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No Great Loss

August 02, 2011 J

The push to rein-in and reform overgenerous government pension plans has many senior government workers rushing for the exits, according to a spate of recent news reports (here and here), leading to worries, in some circles, about a bureaucratic “brain drain.” But one analyst, the Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga, believes such fears are unfounded, because they’re based on the false premise that competence and excellence are the keys to career longevity in the public sector.

This may make sense when looking at the private sector, writes Malanga, which operates more like a meritocracy, in which advancement through the ranks is generally earned, based on a record of performance, and where poor performers are usually purged through a corporate version of natural selection. But a different dynamic often is at play in the government sector.

Here’s how Malanga, writing in Privete Sector, Inc., explains the differences:

“Ironically, the whole notion that our most seasoned and experienced workers are valuable comes from the private sector, where workers are not only retained but promoted more commonly based on evaluations of their work, and where firing ineffective workers is relatively easy compared to the public sector. By contrast, most government workers, especially in heavily unionized states, spend their entire lives in a system where they receive pay raises and get promoted almost entirely based on seniority. Many of these workers are never judged by superiors through meaningful evaluations, so we really have no idea who the most valuable among them are.”

One reason such comparisons are difficult to make, explains Malanga, is that “we don’t study government performance and productivity very extensively here in the United States.” Attempts to do so have “gone nowhere,” according to Malanga, perhaps because some of us are uncomfortable with such comparisons, believing it’s wrong to expect governments to operate like businesses, while others of us have simply given up any hope of squeezing productivity and efficiency out of bureaucratic institutions.

Those attitudes simply must change, and goverment workers must be held to the same standards that private sector workers are, if are to have any hope of maintaining the core services of government, through a time of economic downturn, without taxing Americans to death.

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