Are Mandatory Reductions Fair?

Washington should review practice of `bump and retreat'

A MIDDLE manager in the federal government recently argued in these pages (March 1) that she and her colleagues feel unfairly targeted by the Clinton administration's ``reinventing government'' program. An executive order, signed last fall, requires federal agencies to reduce management ranks by half in five years - an action that, incidentally, has led to some creative thinking at some agencies on how to define a manager.

The middle manager, an African American, said she worked her way up through the ranks and is now one of the few black middle managers earning a grade 14 salary.

One can empathize with her view. At the United States Information Agency (USIA), where I am a grade 13 writer/editor, there are only nine black GS-14s out of a total of 260, an appalling statistic. It is even worse at higher grades. The glass and color ceiling is not much different at other federal agencies.

But it is also true that there is bloated management in the federal government - a lot of it. According to the administration's own figures, in the private sector, the ratio of managers to employees is 1:15, but in the federal government it is 1:17. In the office where I work at USIA, it is 1:2!

This absurd ratio not only results in unwarranted cost to the taxpayer, but also in excessive micro-management, even of seasoned professionals, which results in all kinds of inefficiencies. Creating more minority and female managers on top of too many white male managers will simply make matters worse.

The Clinton administration is right to follow the lead of the private sector to empower front-line workers and to thin out management ranks. The question is: How should this be done in a humane way that also protects the rights of minorities and women?

The administration's answer was that civil rights enforcement should be beefed up and that excessive management should be reduced by the offer of buyouts and early retirement, already available in three federal agencies.

Congress just last week gave authority for buyouts throughout the federal government, but if more employees take them than managers, the management-employee ratio could actually worsen. And there is no assurance that buyouts will significantly reduce layoffs at agencies such as USIA, where specific products, such as the agency's dissemination of print news and information around the world, are being drastically reduced.

If firings occur at USIA and elsewhere in the government, still a likely prospect this summer despite the buyout bill, minorities and women could find themselves the unwitting targets of reinventing government.

Here's why. Under current rules of the Office of Personnel Management, most managers have ``bumping and retreating'' rights: If their jobs are eliminated they can literally bump lower-level employees out of a job and retreat into their positions. Blacks and women, concentrated in lower-level jobs, would be disproportionate losers. The managers who move into the lower-level jobs would retain their current salaries for a number of years for performing jobs classified far below their grade. Sounds crazy, but that's how mandatory reductions work in the government. Is this what the administration intends?

If not, it must take further action to reinvent government right - or else the White House may be streamlining by decreasing the number of minority and female workers and increasing the management-employee ratio, exactly the opposite of what it wants. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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