For a statistics nut like me, USA Today’s story this week on departure statistics from federal employment is simply irresistible.  Once ensconced in the bureaucracy, civil-service employees are more likely to leave their jobs through death than through layoffs or firings in at least a dozen government agencies.  Moreover, those who do get fired make substantially less, with 2 out of every 3 making less than $50,000 a year (via The New Editor):

The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 — 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance, says John Palguta, former research chief at the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, which handles federal firing disputes.

The 1,800-employee Federal Communications Commission and the 1,200-employee Federal Trade Commission didn’t lay off or fire a single employee last year. The SBA had no layoffs, six firings and 17 deaths in its 4,000-employee workforce.

When job security is at a premium, the federal government remains the place to work for those who want to avoid losing a job. The job security rate for all federal workers was 99.43% last year and nearly 100% for those on the job more than a few years.

As with all statistics, though, one has to determine exactly what this measures and what this means. In this case, the measures seem straightforward, but the meaning less so.  A low turnover in staff usually indicates successful management, both in hiring and in retention, and a well-motivated workforce.  In fact, that’s exactly what HUD claims:

HUD spokesman Jerry Brown says his department’s low dismissal rate — providing a 99.85% job security rate for employees — shows a skilled and committed workforce. “We’ve never focused on firing people, and we don’t intend to start now. We’re more focused on hiring the right people,” he says.

Too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a great thing, according to a management expert consulted by USA Today:

San Francisco State University management professorJohn Sullivan, an expert on employee turnover, says the low departure rates show a failure to release poor performers and those with obsolete skills. “Rather than indicating something positive, rates below 1% in the firing and layoff components would indicate a serious management problem,” he says.

In this environment, it indicates something else, too.  While the private sector has lost millions of jobs, the federal government hasn’t shed hardly any at all, outside of the temporary Census workers hired last year. When revenues plunge in the private sector, companies trim workforces and become more efficient.  One can argue that some of the public sector agencies in the federal government have to bolster themselves in that kind of environment in order to provide safety-net help for more Americans, and that does make a certain amount of sense.

However, take another look at the USA Today article.  The FCC, SBA, and the FTC have a combined workforce of 7,000 people — and they didn’t lay off one single worker.  What “safety net” programs does the FCC and the FTC provide?  In that context, the Small Business Administration would only need to increase if the number of small businesses were increasing, which they most assuredly have not over the last three years.  With revenues off by around 20% or more, those agencies should have gotten a substantial haircut.

In this case, the statistics seem to bear out their initial impression — that the public sector won’t fire or lay off employees unless mandated to do so.  Isn’t it time for Congress to do just that?