Why is it so hard to fire a govt employee?

Don’t know about other countries, but here in the U.S. everyone just “knows” that the reason government services are so slow and inept is that it’s nearly impossible to get fired from a govt job, so the workers have no real incentive to bust ass. If this is true, why aren’t they held to the same criteria as public employees? Is it a union thing or is there some independent reason?

A lot of things that “everyone knows” are wrong. First of all, nearly all losses of jobs in both the private and public sectors are not firings for cause. They are cases where a position has been eliminated. This fairly naturally happens more often in the private sector than in the public sector. If a chain of restaurants gets less and less business, it’s going to get rid of employees (and probably close some locations). If a department store chain gets less and less business, it’s going to get rid of employees (and probably close some locations). In the normal pattern of things, this means that some other restaurant chains and some other department stores are getting more business and hiring more employees.

This is less likely to happen in government jobs. Most government jobs don’t go away in this fashion. Even in the cases where a government agency is increasing its budget, this often means that a contractor is hired and they hire new employees for that contract, not that more government employees are hired. Contractors often let their employees go when they lose a contract. The number of government employees is actually rather stable.

Furthermore, governments tend to be more careful when they hire employees. They tend to take a while to check out the prospective hire. Private employers tend to hire with less care.

Finally, you assume that firing quickly means that a company is getting rid of truly bad employees. Private companies can usually fire at will. Some of the supposed firings for cause are nothing but getting rid of employees who were disliked by their supervisors. It’s harder to do this in the government.

And there aren’t that many unions in the government.

For the first hundred or so years of U.S. history, all government jobs were patronage positions – you got them by being appointed by an elected official. As soon as that official left office, his replacement fired all those people and installed a new set (aka the “spoils” system.) After the assassination of James Garfield by a rejected office-seeker, Civil Service was introduced as a way to reduce the abuses of the patronage system.

I didn’t think there were. And I appreciate the depth of your comments, but essentially what I’m trying to ascertain is: exactly why are govt employees so slow and inept? You walk into a gas station and there’s a line, the clerk is typically trying to speed things along as fast as he/she is able; you walk into a post office - doesn’t matter which one, or in what city - the line always seems to exist precisely BECAUSE of the clerk’s shiftlessness. It also seems that in many cases they are able to get away with being a lot ruder/curt than others in similar, private customer service positions.

I realize this is all fairly anecdotal, but it’s clearly an observation that many people have made, so if job security is not engendering this I’m wondering what the other explanations are.

A fair amount of this is simply stereotypes resulting in confirmation bias. I have had any number of occasions where government workers were fast and efficient and a run down the BBQ Pit each month will generally turn up at least one thread where folks are complaining about lazy, unhelpful, hostile customer service people in private industry.

To the extent that the hyperbolic public perception of government workers has a tiny kernel of truth from which a much larger misperception has popped, it probably does tie to the Civil Service. When the spoils system was replaced by Civil Service, it did not stop elected officials from trying to game the system for their own gain, finding devious ways to remove whistle blowers or install nephews on the government [del]dole[/del] roll. As each new trick was discovered and addreessed, the rules regarding hiring and firing became more elaborate to the point that they are often perceived by middle managers of public servants to be too byzantine to attmept. So in some instances, in some departments, one does find slackers who “cannot” be fired and the tales of those events tend to enter the public consciousness as “typical.”

Another cause of this feeling among the public has been that the Postal Service provides the largest face of (what used to be) government interaction with the public. That organization has a whole host of its own problems that get translated into “lazy, unresponsive workers,” (some of whom are), that are the result of internal pressure in that organization. (Personally, I have encountered a greater proportion of “lazy, unresponsive workers” at UPS, Fed-Ex, and Greyhound than I have in the post office, but I have probably had more dealings with those outfits than most citizens.)

I call anecdotal on that. My personal experience with standing in government lines (driver’s license line, passport line, and one or two others) has usually been…well, I wouldn’t say “good” exactly, but no worse than any private sector line at a place like McDonalds.
The two times I called the customer service number at the IRS were definitely MUCH more helpful, more friendly, and a shorter hold time than the last time I called the customer service number for Verizon or Dell.

