Neil Armstrong, NASA/AP File Photo

The Future of Federal Service Doesn’t Have to Be So Bleak

We put a man on the moon, and we can fix government too.

Absent real reform, the future of the civil service is bleak. The workforce is aging and the government is not the first choice of employers for many recent graduates. Pay was frozen for three years and no one can agree on whether federal pay is too high, too low or just right. Federal workers have endured shutdowns and being used as a political football by their enemies and friends alike. Some politicians have no problem calling federal law enforcement officers “thugs” and Transportation Security Officers “molesters.” It is enough to make the term “bureaucrat” sound like a compliment. Add to that an antiquated General Schedule pay system designed when Harry Truman was president and hiring processes that seem designed to see how desperately someone wants a job, and there is little wonder the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows morale has been dropping in most agencies for the past three years. Maybe “bleak” is the optimistic view of the future.

We have heard a lot in recent weeks from members of Congress and the Partnership for Public Service about the future of the civil service and possible reform. House Republicans called for a 10 percent reduction in the workforce, while the Partnership published reform ideas it hoped would “get the debate started.” Federal unions were quick to join the debate, arguing that the proposals are flawed, unnecessary and dangerous. The unions oppose workforce reductions and believe any attempt at civil service reform will repeat the mistakes of the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System—a pay-for-performance system that weakened collective bargaining so much that a U.S. district judge said it “eviscerated” bargaining. A similar Homeland Security Department program called Max-HR died before it started.

Our history on civil service reform is anything but encouraging. If civil service reform was too hard in the past, imagine how it will work today when political polarization has pushed us to the point where it is almost impossible to get agreement on even the most uncontroversial issues.

Many people I talk with tell me civil service reform is just too hard to do and we should give up on the idea until the political situation improves. When I hear that I think of President Kennedy’s call to go to the moon. He said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” In our political climate, civil service reform might as well be a trip to the moon. But let’s not forget that less than seven years after Kennedy’s challenge, Neil Armstrong (a federal employee) walked on the moon.

We are still a great nation that is capable of doing hard things. The President’s 2015 Budget included proposals to strengthen the federal workforce and recommended the creation of a congressionally chartered Commission on Federal Public Service Reform. Democrats and Republicans alike rejected the president’s proposal. With such obvious need for civil service reform, is there any way we can avoid the political rancor? Is it safe to contemplate reforms in our broken political environment?

The answer to both questions is yes. Even the most anti-government crusaders agree that government must do some things and do them well. The 730,000-person Defense civilian workforce is critical to our national defense. No reasonable person wants to eliminate the 60,000 Customs and Border Protection employees, 35,000 at the FBI, 62,000 at the Social Security Administration, or countless others. In fact, although there is widespread support for cutting government, there is little agreement on what to cut—elimination or substantial reduction of any specific federal agency always draws howls of protest.

Even the most conservative vision of government would require more than a million employees to carry out the work that is critical to national security and our economic well-being. We clearly need a civil service system that allows government to recruit and retain the talent to carry out those essential tasks. That means reform is necessary.

Any hope of successful reform will rely on minimizing the political posturing and gamesmanship that accompanies discussions of the civil service. Some optimists believe reform is possible through the regular order in Congress. They believe Democrats and Republicans can put aside their differences and come together to make significant civil service reform a reality. Really? Democrats and Republicans can barely come together to pass legislation that both parties support. How can we expect them to agree on the details on civil service reform when their views are poles apart? Our recent experience with a deficit-cutting committee that had the gun of sequester pointed at its head resulted in the trigger being pulled, even though virtually everyone agreed it was bad for the country.

The only alternative is to remove reform from the normal legislative process. One model we should consider was created for military base closures. The Base Closure and Realignment Act created a presidentially appointed commission to review and make recommendations for closures and realignments. The commission was designed to take the fingerprints of Congress off the process and allow such a toxic subject to be addressed. The BRAC Commission made recommendations that the president could not change without their approval. Once the president gave his comments to the commission, it gave him a final list of closures and realignments. The president could approve or reject the entire list. Congress could not modify the list and it was implemented unless they passed a joint resolution to stop it.  The requirement for a joint resolution to stop the process made filibusters irrelevant.

The BRAC process was not flawless and had its detractors, but it provided a less political, more thoughtful and deliberate approach to an issue Congress was unable to address through the regular order. We should use a similar approach for recommendations for civil service reform, including replacement of the General Schedule. Congress should pass and the president should sign legislation creating a commission on the public service. Members should include representatives from government, academia, the private sector and organized labor, and should have a professional staff that includes experts in human resources, labor economics, industrial/organizational psychology and other necessary disciplines.

Rather than the open-ended scope proposed in the president’s budget, the commission should focus on job classification, performance, pay and hiring processes. Collective bargaining, the issue that brought down NSPS and Max-HR, should be off the table. The commission should begin its work at the beginning of the next administration, and the chairperson should be a recognized and respected authority on government management from the political party that is not in the White House. The commission should have ample time—two years or more—to conduct its research, obtain feedback from the public and stakeholders, and make recommendations.  

We are not in a crisis today, but if we fail to modernize the civil service, we are likely to find the government unable to recruit and retain the caliber of talent it needs to protect our national security, borders and economic well-being. That would constitute a crisis and an outcome that should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about the future of America.

Jeffrey Neal, former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department, is a senior vice president for ICF International and writes the blog