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

The Presidential Transition Should Include Civil Service Reform

View of the U.S. Capitol during the inauguration of President Obama. View of the U.S. Capitol during the inauguration of President Obama. Chris Parypa Photography/

This is the first column in a two-part series.

Maybe, just maybe, the time has come for civil service reform. The idea keeps surfacing: Hillary Clinton promised “VA reform will be a top priority.” The Defense Department has begun implementing its new civilian personnel system, New Beginnings, while Congress considers a proposal to reform hiring—the Workforce Flexibility Act of 2016. Overhauling the Senior Executive Service has been discussed since 2012. The Republican platform calls for cutting federal pay and benefits. And numerous reports calling for reform have been published.

The recognition that reform is needed is widely shared. Something is needed because the civil service system is no longer serving the needs of government at a time when public support has declined.

The last time the public’s trust in government was this low was at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Two months after his inauguration, he authorized the National Performance Review with the goal of “creating a government that works better and costs less.” In October 1993, a month after the initial NPR report was released, Clinton issued Executive Order 12871, creating the National Partnership Council with union and management members, and charged it with planning what would have been civil service reform.

Since then, agency management has been reinvented through successive laws—the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act was the first—but civil service reform was forgotten. Today the problems government needs to address have become more complex and more urgent, making the argument for reform even more compelling.

Despite repeated investments in management systems, performance problems continue, and there’s evidence the problems are getting worse. Through the same period, businesses have generated significant performance gains with innovative management practices. 

The Civil Service System is Antiquated

It may be hard to believe (at least it is to me) but the current civil service system has not been changed in any meaningful way in almost a century. All the efforts to upgrade agency management over the past two decades have largely ignored the workforce. There has been ongoing interest in reform, starting with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, but the “system” is essentially unchanged.

The classification system, the hiring process, the emphasis on seniority, and the work environment in far too many agencies are reflective of a decades-old approach to “people management.” With the anticipated surge in retirements and reported problems recruiting and retaining millennials, the situation is likely to deteriorate.

To generalize, the civil service system is central to the psychological contract with employees. That defines what employees expect and influences their motivation and behavior. But it has calcified the supervisor/employee relationship, creating behavioral patterns that are difficult to change. Employees who are accustomed to frequent or even periodic change accept it far more readily; where the work experience is stable, employees are much more likely to resist change. In government, the contract is deeply entrenched and it’s the reason proposed marginal changes are unlikely to influence performance.

For some employees, the commitment to public service—the academic phrase is Public Service Motivation—helps them to live with the negatives. I’ve had conversations with employees who were solidly committed to making a contribution. There are agencies where the mission has been an individual’s career goal since grade school. But the pay freezes, staff reductions and the ongoing “fed bashing” contribute to a work experience that is not conducive to raising performance levels. 

Reform is the only real answer to the performance problems. Focusing on issues like improving the USAJOBS website is not going to “fix” the hiring process or make a dent in improving the day-to-day work experience for millennials. Every HR policy and system needs to be evaluated to assess its impact, positive or negative, on agency performance. That’s metrics and focus groups. Managers and employees know what’s working.

The Revolution in the Management of Work

In the private sector, the revolution in the way work is organized and managed has been going on for 20 years. The contrast between the people management practices in government and the work experience in successful, progressive (it’s unfortunate that word is often understood in political terms) companies is striking. It would be eye opening for federal employees to talk to employees in those companies.

The practices in those “great places to work” are documented in multiple books, reports and articles.  It would be relatively easy to develop summaries of proven ideas. 

Perhaps more important would be using the information to inform government leaders how those practices benefit the companies. Part of the problem is that leaders are often focused on public policy issues, not day to day management, and have limited knowledge or experience with the changes in the private sector.

The impetus for the revolution was the 1990-1991 recession that prompted U.S. companies to look for ways to become more competitive in world markets. They eliminated layers of management along with bureaucratic practices, decentralized decision making, and in doing so, gave greater autonomy to employees. The business textbooks were rewritten, dropping old phrases like span of control and highlighting new ideas like empowerment.

This has been a management revolution, initiated by corporate leaders. The changes led to a new philosophy of managing people. Employees and their skills are managed as assets; added spending is an investment expected to pay off with improved performance. Until recently, HR played a very limited role. Civil service reform will require leadership at the highest levels.

Defining the Aspirational Goals for Reform

Experience with major change initiatives is mixed. Disasters like the now-abandoned National Security Personnel System still trigger tension. But there are also success stories including a list of demonstration projects. Plus several agencies have had separate HR systems now for years (most prominently the agencies covered by the 1989 Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act, which was triggered by the savings and loan crisis). Looking across government reform efforts (including experiences in several states and other countries, especially the U.K. where reform is ongoing) it’s clear there is no textbook.

Another obvious point is that it’s almost impossible in Washington to gain agreement on anything.  That of course could change after the election. Even agreeing on what needs to change would currently be impossible.

But if this is pushed back until after the inauguration, it may never get started. It would be too easy to kick this can down the road. 

The other possibility is that reform could be undertaken without adequate evaluation of its viability or the impact on agency performance. Government cannot afford another failure.

A suggested strategy is to adopt the U.K. approach and initially limit the discussion to aspirational goals. Those goals would be similar to the NPR’s “works better and costs less.” The four goals in the U.K. are improved outcomes, effective leaders, skilled people, a great place to work. Even with the political differences in Washington, it should be possible to agree on a similar set of goals.

That will be the starting point for my next column.

Image via Chris Parypa Photography/

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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