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Stop…Everybody Look

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
February 29, 2020

Democratic governance is about predictability and order in the context of an agreed upon system of institutional values. It is the antithesis of governance by kings or warlords based on the absolute power without the presence of reliable norms. Absolute power results in capriciousness and disorder. The Prohibited Personnel Practices (PPP) in the 1978 civil service reform law provide predictability through identifying unacceptable governance behaviors consistent with American institutional values. The focus of this column is to examine some recent stresses on the PPPs.

PPP 1 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, marital status or political affiliation. Unfortunately, instances of this prohibited discrimination have been rising. For example, since January 1, 2017, there has been a twenty percent increase in the number of disability complaints regarding federal employment based on analysis of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data. This data also indicates that the firing of disabled employees increased 24% in 2017 with 2017 firings of disabled persons being twice that of those without disabilities. A further example of stress on this PPP is the November 2019 draft regulation from the Equal Employment Commission excluding union representatives from receiving official time for assistance in equal opportunity complaints. Since union representatives have access to resources that can assist in pursuing discrimination complaints, this draft rule significantly diminishes the capacity of a federal employee to successfully pursue a discrimination complaint at a time when these complaints are increasing.

PPP 3 prohibits the coercion of political activity or the taking of reprisal action against federal employees for refusing to engage in political activity. The current stress on PPP 3 is exemplified by State Department employees who note that they are experiencing retribution and runarounds for political purposes. The most prominent example of this retribution is the situation of career Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from her position because she was known for her anti-corruption work. This type of removal stresses PPP 3 by weakening employee morale and willingness to avoid political activity.

PPP 7 prohibits nepotism. Family members of many political appointees in the current administration have received appointments in the Federal government. An example of the problem of nepotism involves a senior official at the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who hired his son within his own chain of command. The DEA Inspector General also found that the son was unqualified for the position which violates PPP 12 prohibiting the violation of any Merit System Principle (MSP). MSP 1 requires recruitment of qualified applicants. Violating nepotism restrictions also raises concerns that employees will put loyalty to family over loyalty to the Constitution.

PPP 8 prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers. The recent stresses on this PPP are numerous. The first example involves an individual who raised retaliation concerns after she identified questions about inappropriate actions related to White House security clearances. Even more problematic is the situation in the Department of Veterans Affairs where a newly created office designed to protect whistleblowers from reprisal instead aided in retaliation efforts. From a broader perspective, the Office of Special Council noted that three fourths of the fiscal year 2017 complaints related to retaliation against whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are an important measure in surfacing misconduct by government employees. Retaliation against whistleblowers diminishes employee willingness to raise concerns.

Although PPP 9 also involves reprisal, it is broader than PPP 8 by including reprisal for raising a complaint of any type or cooperating with a lawful investigation. With respect to PPP 9, an Office of Special Council report indicated that federal employees broke a forty year old record for proving retaliation in fiscal year 2017. In fiscal year 2018, the Office of Special Council (OSC) report noted that OSC received a record number of prohibited personnel practice complaints and that they expected that high level to continue. While this increase can have two possible explanations (i.e., more retaliation occurring or the retaliation is more obvious and easier to prove), either explanation suggests that this stressor is becoming more severe.

PPP 13 prohibits nondisclosure agreements (NDA) that do not allow the signer to report violation of law or mismanagement. The current administration is requiring all its appointees to sign NDAs. While current NDAs are not available for review, 2016 campaign NDAs are public as part of a lawsuit. Assuming that current NDAs are the same documents used in the campaign, the documents violate PPP 13 because they do not contain required provisions allowing reporting law or mismanagement violations. This PPP is important because it supports government transparency and whistleblower rights.

A strong merit system is intrinsic to citizen trust in government. The PPPs identify behaviors that weaken the system. The increasing presence of inappropriate behaviors raises serious concerns about the health of the United States merit system. Since a healthy merit system is intrinsic to good governance, we need to pay attention to activities that stress the PPPs and work to stop those activities. Buffalo Springfield identified that obligation many years ago:

“…It’s time we stop
… what’s that sound?
Everybody look—what’s going down.”

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last Federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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One Response to Stop…Everybody Look

  1. Robert G. Joyce Reply

    March 3, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    Excellent article; it needs to be expanded by adding case studies (some author liberties allowed) and two additional items: the complexity of balancing the selection of the best candidate and possible violation of a PPP and some process for providing an employee unjustly accused at least a personal acknowledgement of “no evidence” of unacceptable behavior. I am a retired Federal employee and at different times, I was accused of “stupid and/or illegal” behavior and then exonerated, twice by Inspector Generals, but the stench of the investigation lingers. Especially in this era, we need a continual, multi-sided discussion of these issues.

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