Daring to Defend the Federal Bureaucracy

A law professor, former college president and experienced federal manager bucks the prevailing mood in Washington.

In an age where “unelected bureaucrats” is a common Washington epithet, give credit to a law professor, former college president and experienced federal manager for cutting against the grain.

“The need for a robust civil service has never been greater,” writes Paul R. Verkuil in Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government. “To be effective, government must be run by professional managers,” says the former president of William and Mary College who served five years in the Obama administration as chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States.

“When decisions that should be taken by government officials are delegated to private contractors without adequate oversight, the public interest is jeopardized.”

Most of Verkuil’s book—researched with an array of good-government groups and scholars—was prepared before the election. So he had to rush an opening chapter on the Trump phenomenon.

In this new era, he said, “policy expertise, what professionals embody, may be something that Trump appointees do not value.” The evidence, Verkuil told Government Executive, is clear in the completed or looming employee dismissals at agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration, and in the Trump team’s ill-fated effort to demand the names of Energy Department employees and contractors who participated in climate change activities.

“You need people to run the government, and governing is hard,” said Verkuil in the interview. “There’s so many ways you’re challenged—there’s no comparison with the private sector. There’s no escape route—you can’t declare bankruptcy.”

The 162-page hardcover—the cover of which features a Works Progress Administration artist’s depiction of figures confronting “red tape”—warns against contractor “capture” of agencies, calling for a return to insourcing. Few of the “contractor-driven agencies”—NASA, USAID, the Defense Department—have gotten off the high-risk list of the Government Accountability Office, Verkuil points out.

He’s very down on Congress’ recent move to require the Internal Revenue Service to outsource certain delinquent tax collection functions to four private firms, portraying it as ripe for abuse of vulnerable citizens. “Unless we fix civil service hiring,” Verkuil told Government Executive, agencies will continue to rely on contractors because they’re easier to deal with.

There’s no avoiding the need for civil service reform, he writes. He promotes some familiar proposals: encourage creativity in hiring at the Office of Personnel Management, fix the technology gap with the private sector, and improve interagency coordination.

“For bureaucrats, focusing on mission is essential, but it can produce nearsightedness that blurs the bigger picture—that of solving overlapping problems,” he writes.

As a start toward broad reforms, Verkuil sees building blocks for the future in the 2015 Competitive Service Act that helps government recruit top talent and allows agencies to share applicant assessments with other agencies. And he lauds President Obama‘s December 2015 executive order to strengthen the Senior Executive Service. But “Congress must be convinced to strengthen rather than continue to penalize SES members,” he recommends, portraying Congress’s recent empowering of Veterans Affairs Department managers with more authority to fire bad apples as depriving 400 SES members of their hearing rights.

The current Congress, however, may not receptive to a grand refashioning of government in a way that elevates federal service. At a recent panel Verkuil moderated for the National Academy of Public Administration, former NAPA director Dan Blair said he hasn’t seen any appetite for taking on civil service reform, though he cited an opportunity for bipartisanship between Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Verkuil complains that Obama couldn’t get Congress to give him authority to reorganize agencies in 2011-2012 when he proposed merging six agencies into a new Department of Business and Trade. And he faults Republicans in Congress for disrupting the IRS by seeking to impeach Commissioner John Koskinen, whom he calls "the kind of professional government needs: someone who believes in government and takes on tough assignments."

“The way to motivate bureaucrats is to make them part of a team of achievers that is led by managers who understand human nature, have a respect for people, and know how to incent and inspire,” Verkuil writes. “These are the leaders who will reprofessionalize government.”