to get out, they
would get their pot at the end of the rainbow -- a fat federal
pension, plump enough for a cabin in the woods, maybe, or a fishing
skiff and condo in Florida.
Hand in hand with Uncle Sam, they would construct lives of comforting
Oh, every decade or so, some politicians would rumble about the
bloated bureaucracy and talk sternly of the need to shrink big
government. They would insult the workforce. Deride them as lazy.
Red-tape creators. And the civil servants, the very engine of this
region's economy, would put their heads down, mumble to each other in
the agency cafeterias and wait them out. Eventually, those politicians
would go back to wherever they came from. They always did.
Until now. President Bush and his Texas comrades have succeeded in
doing what no one else could in 120 years of civil service.
They have ended the deal.
New personnel regulations at the Department of Homeland Security and
the Department of Defense will dramatically change the way 860,000
workers there are paid, promoted, demoted and disciplined. The plan is
to spread the changes throughout all the land of federal government.
No more automatic raises. No more simple pass-fail evaluations. No
more Job for Life. The unions have taken it on the lip.
While the pay-for-performance changes won't take effect until 2009,
workers are getting anxious. They don't know what their life will look
like. And knowing what life would look like, after all, was always the
And when their lives change, this region, with a $27 billion federal
payroll in 2003, will change with them. The afternoon rush hour may no
longer begin at 3:30. The malls may not clog on Presidents' Day. The
institutions of community -- the PTA, the soccer teams, the Scout
programs, the civic groups -- may go begging for volunteers because
it's harder to find someone who can make it to a 4:30 practice or a 7
p.m. planning session.
If the world is divided into two types of people, those restless for
risk and those repulsed by it, government work attracts the latter. If
you are not one of them, they are the people waiting patiently in the
slug lines to go home as the late-afternoon sun slants across the
concrete canyons of federal Washington. They are the ones riding Metro
happily immersed in paperback novels rather than BlackBerrys, not
bothering to tuck away their ID cards on chains. If they are
particularly proud of their jobs, the ladies upgrade to more
decorative lanyards, studded with pretty glass beads.
They speak in a jargon all their own. They nod wisely when the ads on
WTOP tell them "to save 30 to 80 percent on your FEGLD option B" or
trust VeriSign for "HPSD 12 solutions and FISMA compliance." They are
content with code. It orders their world. Their day ends at a regular
time, and they leave their work behind.
"In the beginning, it was good," says Joyce Raeford, who got into
government work nearly 20 years ago, working in the day-care center on
the Army base where her husband was stationed. It paid better than her
first job at Fort Dix, in a Head Start pilot program in the '60s,
where she started out at 90 cents an hour, and, "girl, when we got
that raise to $1.10 we were jumping up and down. I will never forget
it," she says. "We had a party."
Now a widow in her late fifties, Raeford is making about $19 an hour
as a lead education aide at one of the child development centers at
Fort Belvoir in Virginia. She works 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. Her
ID card hangs from a WWJD lanyard, and she is a matriarch: four
children, 13 grands, and, she says, with a big smile, "three greats."
The work is fine, and she is still proud of teaching "my babies."
"Change is scary," says Raeford. "Coming to work one day, and not
having a job for sure, that you could be gone with a wave of the
hand?" She shakes her head. You could get a boss who just didn't like
the way you presented yourself. "Mmm mmm mmm."
It seems unthinkable to many that the government, a model,
progressive, benevolent employer, could come to resemble the private
sector, with its layoffs and loss of loyalty to long-term employees.
In the spring of 1973, Colleen Kelly was getting ready to graduate
from Drexel University with an accounting degree. She was figuring
she'd join one of the big public accounting firms or go into private
industry. "And the IRS came to campus," she recalls. "I really would
not have thought to look at the federal government. But they talked
about their training program on tax law and the career opportunities,
and the salary grade in the GS system. They showed us the promotion
opportunities, and the health insurance and the retirement."
