American Elephants

Tax Cheats? Rule Breakers? Trickle-Down Fairy Dust? by The Elephant's Child

“The Chairman’s Blog: Insights for leaders from Gallup’s work around the world”

The House of Representatives passed a bill last Tuesday that would fire federal employees who’ve been seriously delinquent in paying their taxes. They did this because almost 100,000 federal workers are behind on their taxes, including 700 congressional employees. These workers owed more than $1 billion in unpaid taxes 2010, up from just under $600 million in 2004, according to the Internal Revenue Service. We could charitably call these folks “rule breakers.”

Wow! We could save a billion dollars if the tax cheats just paid up? And they are rule breakers as well?

Of course, we’ve also learned recently that there’s been significant rule breaking in the General Services Administration (lavish conferences and now word of excessive bonuses) and the Secret Service (the prostitution scandal in Colombia). Combined, the problems of tax evasion and rule breaking generally point to deep ethical issues in the federal workplace.

The federal government really needs to know what Gallup knows: Rule breaking is very predictable. The more disengaged the workplace, the more employees will break rules. And according to Gallup’s 12-question employee engagement survey (Q12), U.S. government workers are mostly not engaged (52%) or are actively disengaged (18%).

Now, it may surprise many government leaders to learn that generous pay and benefits don’t predict a great workplace. Federal workers are generally well compensated and receive more vacation days and better healthcare and retirement packages than many private sector employees — yet they remain disengaged and work within a growing culture of rule breaking.

The Chairman doesn’t mention it, but an attitude at the top that rule breaking will not be tolerated would be a start. But that would be sheer hypocrisy wouldn’t it. The President of the United States has been quite explicit in saying that he will not prosecute the laws with which he disagrees. Reports of the Attorney General’s failure to prosecute the law have been constant. The Secretary of the Treasury was publicly labeled a tax cheat because he had not paid his taxes. Administration members accused of illegal actions EPA director Lisa Jackson, Interior’s Ken Salazar, HHS’s Kathleen Sebelius, some have been taken to court and told to knock it off.

The administration clearly has no respect for the separation of powers, and does not feel obliged to yield to the laws passed by Congress, nor the decisions that emanate from the courts. Thus we have a government functioning by “Executive Orders,” and a Congress left fuming. With that attitude, it is hardly surprising that you have some “trickle down fairy dust,” to borrow a phrase; a feeling that if they can get away with it, why can’t I?

Rudy Giuliani cleaned up New York with a belief that petty crime, broken windows and graffiti led to a general climate of disrespect for the law. You could call that “trickle up.” He was right, of course. And as long as the federal government has an attitude that crony capitalism, rule breaking, tax cheating are fine for members of the federal workforce and their executives, we will continue to have a lot of the aforementioned.



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