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A Blueprint for Improving Government Performance

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This is the second column in a two-part series on Civil Service reform. You can read the first part here.

Throughout the 1990s, a convergence of trends led by tremendous advances in technology, triggered a revolution in the way work is organized and managed in the private sector. A key factor was the realization that the traditional, top-down approach to management was making companies less competitive. Corporate executives learned that when employees are trusted and empowered to make job-related decisions, companies and their employees both perform at higher levels. 

Federal agencies arguable contend with problems that are more complex—and the consequences of failure potentially more tragic—than those of business. The National Performance Review initiated by President Bill Clinton recognized that government must evolve; but for reasons never documented, the impetus to reform the Civil Service system lost momentum and was forgotten. Despite subsequent attempts at reform, such as the Pentagon’s ill-fated National Security Personnel System, the economic recession and political deadlock have precluded change.

Government leaders should decide if improved performance is even a priority. The investments in management systems have failed to solve federal performance problems, while the performance gains in business show clearly that government is missing an opportunity.

Prior Plans to Reform the Civil Service

When President Clinton created the National Partnership Council in 1993 with union and management members, he charged it with developing recommendations in four areas that would have transformed the civil service

  • Form labor-management partnerships for success
  • Create a flexible and responsive hiring system
  • Reform the General Schedule classification system
  • Improve individual and organizational performance

The themes weren’t new then, and they remain relevant today. In 1989, the Volcker Commission issued a report, “Rebuilding the Public Service.” In 1991, I served on a panel formed by the National Academy of Public Administration that recommended replacing the GS salary system with separate banded salary systems for broad occupation groups (e.g., office support, law enforcement, engineering/sciences). NAPA has published at least two similar reports, the most recent in 2004. The General Accountability Office has included human resource management on its High Risk list since 2001.

The 2004 NAPA report, “Transforming the Public Service: Progress Made and the Work Ahead,” which resulted from a conference co-hosted by NAPA and the Volcker Commission, confirms how difficult reform has been. It starts with an affirmation of what they thought was progress: “Congress and the Executive Branch have now taken significant steps to modernize the management of the federal workforce to meet the increasingly critical demands on government in the 21st Century.” The focus was on changes then being planned in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Today, of course, the failures in both departments serve as an impediment to broad reform.

More recently, in 2014, the Partnership for Public Service released the report “Building the Enterprise: A New Civil Service Framework,” which noted that “the federal personnel system, the foundation for effective government, [is] obsolete and in crisis, and an obstacle rather than an aid in attracting, hiring, retaining and developing top talent.”

In June, the Partnership weighed in again with “A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service,” which was triggered by an Executive Order requiring agencies to implement practices for boosting the “health” of the SES.

Proven Practices Are Well Documented

The existing research, along with recently published books and articles on leading edge HR thinking, provide more than enough information to plan and implement civil service reform. In addition, several states and the United Kingdom have initiated major reform efforts over the past decade. There is every reason to believe that reform can be successful.

The GS system has been a political lightening rod for years and could be a barrier to an agreement on needed changes.  As someone who has published two books on salary management, I can say definitely that neither side is “correct.”  No employer in any sector would rely on the methodology used to adjust the GS salary ranges or that used by the think tanks in arguing federal employees are overpaid. Neither approach is appropriate for maintaining a market competitive salary program.

There should be an independent analysis of the salaries paid by competing employers. There is a wealth of salary survey data—one estimate is that over 2,000 are conducted every year. It’s highly likely that HR professional associations, as well as the compensation experts in leading companies, would agree to offer advice. Both sides of the debate should be invited to play a role.

A similar analysis needs to be completed for benefits. The critics are correct—federal benefits are better than those provided by the average employer. But then government is not competing for talent with mom-and-pop businesses. Moreover, it is a fact that the “gap” is largely attributable to the cutbacks corporations have made, primarily the elimination of defined benefit pensions. A search of federal reports shows the last professional comparison of benefits is in a 1998 Congressional Budget Office Memorandum.  (The analyses were completed by the pension consulting firm, Watson Wyatt.)

It’s important to note that a recent Heritage Foundation report, “Blueprint for Reform,” proposed a compromise, protecting the benefits of older workers while reducing benefits for younger employees. Some such compromise may be essential for reform to go forward.

To highlight a key point, however, all the prior reports on reform, except the one on the SES, are silent on three of the four U.K. goals: improved outcomes, skilled people, [creating] a great place to work.  The fourth U.K. goal, effective leadership, is stated in different terms than those used in discussions of the Senior Executive Service. For the U.K., effective leaders are “inspiring, confident and empowering, and who live our values.” 

The goal of improved outcomes focuses on agency and individual performance management. Skilled people focuses on selection, training and coaching.  A Great Place to Work focuses on the day-to-day work experience. 

By comparison, the U.S. view of reform has focused more narrowly on HR practices. The U.K. goals are actually more closely aligned with the thinking that triggered the revolution in the way work is managed in progressive companies. The best performance occurs when employees are empowered, trusted and expected to address problems. Agencies would do well to explore how to reduce the bureaucracy, eliminate levels of management, and transition from control to coaching. The U.K. goals are far more likely to raise performance levels.

A Suggested Approach

Reform will have to be planned and supported at the highest levels. Ideally it will involve not only HR policies and practices but include broader management reform. Eliminating bureaucratic practices would not only improve the work experience, it would make agencies more responsive and generate savings. It also would improve retention at all levels.

This is likely to extend through the next administration and possibly beyond. The breadth of issues suggests involving people from across government. The NPR involved 250 federal employees and interns, state and local government employees on loan, along with a few consultants. Involving employees is a proven strategy to minimize resistance. New practices should be evaluated annually and fine-tuned if necessary. That’s a proven strategy.

It would also be advantageous to meet with people who have successfully navigated reform—corporate executives at those companies deemed “best places to work” and officials from the U.K., as well as from the states that have undergone reform. Tennessee and Virginia are especially important. If Virginia Senator and former Governor Tim Kaine is the next vice president, his experience could be invaluable.  

As with Bill Clinton’s NPR, the next reform effort should be led by the next Vice President. The initiative needs the power of the White House and it will have to win and retain bipartisan support.  Government cannot afford another failure.  

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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