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‘Appalling’ Is the Right Word for the Civil Service System


“Appalling” is a good choice of words to describe the plight of civilian employees at the Defense Department.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s comments on Title 5, which governs the federal personnel system, confirm that the Pentagon wants to tackle the problem of workforce management. Government’s human resources policies and systems are an anachronism. It’s not just the General Schedule system or the classification system – it starts with hiring and includes virtually all people management practices. It’s as if government exists in a time warp. And the result is that performance problems regularly make the headlines, employee morale is in the toilet, agencies are finding it difficult to recruit and keep young talent, and it all reinforces the arguments of the critics. He’s correct to ask why anyone would work for government.

My research on HR practices in the states (for my upcoming book Primer on Total Compensation in Government) has revealed several that are stuck with even worse HR systems. But several others are light-years ahead. Their policies are probably not textbook perfect, but they have implemented ideas that give agencies the flexibility to create positive and productive work environments. The state HR offices control the framework for workforce management but the agencies are accountable for deciding how they will manage employees within the framework.

The progressive states – Virginia is one of them – have recognized a one-size-fits-all civil service system makes no sense today. Government is a true conglomerate; each agency has a different mission, culture and set of operational problems. If experts were called in to help each agency develop an HR system that supports their strategy, the answers would not resemble the costly bureaucracy that is the civil service.

The core issue is the philosophy and belief system that is the foundation for managing people. It’s simplistic but there are two camps: One views employees as a cost, the other sees them as assets. Costs are to be controlled and reduced; the assets are greatest when they are fully productive. The civil service system is a barrier to high performance. It discourages innovation and creative ideas.

Leaders must decide if they believe workers are “good” – the word used by Google’s HR chief, Laszlo Bock, in his book, Work Rules! – or they don’t. If they are good, they can be trusted to do the right thing and to want their organization to be successful and seen as important to society. People will work very hard when they are committed to a mission. Plus when employees are valued, it carries over to the organization’s brand as an employer. Society is the winner.

There is a very practical reason why this is important – people in the right work environment can be far more productive. They may go home exhausted but are anxious to return the next day. The sense of satisfaction carries over to their lives away from work. Everybody wins.

But there are two important caveats that DOD and other agencies planning to take this different path need to address. One is the effectiveness of managers. The second is the effectiveness of HR managers outside of headquarters. Neither has been a priority to this point, and neither are ready to support the transition to this new approach to work management.

This is not at all to suggest that managers are not “good” people or that there no effective managers. But where the most senior or the best technicians are promoted to be supervisors, there is no assurance they have the mind-set or the skills to be effective in this very different role. Government compounds the problem by not providing adequate training or incentives to become effective in the role. This promises to be a Catch-22 – there are not enough role models, but the system downplays the importance of developing and refining needed skills.

Research has confirmed managers are more important to high performance than any other factor. It’s their relationships with subordinates that create the work environment and encourage employees to take risks and try new approaches. Those relationships are at the heart of employee engagement. When a truly effective manager moves to supervise a new group, its performance almost invariably improves and the performance of the former group declines.

Workers should not need protection from supervisor bias or discrimination; that’s 1950s thinking. Yet comments at the end of columns like this always suggest it’s a problem. Those ineffective managers need to be moved to new roles or retired. It would be easy to identify those who are a problem. That’s a good reason to survey employees.

Surely, the HR managers are also good people. But at too many agencies the role has been defined narrowly as administrative. The changes DOD is contemplating will require local champions to advocate and push for change. To highlight a key point, the Pentagon is proposing what is likely to be a difficult organizational change – after the failure of the National Security Personnel System there will be a lot of cynics and naysayers. Managers and employees at each work site will need HR’s support.

Government will never emulate Google, but there are several states that have already started in this new direction. Every department and agency should have the authority to adopt people management practices that support its mission. The past 20 years have seen a revolution in workforce management. As a first step it would be useful to consider the experience of the states. The cost to the country of staying with Title 5 is real and increases each year.

(Image via berkut/

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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