Try standing in line at the ticket counter of almost any airline, and then tell me the post office has bad customer service.

I, too, don’t see government offices providing service at a level any different from the private sector.

The long lines at the DMV are because the serve so many people, and it isn’t easy for them to expand staff.

There sort of are. There are a few primary government unions: The American Federation of Government Employees, which has about 600,000 members, the American Federation of State, Municipal, and County Employees, which has about 1.4 million employees, , and two teachers unions, the National Education Association (3.2 million people, but not all are gov’t employees), and the American Federation of Teachers (856,000 members, not all gov’t employees). There are also some smaller ones, like the California School Employees Association (230,000 people, all in CA), the American Postal Workers Union (330,000 people), the International Association of Fire Fighters (280,000 in the US and Canada), the National Association of Letter Carriers (300,000 people), the National Postal Mail Handlers Association (50,000 people), The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (15,000), the National Treasury Employees Union, 150,000 people), and a few other unions.

So the government is pretty well unionized.

I think you’re on to something there. The places that have the worst customer service are usually the ones where you don’t have much choice but to utilize their product (with flights you have other airlines, sure, but most airlines know it’s safe to bank on the majority of fliers going with the cheapest fare). Where is that monopoly more prevalent than in govt services? Basically there’s no incentive for middle mgmt to crack down on their employees because there’s no fear of customer retention being an issue to begin with.

It’s bad form to quote my own post, but I want to rant about airline service. Did you ever notice how long it takes per person to talk to a clerk there? Considering that 99% of the customers have the exact same completely routine requests, the airline clerk ought to be able to process each person in two minutes or less, but that never happens.

My US Air flight was once cancelled and a long line of people showed up at the ticket counter (after getting the run-around twice from very rude clerks) wanting to get on the next flight. It was frankly astonishing that there was apparently no “find the next flight to XXX” button on their computer, because the clerk kept typing for an average of 10 minutes per person before inevitably announcing “there is no flight available until tommorow afternoon”. Amazingly, the expedia app on my iphone was able to find a connecting flight that worked, even though the clerk (with a custom designed airline computer that presumably is designed for this very thing) couldn’t find.

Government workers often are inefficient, but I haven’t found private sector workers to be automatically any better.

How about this fact: in absolute terms, the procedures required to fire a private employee for cause are not typically onerous. Different companies may have different policies, but in general, there is not a huge amount of documentation required, and no “appeal” process after the firing.

In the government world, there is a somewhat lengthier process. Government workers are protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which forbid the government’s depriving any person of “life, liberty or property” without due process of law. Since an employee has a “property interest,” in his job, due process concerns place limits on dismissals of any kind.

So, legally, there is a difference betwen the “at will” employment of a private employer and the employment by the government.

Maybe part of the problem is that so many who people “know” that government employees always do a bad job also “know” that all government services are a waste of money.

So people demand cuts in government spending. The result is fewer government employees. The result of that is there are less people to do the same amount of work. Then the people who demanded the cutbacks go into a government office and complain about having to wait for somebody to help them.

Is the OP wanting to talk about firing or about service?

The critical thing about service is that there is no requirement for the agency in question to have the resources it needs to service the customers it has.

Imagine a McDonalds that decided to save money by having only one cashier and register open at noon. They’d have a massive line out the door. And it wouldn’t take too many days of that cashier trying like hell to do the work of the other 2 cashiers the company was too cheap to hire before that cashier said “Screw it. I’m going to work at a pace I can stand, and management will either hire enough cashiers or people will wait or they’ll go elsewhere.”

And soon enough, most customers will learn not to go to that McDonalds at noon. They’ll go somewhere else.

And if managment had a clue, they’d soon enough see they were losing more in business than they were saving in payroll. So they’d add back the number of cashiers which made the profit equation work out best. Some lines, some waiting, and a few people leaving in frustration.
Now cut to government.

The government’s customers can’t stop coming in. Renewing their driver’s license or whatever is required by law. And they can’t go down the street to Burger King for that. So that same huge line out the door will be there every day.

And government management doesn’t have any concept of profit to lose. They only have payroll costs. From their management perspective, the right number of employees is the quantity that just barely keeps some customer from opening fire in frustration in the lobby every day. So understaffing to the point of delivering crap service is the optimal thing to do.

