Three former officials call for fewer political appointees

Three former political appointees told House lawmakers Thursday that reducing the number of appointees would help the government run more efficiently and improve the morale of career civil servants.

Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala presented recommendations to the House Government Reform Committee on how to make civil service positions more attractive. Their recommendations included streamlining the political appointments process and making civil servants more involved in agency decision-making.

Federal workers who have held their jobs for years are in a much better position to know what is going on at agencies and make certain decisions than political appointees who step in for a couple years and have no historical perspective on events, Volcker said at the hearing. Civil servants also appreciate being more involved in the policy process and tend to feel blocked out by the large number of current appointees, Shalala said. Since many civil servants accepted public service jobs thinking they could make a difference, they become frustrated and are more tempted to leave than they would be otherwise, she said.

The three former officials were part of a 10-member commission that spent the past year reviewing the federal government's organization, personnel systems and outsourcing strategies. In a Jan. 7 report, members of the so-called Volcker Commission concluded that revitalizing federal operations required wholesale reorganization, including giving the president fast-track authority to rearrange federal agencies as needed, realigning congressional committees to match agency missions and providing more personnel flexibilities.

These recommendations built on ones made by a previous Volcker-led commission in 1989. In addition to the three testifying Thursday, commission members include former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.; former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; former Office of Personnel Management Director Constance Horner; former Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines; former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn.; former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein; and former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher.

To attract and retain the "best and the brightest," federal agencies need more than just better recruiting policies-they need to change the way they operate, Volcker testified. "Employees become demoralized in the absence of mission clarity, or when they feel unable to contribute effectively to their agency's mission," he said.

"Good people can make a poor organization work for a while," Carlucci added. "But it is inefficient and sooner or later they will be inclined to toss in the towel. A good organizational structure enables employees to accomplish their mission and receive the [psychological] rewards that brought most of us into government."

Volcker told lawmakers that he would like to see them introduce a bill that would allow federal agencies the flexibility to attract the kind of high-quality executive and judicial job applicants who often go to nonprofit organizations and academia. For instance, federal judges aren't paid enough to convince top-notch candidates to leave jobs as professors or deans at law schools, he said. And as a result, the quality of federal judges is compromised.

The federal government cannot expect to compete with the private sector in many areas, Volcker said. But even though the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, cannot afford to offer lawyers as much money as they would make at New York City law firms, the SEC should at least have the flexibility to narrow the pay gap, he said. Otherwise, the agency would not possibly be able to retain the highly skilled group of lawyers necessary to prosecute increasingly complex securities cases.

The commission members also asked Congress, the Office of Personnel Management and federal agencies to simplify and modernize the recruitment process, tapping on the expertise of the nonprofit sector.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., the new chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization, said she is committed to investigating the issues that the commission members raised. She praised the commission for raising "fundamental" questions about how government is organized and recruits workers, questions that have taken on an "urgency not seen in many years" as the new Homeland Security Department gets off the ground.

But the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) criticized the Volcker Commission's recommendations for focusing too heavily on higher compensation for senior executives and leaving out needed pay raises for lower level civil servants. Increasing the salaries of top-level government officials without including raises for others would "serve only to further erode the morale of dedicated and talented front-line federal employees" said Colleen Kelley, president of the 150,000-member union.

Kelley also urged lawmakers to address the "growing budget crisis that leaves federal agencies without the resources needed to do the work expected of them by the American public." She said that the sweeping reforms proposed by the Volcker Commission do not recognize this problem and offer little meaningful advice on how to revitalize the federal government's recruitment and retention tactics.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec