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The mirage of efficiency

As the simplest of its simple remedies for the ills of government, the new Republican administration promised to thin the ranks of a swollen bureaucracy. Within a year, however, the mirage of vast savings through a flurry of pink slips had disappeared from the political horizon.

The actual practice of RIFs (reductions-in-force) had shown that they allowed allegedly dismissed workers to ''bump'' those below them, moving into jobs for which they were overpaid and undertrained. For every worker fired several were reassigned, defying organizational logic and subverting morale by sending tremors of alarm throughout the bureaucracy. Heralded as an austerity measure, the RIF procedure failed even to pay for itself as paper work and separation costs canceled budgetary savings, and agency productivity declined.

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Sounds like old news? Perhaps older than one might think: these reports are from 1953 and the new Republican President was Dwight Eisenhower. Yet in the spring of 1982 the Reagan administration confessed the failure of an almost identical program for paring budgets by riffing the federal work force. Replaying the Republican script of 30 years before, Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director Donald J. Devine admitted that the RIF procedure ''is inefficient . . . complex, sometimes inequitable, and cumbersome.''

The avowed purpose of RIFs, often lost in the fog of controversy, is not just to pare expenses but to improve the efficiency of government. Yet the evidence suggests that this slash-and-burn method for reorganizing government subverts the goal it is designed to achieve. The OPM confessed as much when it recently balked at thinning the ranks of its own employees. In an internal memo, Michael Sanera, assistant director for planning and evaluation, noted that although a RIF at OPM is supposed ''to improve organizational efficiency . . . quite the opposite result is a far more likely occurrence.'' RIFs have contributed to a poisoned atmosphere for federal service, reflected during 1981 in more than a doubling of the rate at which senior career executives resigned from government.

Reductions-in-force have been especially detrimental for women and minority workers, whose recent gains in employment leave them lacking in seniority protection. Despite candidate Reagan's commitment to particular initiatives for women in lieu of the Equal Rights Amendment, his managers have sacked women in professional and administrative positions at a rate more than 60 percent greater than their male counterparts. Minorities in these positions have faced even grimmer prospects, losing their jobs at a rate more than twice that of nonminority employees.

After his belated rediscovery of the inefficiency of the RIF procedure, OPM Director Devine proposed not to halt RIFs, but to explore new procedures ''with more emphasis on merit in the separation process and less on seniority.'' In fact, although the RIF controversy no longer sizzles in the media, a recent survey disclosed that more federal workers were dismissed during the first half of fiscal 1982 than during all of fiscal 1981.

Devine's new approach, moreover, would spark bitter warfare with the federal employees' unions without eliminating the disruptive effects of reductions-in-force. The lack of a tested, uniform, and objective evaluation tool would also heighten fears of politically motivated sackings. Even Republican congressmen representing substantial numbers of federal workers have sought to dissuade OPM from issuing its new RIF procedures . . . at least until after November.

More promising than Devine's nonsolution is legislation drafted by the Federal Government Service Task Force, a bipartisan, bicameral coalition chaired by Rep. Michael Barnes (D) of Maryland. Following the precedent set in private industry, the bill mandates labor-management bargaining on alternatives to RIFs. Should negotiators fail to reach agreement within 45 days, arbitration procedures would result. Ultimately no RIF program could take place without both a favorable ruling from the arbitrators and certification by the OPM and the GAO that its benefits justify its costs.

Aside from exposing flaws in the RIF procedure, experience during the Eisenhower years also failed to reveal any means for slashing the costs of government without cutting real services and benefits. This despite extensive studies of the federal administration, including the second Hoover Commission Report. As journalist Edwin J. Dale Jr. (now ironically spokesperson for David Stockman's Office of Management and Budget) wrote in a retrospective on the 1950 s, ''the pragmatists among the conservatives in power discovered that . . . the search for efficiency'' was simply ''not the road to lower federal spending.''

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Beyond just disdain for history, administration personnel policies reflect an ideology that stresses minimum constraint for management and maximum control over workers. In addition to RIFs, the record includes financial support for union-busting campaigns, the abrupt transfer of civil servants from one part of the country to another, and opposition to programs of flexible work hours. Like the failure to spend appropriated funds (a practice that has vastly increased since Reagan's inauguration) RIFs are also a useful tool for circumventing statutory mandates without changing the laws themselves. It is not by accident that RIFs have fallen with special force on agencies that enforce federal regulations and those that disseminate information to the public.