So that’s what they do. The same logic works all the way up the chain.

I deal a lot with state and local governments. They’re our primary customers. The central tenet of their ethos is that they have about 1/2 the resources it takes to do their job properly, so they work at a sustainable pace doing the best they can under the circumstances, while knowing they’re failing in the macro sense.

See above, I think your initial response caused me to answer my own question. Customer service employees are generally low paid and derive very little personal satisfaction from their jobs, so they only work as hard as they’re pushed. Quality of customer service seems to be almost entirely driven by competition, so if competition isn’t much of a factor and you know you’re going to have a similar number of customers regardless of what you do, the last thing in the world you would expect would be micromanagement. That doesn’t preclude poor customer service in the private sector but it would certainly make one expect it to be a lot more across-the-board when it comes to govt jobs.

There may be something to that as well but it doesn’t explain the sheer lack of URGENCY that characterizes a visit to a local govt office. No one ever seems to be making any actual effort to speed things up. But again, why WOULD they if they didn’t have to worry about the boss coming around asking “did ya GET that memo?”

At any rate, maybe in some states local govt is run with an iron fist but everyplace I’ve ever lived the idea of a low level municipal lacky running around like a chicken with their head cut off would be considered absolutely laughable.

Service. Firing only came up because the inability to do so is often cited as the primary reason for poor service

In my experience (and I have a LOT of it!) the reason the lines are post offices are so slow is that the customers are morons. I ship a lot of ebay packages, and when I get to the clerk, they always process me as fast as could be reasonably expected. However, as I wait in line, I see all the idiots who don’t have their forms filled out, don’t know how they want the item shipped, and don’t have the package properly labled, etc. These people are the reason the lines are so long (although, post offices do tend to be understaffed).

Since this is a fairly anonymous board, I’ll speak up. I know that it is tradition around here to disagree with the OP’s assertions, even though most people would agree.

I am a government contractor and I work with a mixture of government civilians and active duty military. The active duty military guys/gals are great, they bust arse and get the job done. We like working with them because we hold the same values. Since we are contractors (and since most of us are former military), we like to see things get done and accomplished. It also makes us look good in terms of contract renewal.

The “civil servants” that we interact with definitely operate under the premise that the more meetings we have the better. The motto is “CYA” and “indecisiveness never got anyone fired.” Most of the ones I work with are not terrible, but I’ve seen civilian government employees that would not last one week without being fired in most private sectors. Usually the longer they have worked in the DC federal government, the worse it gets.

I’m under the assumption that they can be this way because of the OP’s premise- that they won’t be fired. Why this is, I do not know. I do get the impression that in the federal government, you do not get a lot of incentive for working really hard or getting a lot done. Because of this, why should you work hard if the slob next door gets the same promotions as you will?

And if it is true that they can be easily fired, why is the federal government willing to spend more money on contractors than the equivalent number federal workers? Because if that program gets canceled, they can just drop the contractor. Well, if federal employees are just as easy to hire and fire, why can’t they just do that? The answer is, that it is not as easy to hire and fire federal employees.

Actually, that wasn’t my premise, just the only one I ever hear proffered to explain it. I’m currently operating under the management indifference theory, but your question “why should you work hard if the slob next door gets the same promotions as you will?” rings true. Again, all I really have is anecdotal evidence but from people I’ve known that have worked in city/state jobs I’ve always gotten the impression that promotions and raises have been fairly obligatory but not really incentive laden: you’ll get there eventually but there’s not much you can do to speed things up, so you just grind out the time.

I’m just not seeing the difference you’re saying you see. I go out shopping for groceries, I go to WalMart, I go to Barnes & Noble, I go to a diner, I go to Burger King - I’m not seeing any employees scurrying around. They’re doing their job but they’re doing it at a resonable pace. Which is the same impression I get at the post office or some other government office.

And I’d prefer it that way. To me any normal business should not look like there’s an air of urgency. The impression I get from that is that it’s a poorly run business that can’t plan ahead and is always falling behind. I’d rather deal with a business that looks like it has things under control.