A ‘turkey,’ apart from being poultry, wild or farmed, is a large flightless bird. Particularly in US slang a ‘turkey‘ is a project that does not work (the aircraft does not fly) or a person who is unable to properly perform their job, an incompetent.
In large bureaucratic organisations, both government and private sector, a frequent personnel problem are persons who for political reasons or because of personal connections (for example with large clients or senior executives), must be hired or cannot be fired (dismissed) notwithstanding their lack of qualifications, credentials or evident incompetence; alternately their dismissal may present considerable and expensive legal obstacles. This problem is particularly acute in governments where there are a large number of political appointments, for example in Washington DC, Madrid, Rome (and other parts of Italy), Belgium, etc., placed in roles because of influence, a political debt owed, or ideological purity.
One side effect is that weaker departments and agencies, those with less powerful or influential leaders, or those considered as posing limited risk of ‘blowback’ tend to receive a disproportionate number of these individuals. This led in Washington DC, to such departments, sections and agencies being dubbed ‘Turkey Farm(s),’ for their high concentration of dolts, incompetents and impractical ideologues.
Notable Turkey Farms were for example: under ‘Silent’ Sam Pierce, a Reagan appointee, the department of Housing & Urban Development – Pierce appointed an eternal student and part time bartender his chief of staff, and before long the HUD scandal ensued in which several participants received criminal convictions (including the bartender.) Later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was, under President Goerge H.W. Bush to be named a Turkey Farm in a Congressional report on its failings in addressing Hurricane Andrew:
FEMA is widely viewed as a political ‘dumping ground,’ a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment…
FEMA’s failings were part of why the first President Bush was thought to have lost reëlection; also in his administration the US Department of Commerce received the mocking nickname of Bush Gardens (a pun on a funfair and theme park called Busch Gardens.) Curiously, it was also to be his son George W. Bush’s most notorious ‘Turkey Farm,’ where under its head, ‘Heckuva Job’ Mike ‘Brownie’ Brown it made a literally fatal fiasco of the response to Hurricane Katrina‘s destruction of most of New Orleans. Finally the Coalition Provisional Authority set up to govern Iraq between the 2003 invasion and the handover to the Iraqi interim government was, under L Paul Bremer, regarded as the ultimate exemplar of a Turkey Farm – the lack of qualifications of many of the personal sent to Iraq is legendary, their incompetence widely detailed and the consequences have been described in considerable detail (see for example, Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq 2003-2005, (2006.))
However, Turkey Farms are not confined to government, but are to be found in large, bureaucratic and white collar private sector organisations too; as with government, their existence usually results at some point in fiasco, farce, embarrassment, resignations, fines and, from time-to-time, prison sentences. Within corporations and professional services organisations Turkey Farms are typically in non-customer facing functions such as Human Resources, regulatory compliance, ethics departments – because, were customers to encounter them, they would likely complain highlighting their incompetence.