Bureaucrats stand in the way of draining the swamp

  • 10 August 2017
  • NormanL
Bureaucrats stand in the way of draining the swamp

The Trump administration's promise to drain the DC swamp appears to have run into a formidable obstacle at the Office of Personnel Management:

Under a new policy, the Office of Personnel Management recently stopped reporting data on employees terminated for wrongdoing or poor performance.

This information is critical because the data inform the public about incompetent and, in some cases, corrupt government employees. Without it, systematic government wrongdoing and poor performance may go unnoticed and unreformed.

The data provide information on separations, which, in bureaucratic language, is when a federal employee stops working for the government. OPM assigns a cause to each separation, choosing from a list of 12 different categories—such as death or a transfer­—and releases these details annually, along with information on  employees’ age, rank, pay, and other characteristics.

That’s where the latest policy change comes into effect. A termination for discipline or poor performance is coded as “SI, Termination or Removal (Discipline/Performance).” But that information was not included in OPM’s 2016 separations data. Every other separations category, in alphabetical order from “SA, Transfer Out” to “SL, Other Separation,” was retained in the 2016 dataset.

While OPM publishes guides with the separations datasets that explain the contents of the newly released information, the guide for the 2016 separations data, unlike every previous year’s guide, makes no mention of terminations for discipline or performance.

Why would the OPM, which oversees the nearly two million people employed by the federal government, do such a thing?

[A] public affairs official explained this hole in the agency’s otherwise orderly set of separations data as necessary to “protect information at the individual record level” based on a 2007 memo that laid out federal guidelines for protecting the personally identifiable information of Americans.

That explanation defies logic. These datasets have never included the names of the terminated individuals. If protecting the personally identifiable information of federal employees was the real reason for not reporting terminations for discipline or performance, then why is the gender, location, agency and occupation, rank, salary, and other information about these employees available for every termination prior to 2016 (and for every other separation in that year)?

Publishing this information about terminated federal employees does not violate anyone’s privacy. But withholding it keeps taxpayers in the dark about the extent of personnel problem in the agencies they fund.

Having such data makes it easier for the administration to see where the problems are, and which agencies are in greatest need of a house cleaning. Without it, the task becomes far more difficult. It is made even more so by this development:

Labor unions celebrated after President Trump's nominee to lead the Office of Personnel Management withdrew his name from consideration after more than a dozen unions joined together in opposing his nomination.

George Nesterczuk sent a letter to Trump on Monday requesting that his nomination be withdrawn. Trump in May nominated Nesterczuk to lead OPM, which acts as the government's human resources department, but the White House officially withdrew his nomination Wednesday.

In his letter to Trump, obtained by Government Executive, Nesterczuk cited "partisan attacks" and opposition from federal labor unions as the reasons for his withdrawal.

"I have decided to withdraw because the prospect of my favorable confirmation has grown remote," Nesterczuk said in his letter. "Recent partisan attacks threaten to delay further the consideration of my nomination. These attacks are intended to prevent me, or anyone, from carrying out government reforms that the American people and you, Mr. President, are rightly demanding."

The permanent government (or administrative state, if you prefer) knows how to protect itself. The question is how the administration will push back. It needs to, and quickly -- otherwise, the bureaucrats will have futher insulated themselves from any sort of accountability.