Keeping a modern government workforce makes sense

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Newly elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the news this week for his plan to modernize the English government bureaucracy after England exits the European Union.


I heard radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt was discussing Prime Minister Johnson’s bringing of the bureaucracy into the 21st century, breaking bureaucratic stagnation and its disservice to the public.


In essence, Johnson and Hewitt are saying civil servants should be subject to the on-the-job expectations of private sector workers. Neither of them are saying there are no top-notch civil servants. They are saying top-notch workers in both the private and public sectors benefit when workers in both places keep up with the times and don’t grow moss.


Mr. Hewitt made the same case for US governments at all levels. From local governments to the Federal government.


Dave Penman, head of England’s trade union for senior and middle management civil servants and public professionals, urged caution from PM Johnson, and also, suggested Johnson consult with civil servants on choosing the best reforms.


“The civil service is far [from] perfect, but neither is it dysfunctional. Civil servants will be keen for reform, embracing the challenges the new government faces: that’s why they chose to work in government in the first place,” Dave Penman told reporters.


“Speaking to civil servants to understand what does work and what needs reform is often the biggest challenge for government. The prime minister must now rise to it,” Penman said.


Modernizing government, and keeping it modern, makes sense. Including government workers in the reforms also makes sense when the talks aren’t reform stall tactics disguised.


I remember well Maine’s 1991 government shutdown. Defined loosely, the private sector agreed to the proposed tax increase plan to balance the two-year State budget as long as the plan included reforms to the workers compensation insurance law. State workers, and government employee union allies, vigorously, often violently, favored the tax increases and opposed the workers comp reforms.


It seemed to me at the time, and still does, state employees, at best, sacrificed a great deal of good will among the rest of Maine’s population by literally biting the hand that feeds them. The notion that civil servants are paid to serve the public was reversed, with Maine civil servants saying, to hell with the private sector and its wish for better working conditions under insurance reforms.


Every one of us knows how it feels when we must deal with a government agency and we are fortunate to come upon a first-class government worker who helps us. Unfortunately, we also know the frustration, for example, of holding on for hours, sometimes days, for a government worker to answer the phone. Or encountering a worker who does the absolute minimum to help us resolve an issue.


Yes, there are workers as bad in the private sector — but they don’t last long. Or if they do, their employers don’t last long.


In government such workers can last forever.


The government union “last hired, first fired” provisions? What if the person fired is eminently qualified for the job, and the “protected” worker is a non-productive clock watcher?


We ultimately reach an indefensible point where federal employees feel protected enough in their positions to mastermind the overthrow of the 2016 US Presidential election results.


So, yes, it’s time — past time — for a government worker reboot. And, yes, include government workers in the reforms. The best of them know who among their co-workers is an anchor and who is a sail. It makes no sense to have bad government workers killing the productivity and spirit of their good co-workers.


And it makes no sense to continue asking taxpayers to support it.


Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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