When President Donald Trump recently issued three executive orders that made it easier to fire poorly performing government employees, the backlash from public-sector unions was fierce.
Union leaders did not like it—one called it an “assault on federal employees.”
But a recent poll shows a slight majority of government workers—51 percent—supports the administration’s efforts. Moreover, only 24 percent of federal employees oppose the recent executive orders and another quarter are unsure.
The level of support among federal workers for executive orders that will make it easier to fire them is surprising, but only at first glance. In fact, Trump’s executive orders represent modest reforms that will not affect the vast majority of employees and, in fact, likely will improve their working conditions.
For instance, one of the new executive orders imposes a 30-day limit on the time an agency can give an employee to improve his poor performance before being fired. When a federal manager determines that an employee is not up to the job, he must present that employee with a performance improvement plan as a last-ditch effort to turn his performance around. Prior to the president’s executive order, agencies set the length of this grace period, which stretched to 120 days in some cases.
The new executive order also gives managers more freedom to decide how to punish misconduct.
Prior to Trump’s executive orders, managers were ordinarily bound to progress through lesser disciplinary steps from verbal warning and written notices to suspensions, demotions, and removal from the civil service. Now, managers are free to choose a punishment that fits the crime.
Some federal employees no doubt take advantage of their insulation from accountability, but most civil servants are hard-working and dedicated—a fact attested to by the 70 percent customer satisfaction rate among those who receive some federal service.
These diligent workers must pick up the slack for those who do not do their share, then are sometimes denied opportunities for advancement by the dead weight above them. And, as anyone who has worked in an office environment knows, unmotivated and unruly co-workers can take a heavy toll on morale.
So, although a few bad apples may prefer to keep the status quo, it is not surprising most federal employees welcome these provisions of the president’s executive orders.
Trump’s executive orders also may indirectly lead to faster removal of problem employees by reining in public-sector unions. These provisions also likely are more popular with employees than with union leaders.
One such provision limits the use of so-called “official time,” during which public-sector employees can conduct union business—for instance, fighting to reverse an employee’s suspension or removal—during regular working hours. The Office of Personnel Management estimates government employees spent 3.6 million hours doing union work on official time in 2016.
As it stands, public-sector unions are a significant obstacle to any effort to remove poor performers and disciplinary problems from the workforce. For the few employees who ride the razor edge of acceptability, this is probably a much-appreciated service. But the majority of public-sector employees are ambivalent at best about their union representation.
According to a 2016 poll, more employees have a neutral or negative opinion of federal employee unions than have a positive opinion. Public-sector unions—and their constant efforts to shield employees from accountability and reward seniority instead of performance—work to the detriment of diligent and qualified employees.
It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that all federal employees shirk their responsibilities, waste time, and live off the fat of the land. This simply is not the case. Government workers get a bad name for a lot of reasons, not least of which the public-sector unions that represent them.
These unions have opposed vigorously every major effort to reform the civil service for decades. This stonewalling has resulted in an inefficient, out-of-date, and unaccountable bureaucracy that does not serve anyone—least of all hardworking civil servants.
Trump’s executive orders are important steps toward a civil service that works better for both the public sector and the people it serves.