Pay government employees based on performance

Senior employees should not make more than junior employees

Judith+Gibson-Okunieff
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Pay government employees based on performance

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

By Greg Fournier, Collegian Columnist

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There are few things in this world that are more frustrating than dealing with incompetent government employees.

A classic example of this is going to the DMV. Everyone dreads getting their license renewed or their car registered because they know that they will be forced to wait in line for too long, only to be told by a disgruntled attendant that they don’t have the requisite paperwork. While there are some private companies that have similarly poor customer service, it seems that this is mostly confined to the public sector. One of the possible reasons for this is that government employees are often compensated based on their seniority, rather than job performance. Instead, government employees should be compensated almost entirely on their merit, rather than on seniority.

This policy makes sense and has been around in the private sector for years. Indeed, “recognizing and rewarding high performers is consistent with U.S. cultural values; no successful business leader would consider reverting to any other policy.” The fact that the government doesn’t have the same promotion system as private employers indicates that the public sector is operating inefficiently.

Think about this in terms of public schools. I had a number of teachers in middle and high school who had been in the school system for years, and yet were not effective at their jobs. The fact that these teachers were likely being paid more than their younger counterparts, regardless of how good they were at teaching, highlights the injustice of the seniority system. Many voters have recognized this nuisance and have therefore implemented policies to pay teachers based on merit.  This has had an enormous impact for some schools: “among studies conducted in U.S. schools, the academic increase [from implementing a merit pay system] was roughly equivalent to adding three additional weeks of learning to the school year.” These same studies have shown that merit-based systems have a positive impact on teacher retention and recruitment, especially in low-income areas.

Despite these studies, merit pay systems have their opponents. One author, Peter Greene, from Forbes argues that government employees should not be paid based on merit for a number of reasons. First of all, private-sector success is fairly measurable — generally, the more money a firm brings in, the more successful they are. Government agencies do not work this way. They exist not to make a profit, but rather to provide a service that private-sector employees can’t provide. Therefore, it is hard to define success in government work.

That is a fair argument, but one way this could be worked around is by filling out customer service surveys. At the DMV, for instance, patrons could be asked to complete a customer service survey, similar to how many retail outlets do. Based on the average ratings of the DMV employee, they could get cash bonuses or raises. This seems like it would incentivize government employees to be pleasant, which would be a step up from the status quo at the DMV.

This is trickier for teachers, because the success of teachers is often predicated on the attentiveness of their students. This could be controlled by developing standardized tests at the local level, which would take into account the past performance of the students in the school. This way, any increase in the test scores year-by-year could be attributed largely to the ability of the teacher to make their lessons interesting.

A second criticism of the merit-based approach specifically deals with teaching. Greene says that, “at its heart, a merit pay system is insulting. It imagines a world of teachers who sit at their desk thinking, ‘I have the perfect lesson for effectively teaching pronouns right over there in my filing cabinet – but I’m not going to get it out until someone offers me a bonus.’” This is a foolish argument. A merit pay system doesn’t assume that teachers already have good plans that they refuse to implement because they aren’t getting paid enough. It assumes that teachers will innovate their teaching style in order to receive higher bonuses. This way, teachers are constantly striving to improve their teaching method rather than sticking with what they have, whether it works or not.

A merit-based pay system for government employees would be better for everyone. Employees would be eligible for more pay if they worked harder, DMV patrons would receive better customer service and students would have better teachers. Best of all, this doesn’t have to be a top-down mandate from the federal government. Local governments could choose to implement merit pay for their employees and reap the benefits of such a policy. The fact that this is not the status quo is rather troubling — it’s no wonder the government is so inefficient.

Greg Fournier is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]