Publisher's Perspective

The classic image of how to get a mule moving is to dangle a carrot in front of its nose and to simultaneously whack it on the hindquarters. It’s questionable whether anyone has actually even tried the carrot part, amusing as the cartoon depictions may be. But those who have actually ridden a mule will vouch that the whacking part is indeed true.

As far as the White House and some in Congress are concerned, you as an older federal employee are the mule in that picture.

In their view, the government is overloaded with employees who should move on. That’s been a premise behind every management reform dating at least to the Clinton administration’s government “reinvention” program up through the current administration’s President’s Management Agenda—to clear the way for a restructuring that will produce a bright, shiny government of the future.

Throughout that time there have been hopes that such turnover could be accomplished without going through the government’s messy RIF process—which would protect the older employees anyway. That was the genesis of the “retirement wave” theory, that the baby boom generation would wash out of the government together.

The wave never arrived and there is no reason to seriously think that it ever will. For more than a decade, annual retirements have consistently been in the 60,000-70,000 range outside the Postal Service and intelligence agencies. Currently, about 15 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to retire, roughly the same for years.

Thus, the renewed focus on carrots and sticks.

One carrot the government has tried is phased retirement, designed for people who aren’t quite ready to retire but who are ready to cut back on their working hours. During the hours they do work, they are to spend at least a fifth of their time mentoring younger workers. We are now at six years since that authority was enacted and more than three since it actually took effect, and the numbers of employees who are, or have been in that status remain well under 1,000. Clearly that’s not having much impact.

The other main carrot is incentive payments. The Clinton administration originated the idea of buyout payments of up to $25,000 to leave government; most such incentives are taken as something as a retirement present to themselves by people eligible to retire, either under normal rules or under an accompanying early retirement offer.

That amount stayed the same for two decades, until political leaders realized that time had not stood still and that the value of the incentive had been badly eroded. Thus, it was boosted to $40,000 at the Defense Department two years ago. Now, it looks like the higher amount may soon apply government-wide and be indexed for inflation moving forward.

A nice carrot, right? Yes, but just about as common as dangling one in front of a mule. Recent data show that in fiscal 2015-2017, buyout offers have fallen in the range of about 2,700-3,900 per year out of a federal workforce of nearly 2.1 million, again excluding the Postal Service and intelligence agencies. That comes to something more than 1 in 1,000 employees a year.

So . . . what does a mule rider do if the carrot doesn’t work? You guessed it.

The administration is pushing some long-standing proposals that would have the effect of encouraging people to leave more quickly. One, applying to all those who retired after a date to be determined, would base annuities on the highest five consecutive salary years rather than the highest three. Another would eliminate for future retirees going out under FERS the “special retirement supplement” paid to those who retire before age 62 and up to that age when they can begin to draw Social Security.

Chances are that, as in the past, those ideas will not become law. But if they do, a rush to the exits before the effective date would be a natural response by those who are retirement-eligible. To do otherwise would be just mulish.