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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The Governmentwide Problem

When people ask you where you work, do you say, "The federal government," or do you name your agency? Do you work for Uncle Sam, or for his nephew the Bureau of Land Management, or his niece the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? When you complain about your job, do you complain about "the government," or about your agency?

Your answers depend partly on how much you like working for your agency. But the questions get at a central issue Uncle Sam's executives face. Should the government operate under uniform management rules and regulations, or should each agency develop its own management practices? Do we need governmentwide human resources rules, or should we think of the government as a conglomeration of very different organizations that should develop their own HR systems to reflect distinct missions and cultures?

Don Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, points out that nearly every HR reform in recent years has been agency or sector based. Think of the intelligence community's exemptions from governmentwide civil service rules, or the Defense Department's recently axed experiment with a performance management system. "But we have more than a century of tradition that holds we need uniform principles to guide the civil service," Kettl says. "How are we going to resolve this conflict? Are there truly governmentwide principles we want to hold to? We're drifting deeper into the paradox with each passing year."

The pushback against governmentwide rules has been under way for decades. The Navy, struggling to attract and retain top-tier researchers to its laboratories, managed in the 1980s to pry some exemptions out of Uncle Sam's rigid rules so it could more quickly raise salaries and prevent scientists from going to better-paying private sector firms. In the early 2000s, the Homeland Security Department set up the Transportation Security Administration outside much of the standard government system on the grounds that it needed flexibility to manage its security screeners.

But every federal employee swears an oath to the Constitution upon entering the civil service. No matter which agency you work for, you share a common commitment to the rule of law. In turn, Congress has created a set of governmentwide laws aimed at preventing anything else -- whether a spoils system or favoritism or discrimination -- from getting in federal workers' way as they carry out their agencies' missions.

On a practical level, employee benefits such as health insurance and retirement savings are probably most efficiently handled by central agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

Beyond those matters the effectiveness of centralized management begins to crumble, fueling leaders' constant efforts to free their agencies from the rules and regulations that now control managers' actions governmentwide, from the Army to the Internal Revenue Service to the Education Department to the U.S. Geological Survey. These organizations might belong to the federal government, but they operate in vastly different spheres. The best way to achieve their missions isn't the same for any two.

No central management structure can effectively run such an amalgamation of entities. Finding a way to devolve power and responsibility to the lowest level possible while maintaining the core management principles of the U.S. government is one of the key challenges Uncle Sam and his numerous nieces and nephews face in the early 21st century.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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