Civil Service Reform Might Not Be a Pipe Dream

“This is a difficult time in Congress to do anything, but this is changing and we have an opportunity,” said Ted Kaufman, D-Del. “This is a difficult time in Congress to do anything, but this is changing and we have an opportunity,” said Ted Kaufman, D-Del. Susan Walsh/AP file photo

Compared with the Affordable Care Act, civil service reform “is a walk in the park,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., on Wednesday.

He spoke at a largely optimistic panel evaluating prospects for the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton’s new compendium of proposals to improve federal hiring practices, reward top performers and create a more market-based pay structure.

“This is a difficult time in Congress to do anything, but this is changing and we have an opportunity,” said Kaufman, a veteran Senate staffer and currently a visiting professor at Duke University Law School. “Even if we had the most friendly Congress in the world, it would be a long process.” Most lawmakers “want to have a good civil service -- with a few notable exceptions,” he added. The public’s hostility toward government is largely a function of the bad economy, he said.

The report -- titled “Building the Enterprise: A New Civil Service Framework” -- was the product of two years’ work drawing from previous government reform efforts, said Lara Shane, vice president of research and communications for the Partnership. “Most ideas have been tried before, so we sought lessons learned” from why they didn’t take. PPS chose the term “framework” rather than “blueprint” as a way to “start the conversation,” said its president, Max Stier.

Reform will move forward only if there is agreement among all stakeholders, said Robert Tobias, former president of the National Treasury Employees Union and now director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University. “It’s not just the unions, but Congress and the administration have to build an infrastructure of trust on what you can agree on,” he said, because there “will be winners and losers.”

But Tobias said he sees the present political climate as opportune because “there is no crisis, so it’s the best environment for a rational discussion.” He added that “most people don’t care about this issue, which can be an advantage in driving the legislation.” Because the reform proposals are likely “budget-neutral,” the panelists noted, any bill would bypass the budget and appropriations committees and perhaps be championed by a small group of lawmakers.

But the 1978 civil service reforms, came about “with a bipartisan coalition for good government that is missing today,” Tobias cautioned.

Businesses want to avoid getting involved in the “dynamics of Congress versus the administration,” added Tony Miller, former deputy Education secretary now a partner with the Vistria Group. “It’s important that reform not be framed in a partisan way -- if you’re for smaller government, it’s still good. But it is important to create a sense of urgency, a burning platform,” while gauging the “opportunity cost” of not acting now.

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