She became a revenue agent, auditing corporate tax returns. She went
to graduate school at night. She specialized in making sure that
companies with foreign subsidiaries had not improperly shifted their
income offshore, where it would be taxed at a lower rate. Your tax
dollars at work to get more tax dollars! It might seem like tedious,
squint-eyed work, but she says, "I really liked what I was doing.
There were times in the first years when I would look outside to see
what was available." She would hear the siren call of higher salaries
and bonuses, but caution always prevailed. "When I weighed that
against the system I knew and understood, and that if I did what I was
supposed to do, if I excelled, well, I valued" more the deal with the
Kelly did eventually go outside, but not to one of the big accounting
firms. She is now president of the National Treasury Employees Union,
which represents more than 150,000 employees in 30 governmental
agencies, and is one of the leaders of an effort to ask the courts to
stop implementation of the new personnel rules.
She hears her members' worries every day. "They signed up for the long
haul," says Kelly. "So many of them have 10 or 15 years [to go until
retirement], and there is no question it was their intent to have a
career and retire from the federal government, from a work environment
that had rules that provided balance and fairness. And now there are a
lot of questions about the future."
The 1.8 million federal workers owe their jobs to Charles Guiteau.
An attorney and failed journalist, he became a fanatical supporter of
James Garfield for president. Usually, he stood outside Republican
headquarters on Fifth Avenue in New York, speechifying and haranguing
anyone who passed by.
When Garfield was elected in 1880, Guiteau moved to Washington,
assuming his fierce support would earn him an appointment in
government. He bombarded Secretary of State James G. Blaine with
letters demanding a job, a standard practice.
At that time, newspaper advertising swelled after elections. "WANTED
-- A GOVERNMENT CLERKSHIP at a salary of not less than $1,000 per
annum. Will give $100 to anyone securing me such a position," read a
typical ad. According to one government archive, Garfield found
"hungry office-seekers lying in wait for him like vultures for a
Guiteau was so disappointed to be rebuffed that he killed the
The shock waves propelled the Pendleton Act through Congress. Signed
into law in 1883, it removed jobs from the patronage ranks and
reestablished the Civil Service Commission to administer a system
based on merit instead of connections. The civil service examination
weeded out the hacks who merely wanted indoor work with no heavy
lifting. It built the miracle of a meritocracy out of a corrupt world
of political favors.
It built Washington, helping to transform a swampy, mosquito-infested
river town into a colossus of power. People streamed here for
government work, building an educated, skilled middle class that
plowed under farms in Maryland and Virginia and replaced them with
hundreds of thousands of acres of brick Colonials, garages attached.
Over the decades, a government job became a destination, rather than a
fallback position. Attracted to a philosophy of government as
protector that began with the New Deal and built through President
John F. Kennedy's call to Americans to ask "what you can do for your
country," college graduates with political science degrees poured into
public service. During the 1970s and early '80s, says Paul Light, a
fellow at the Brookings Institution and a civil service expert, "if
you would ask graduates about their intent, most would say
government." By the late '80s, only a third would answer that way.
And young people today, he says, have little to no interest in the
federal government as an employer. "The reputation couldn't be worse,"
he says. "Young people think it's difficult to get a job, the hiring
process is slow and confusing, a substantial minority figure it's
The government's capacity to create tidy, orderly lives has no appeal
for twenty-somethings. With some surveys showing they will hold an
average of nine different jobs by the time they're 32, they have no
expectation of loyalty to or from an employer.
Although there are 15 GS levels (with 10 steps within each one), there
are really only two categories of workers: professionals and support
staff. What they share is a preference for an orderly life. The
federal system, with its rigid personnel rules, can breed a culture
where workers prefer being told what to do, rather than taking
individual initiative. "There is a kernel of truth in the reputation,"
says Light. "A lot of workers did take their job for the security and
benefits. It is also a lot better workforce than the politicians like
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush argued that the old
work rules and regulations hampered government's ability to respond
quickly to crises. He easily won congressional approval to change the
system. In January of 2003, the bipartisan National Commission on the
Public Service, chaired by Paul Volcker, called for the abolishment of
the general schedule. The new rules will replace the half-century-old
GS schedule with a pay-for-performance system, as recommended in 2003
by a bipartisan commission on public service, and will also limit the
unions' ability to intervene on behalf of their members.
