Suppose you opened a restaurant and hired two chefs: Mathilda and Ingrid.
Over a period of months, you notice that Mathilda is inattentive, often burning entrees, and that she regularly shows up late for work. You warn her about these habits, yet they continue. Ingrid, by contrast, takes great pride in her work, producing meals that win compliments from patrons. She also is punctual.
Eventually, you give Ingrid a raise in recognition of the financial benefit that her good efforts bring to your business.
But you reduce Mathilda's wages and tell her you will have to replace her with another chef if she does not improve her work habits. That's not a pleasant task, but you realize that if Mathilda's poor performance gives your restaurant a bad reputation, it will cost the business money and harm good and bad employees alike. Moreover, you know that if you keep them at the same pay level, Ingrid may lose her motivation because she sees that there is no incentive for working harder.
We doubt many people would second guess a restaurant owner who took those commonsense steps to keep his business running.
And yet, starkly different principles often guide government. At the federal level in particular, workers in many departments have almost absolute job security.
Not one of the more than 1,800 Federal Communications Commission employees nor one of the nearly 1,200 Federal Trade Commission employees was fired or laid off in the 2009-2010 budget year, for example, and the story was similar in many other areas of the federal government.
While the situation is not quite so absurd in Tennessee government, civil service rules have made it unnecessarily difficult to dismiss state employees or to differentiate between workers who perform well and those who do not.
Those days appear to be coming to an end, however.
Gov. Bill Haslam recently signed into law some significant revisions of civil service rules for workers in state government.
The changes are necessary, if hardly revolutionary. Among other things, they will make it less cumbersome to hire or dismiss executive branch workers, and they will provide for pay increases -- or reductions -- for employees based on their performance. In addition, they will require only a 30-day, not an impractical three-month, notice about pending layoffs.
The overhaul of civil service rules makes sense but leaves one question that may never be answered satisfactorily: Why didn't it happen sooner?