Management agenda is 'radical' civil service reform, expert says

A Bush administration plan to let private firms compete for up to 425,000 federal jobs is a "radical" kind of civil service reform, according to an expert on public administration. President Bush officially announced his government reform agenda last week. It includes a "competitive sourcing" mandate to hold public-private competitions for thousands of federal jobs. That piece of the agenda is the most ambitious, according to Paul Light, a scholar with the Brookings Institution. While administration officials have rejected the characterization of their proposals as civil service reform, Light argued that the dramatic outsourcing of federal jobs that is likely to result from the competitive sourcing mandate is comprehensive reform because it will essentially reshape the federal workforce. The Office of Management and Budget has already told agencies to compete or directly outsource 42,500 jobs in fiscal year 2002, and to plan on competing another 85,000 federal jobs the following year. "What they [OMB officials] are basically saying is, 'We'll talk about reform after we downsize this federal workforce by a quarter to half.' Then we'll see what we've got left and what we'll do about it," said Light. OMB spokesman Chris Ullman disputed this charge, noting the Bush administration has set no targets for cutting federal jobs. In fact, the administration would be pleased if civil servants won public-private competitions, he said. "We are more than happy to have federal workers provide these services at a better price," he said. "The goal is to provide a better service at a better price." But OMB's competitive sourcing requirements are especially dangerous because agencies lack workforce planning systems to help them decide what jobs should face competition, Light said. This means departments might shift jobs to the private sector without considering their long-term personnel needs, repeating a process that occurred when agencies downsized in the 1990s, Light said. "[OMB] basically ordered federal departments to outsource hundreds of thousands of jobs without a workforce planning system in place to make those decisions," he said. "It's really quite radical." OMB did ask agencies to factor the competitive sourcing initiative into workforce analyses they prepared earlier this summer. Light added that public comments by OMB Director Mitch Daniels and Associate Director for Information Technology and E-Government Mark Forman on the competitive sourcing initiative have not helped the effort to attract talented, young people to government. "What they've done through the outsourcing initiative and a series of speeches is driven fear into every agency of government about future employment prospects," said Light. "When a young person says 'I want to go to work for the federal government,' and you say simply, 'We'd love to hire you, but if you come here you might be out of a job in an year ...,' that to me is not a compelling job advertisement." Ullman brushed this comment aside. "I think [Light's] commentary is riddled with inaccuracies," said Ullman. "I think Mr. Light has a flair for the hyperbolic and little desire to provide constructive commentary." On a fundamental level, Light disagrees with Bush administration officials about the need for comprehensive civil service reform. OMB Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe has repeatedly said that agencies must make greater use of existing tools, such as pay banding, before OMB will consider widespread civil service reform. In a recent interview, O'Keefe aligned himself with Comptroller General David Walker, who has said that civil service reform is two to three years away. "David Walker has it right," said O'Keefe. "He predicts the earliest possible opportunity [for civil service reform] after aggressive implementation of existing authorities would be two to three years away." In contrast to the administration's position, Light believes the time is right for dramatic reform that would restructure agencies, reduce layers in the federal hierarchy and create new federal career paths, all with the benefit of workforce planning. The only administration official who has come close to recommending the kind of sweeping change Light favors is Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James, who said earlier this week that the government's general schedule pay system is in need of overhaul. Light acknowledged that many public administration experts also think incremental steps are the best way to improve federal management. "There does seem to be an agreement that has emerged among good government groups … that we can't do anything big here," he said. "I just think we are now at a moment when we need dramatic reform and we are in a process where this outsourcing pressure is creating more problems even as we try to solve existing ones."
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