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FCW : March 15, 2014
STEVE KELMAN is professor of public management at Harvard University s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Of ce of Federal Procurement Policy. Commentary | STEVE KELMAN During a recent trip to New Zea- land, I had a chance to meet with the leader of that country s civil service and with human resources of cials from several ministries. We had a wide-ranging conversa- tion, but two snippets of it caught my attention more than anything on our of cial agenda. In the course of our discussion, I discovered that neither "retired in place" nor "turkey farm" has an equivalent term in New Zealand s public sector. Indeed, there were some chuckles from the of cials when I explained what those phrases meant. For those unfamiliar with that federal jargon, "retired in place" refers to a longtime employee who has psychologically tuned out and is doing the bare minimum at work while waiting for retire- ment. A "turkey farm" is a small of ce where managers park all the incompetent employees they can t get rid of because of civil service protections, creating a separate non-producing unit to prevent the turkeys from interfering with and demoralizing the productive employees. When I discussed turkey farms, one of the New Zealand managers declared, "We re too shorthanded to be able to afford having some- thing like that." I m not sure we are so over- staffed at U.S. agencies that we can afford it either, frankly, but the manager s response does raise an important question: How has New Zealand avoided these problems in their government workforce? Any answer is speculative because we only have what social scientists call "an N of 1" --- i.e., only one case with which to con- trast ourselves and a wide range of potential explanations. But let me speculate. One difference between the United States and New Zealand is that for the past 20 years or so, New Zealand has had a govern- ment human resources system that is similar to what exists in the country s private sector. As I under- stand it, government organizations are given a considerable amount of freedom to craft hiring procedures that they nd appropriate to the kinds of people they need to hire, and the rules for dismissing poorly performing employees are similar to those in the private sector. Even so, New Zealand s rules offer great- er protections for workers than do those in the U.S. private sector. A second difference is that gov- ernment service in New Zealand is still held in relatively high regard and is competitive in attracting talented young people. That com- petitiveness is undoubtedly made easier by New Zealand s lack of a major nance sector, which in the United States distorts the entire labor market with its outsized salaries. The second problem is hard for us in the United States to do much about, but the rst is self-in icted. I support U.S. public employee unions in trying to call attention to the contributions and raise the sta- tus of public employees, but their conservatism in opposing modern- ization of our civil service system is destructive and, in the long run, self-destructive. To be sure, these U.S. expres- sions re ect an aspiration for government performance that hardly even exists in many coun- tries. There are plenty of places with parasitic government organi- zations staffed by employees who are living high on bloated salaries and corruption, where everyone behaves at best according to the U.S. concept of retired in place and every of ce is a turkey farm. At least we expect better, recog- nize that not everybody is like that and enjoy a culture where those phrases re ect derision. That s a good start. But we can and should do better. ■ Learning from New Zealand's public sector A highly regarded civil service and a exible hiring system could account for the country s lack of turkey farms New Zealand has a government human resources system that is similar to what exists in the country's private sector. March 15, 2014 FCW.COM 11
March 30, 2014