Former Senator, Daniel Moynihan, accurately summed up the situation when he posited that,”[t]he single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because! it’s so rare.” In the case of politicians the public is protected from ineptitude and apathy through term limits. Unfortunately for John Q. Citizen, the vast majority of government bureaucrats exist in an environment devoid of responsibility or accountability.
The endless transfer of incompetent workers rather than their outright dismissal represents a choreographed farce known as the “Lemon Dance.” The negligent, unqualified and indifferent workers that fill millions of government positions do so with the assurance that they will never be fired for their transgressions. For example, your average sanitation worker wakes up in the morning confident that regardless of missed routes, spilled garbage or traffic collisions while on duty, he will continue to have a job the next day.
A recent study by the Los Angeles Daily News concluded that only six out of thirty-seven thousand Los Angeles City government employees had been fired for poor performance. On the national level, the Federal Times reported in 2003 that none of the approximate half a million workers of the eight Cabinet-level departments were fired for poor performance from June 1993 to June 1998. The public must ask themselves whether local and federal governments have collected the finest group of individuals capable of error-free work, or if there are inadequate systems in place that are unable to address the rampant poor performance of government workers.
The outrageous misappropriation and waste of taxpayer dollars provides another contributing step in the offbeat “Lemon Dance.” Consider a recent example where two Los Angeles sanitation workers made over $8,000 of unauthorized calls on city-issued cell phones. After several warnings, and continued misuse of their cell phones, the city workers were not terminated while management lamented that they “did not have an adequate policy explaining to their employees that it is wrong to use city cell phones for personal business.”
The inability of government superiors to adequately discipline government employees makes the “Lemon Dance” the modern-day Achilles Heel of government. Entrusted with running society’s most important institutions, government finds itself in a position where it can neither terminate its least qualified employee, nor reward exemplary standouts. Instead, government bosses tend to look the other way when faced with the poor performance of their subordinates. The complete lack of accountability present in government has, in turn, created a culture of apathy where workers have no motivation to perform at even adequate levels. Richard Riordan, former Mayor of Los Angeles and present Secretary of Education for the State of California, cites a lack of accountability as the leading cause of poor performance plaguing government institutions. Riordan admits that government run bureaucracies “do[es] not hold anyone accountable, because [it] might hurt somebody’s self esteem by firing them.”
Former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch’s strategy for improving employee performance deserves consideration. Concluding that it was better to release an ineffective employee immediately rather than allowing them twenty-five years of wages and retirement benefits, Welch regularly fired the bottom ten percent of his employees based on performance evaluations. This type of approach could do wonders for local, state and national government. The termination of deserving employees sends a clear message throughout the organization that incompetence will not be tolerated.
Albert Einstein suggested, “bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.” The current state of government employment certainly supports his assertion. However, government must begin to clean house. Until it becomes possible for government to dismiss incompetent workers, the public will continue to be held hostage by unions and ineffectual procedures that would prefer the “Lemon Dance,” to even modest accountability.
Copyright 2005 Michael Levine
Michael Levine is the founder of the prominent public relations firm Levine Communications Office, based in Los Angeles. He is the author of Guerrilla PR, 7 Life Lessons from Noah’s Ark: How to Survive a Flood in Your Own Life.
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