"We think those flexibilities make it possible for agencies to better
focus on results and to hold the people and managers accountable,"
Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office for
Management and Budget, said at a briefing to unveil the new rules.
Some sort of change is certainly necessary, says Pat McGinniss, the
executive director of the nonpartisan Council for Excellence in
"Government has not been as innovative as the private sector," she
says. "How can we get to a more flexible, more nimble, more
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, acknowledges that
the current system needs to be "less cumbersome" when poorly
performing workers need to be removed.
But both Kelly, the union president, and Hoyer raise the specter of
political favoritism creeping into the system. "One of the reasons we
have a civil service system was to get away from patronage," says
Hoyer. Before, "if a person was seen as politically incorrect they
would suffer in terms of salary or responsibility. There could be a
stability and nonpartisanship to the process." The changes, he says,
are going to undermine that.
What particularly sticks in the Maryland congressman's craw is the
hostility he hears toward the 55,000 people who stream each day into
the U.S. Census Bureau in Suitland, the National Archives in College
Park, the Goddard Space Center in Beltsville, the Food and Drug
Administration laboratories in White Oak.
"For years in Washington there has been a group [in power] that
essentially believes the public service is not as important as the
private service, the smaller the government the better it is," he
says. "It is easy to whip up disrespect and antipathy toward a big
bureaucracy that is sucking your taxes and not giving anything in
And yet, he points out, "these are the people we are talking about:
They're going to work every day to find a cure for cancer or heart
disease or Alzheimer's. Or the guy on the border to protect us against
terrorists. Or the person down at the space center who is working to
put a satellite up to better analyze the weather to give you greater
warning of a hurricane coming. Or at the FDA trying to make sure that
the drugs and the food are safe."
Or keeping the allergy clinic on Fort Belvoir running smoothly.
That is what Renee Garris does. She is 45. GS-5, step 5. Makes about
$28,000 a year.
She likes to wear suits to work, and eyeglasses that are hip but mean
business. She grew up in the District, had a baby at 16, got married,
finished school, had another baby. Her husband, Jerome, is out of the
Marines after 22 years and works for Sodexho as a manager. Her girls
are 23 and 29 now. Over the years, she has gone back to school so she
can earn more money and also, she says, "because I had girls watching
me." When her husband was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California,
she worked as a cashier at the post exchange and took college classes
in medical administration. Without additional training, she says, "you
can only go so far."
Once, for about 30 days, she ventured into the private sector. That
was enough. What she enjoys about working for the Department of
Defense and her current bosses, she says, is "they don't mind you
doing new things, helping with different training to help you meet
And her goal is to be able to get out, if the day comes when her
workplace changes on her. Her daughters have no interest in working
for their mother's employer. The elder is a teacher. The younger works
in day care. Both her sons-in-law are in the military and have been
stationed in Iraq. "We say a lot of prayers," says Garris.
The deal she has made has her life looking like this: Up every morning
at her Spotsylvania home at 3:45 to catch the van pool at 5, which
gets her into work by 6 or 6:15 a.m. The clinic doesn't open until
7:45, but that's when the van pool comes, so she's early every day.
But there's always something to do. Her husband goes in the opposite
direction, to his job in Richmond.
She leaves at 3:45 p.m. With traffic, Garris might not get home until
5:45. After years of living in apartments and base housing, she and
Jerome own their own brick-and-stone split-level in a quiet, pretty
neighborhood. Most nights, her husband makes dinner. Most nights,
between 7 and 9:30, they play dominoes, often with another couple,
"young neighbors we mentor," says Garris.
Her days are long, but they have a certainty to them. She knows where
she'll stand this time next year, and maybe the year after that. The
system has its patterns, and she's come to understand its rules.
You sign on with Uncle Sam, and it's mostly a good deal.
Until it isn't anymore.
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