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With or Without Congress, Would-Be Government Reformers Are Eager to Get Started

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Last week’s rollout of yet another white paper on government reform brought to the fore a perhaps not-so-public reality: many experienced agency workforce planners are chafing at the bit to be allowed some experimentation.

The new set of recommendations for creating a 21st century public service assembled by the National Academy of Public Administration is titled “No Time to Wait, Part II.” The title is apt, because waiting is precisely what certain agency notables appear unwilling to do.

The more-concrete follow-up to last year’s conceptual paper proposes greater flexibility for individual agencies to test untried ideas to modernize staff skills; replace the status quo of job specifications with a competency-based talent model; reinforce the pursuit of merit principles that balance fairness and quality; create a strong leadership center on human capital issues; and “clean house” in the U.S. Code’s Title 5 provisions on workforce management.

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The current “crisis,” laid out by agency veterans at a Sept. 25 panel at the National Press Club is that the traditional civil service structure can’t keep up with the ever-in-flux higher-tech demands of the modern work world. Artificial intelligence and data analytics, said McKinsey and Co. partner Bryan Hancock, have irretrievably shattered older, more, static job descriptions by automating routine tasks and putting pressure on non-techies to adapt to a higher-order environment.

“We’re already falling behind what we need,” either now or 10 years from now, stressed Don Kettl, professor of public affairs at University of Texas-Austin’s Washington office. The march of change led by private-sector innovation could mean “government could lose its capacity to govern,” he warned. The question is, “How is government is going to be smart enough so that government is still calling the shots?”

Tom Ross, president of the Volcker Alliance, which co-sponsored the study with the Samuel L. Freeman Charitable Trust, said he is “deeply concerned that we’re facing a crisis in this country.” He said that federal retirement rates have doubled and the percentage of employees under age 25 in government is less than a third that of the private sector.

But the most convincing declaration of urgency came from two sitting human capital officers with decades of federal experience.

Angela Bailey, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department (but speaking on her own behalf), said, “We’re currently in a ‘Mother May I?’ situation, where you have to prove something has already failed in order to get something.” But if CHCOs around government “were given the flexibility to try” new pilot approaches to faster hiring, for example, “we’d not just dip our toe in, but dive in the deep end.”

Nowhere in Title 5, Bailey said, “does it say we have to put a notice in USAJobs.” Small things like new certifications “miss the whole point” when hiring can now be done by assembling dozens of candidates all in a room.

True, she added, Congress gave the Homeland Security Department extra hiring authority (a new strategy is coming in 2019), but she recommended that workforce planners “get a little guts in this area and stop worrying about lawsuits” and fearing failure.

Instead of hoping “the talent comes to us and we figure out where it fits in the agency,” hiring managers should “stop trying to pigeonhole people to a specific thing.” Like the developers of the smart phone, capital officers should “turn things completely upside down” and “create a solution in search of a problem.”

Anita Blair, deputy assistant Defense secretary for civilian personnel policy (also speaking for herself), said human capital officers should share more across agencies and be less afraid of seeking approval for pilot approaches. “If it’s good enough for a demonstration project, why isn’t it good enough for any agency?” she asked. The Pentagon planners “have worked for the last 10-15 years to create functional communities, or lines of work,” she said, and she tries to use the successful ones to “help those communities that are not getting off the ground.”

The panel was asked why this new NAPA report is different from dozens of preceding reports. “In my 37 years in government, this feels like the first time a report has nailed it,” Bailey said.

“The pivot point,” added Kettl, is that “the nature of work has changed, and there’s no going back.” While the feasibility of civil service reform by Congress remains unclear, he and colleagues have talked extensively about new ideas with the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, he said. “I don’t think our report is inconsistent with what’s on their minds,” he added. “They recognize that there’s an opportunity here.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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