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Civil Service System Is an Outdated Relic, But Congress Should Tread Carefully

Groups caution the Trump administration against repeating mistakes of previous reform efforts.

A Senate panel that has promised bipartisan civil service reform heard from agencies and good-government groups on what those changes might look like at a roundtable discussion Thursday, though many of the proposals put forth suggest that management action would be far more important than anything Congress would enact.

All of the groups acknowledged the need for change, repeating a common refrain that the civil service system is an outdated relic that has failed to adjust to modern workforce developments. Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, noted at the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee meeting that 15 of GAO’s 34 areas on its 2017 high risk list related to skills gap issues. The federal government’s classification system, recruiting and hiring procedures, pay system, performance management and employee engagement all represented areas for improvement, he said.

Teresa Gerton, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, called on reforms to come from within government rather than Congress. She said that “absent wholesale civil service reform,” minor legislative changes would prove less significant than improving the partnership between human resources offices and hiring managers. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, vowed in February to hear a “wide variety of viewpoints” in order to draft “comprehensive reforms.”

Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service, said the Trump administration should learn from past presidents’ efforts to shake up government. Trump has signed an executive order to reorganize government and cut waste, and created a new White House office to bring private sector innovation to federal agencies.

“The cautionary tale for the new administration and Congress is that efforts to downsize, reorganize or reshape our government must include a strategic plan for managing the federal government’s talent,” Simmons said.

Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined NAPA at the roundtable discussion. The two agencies have consulted with NAPA in recent years to improve their personnel systems. Dia Taylor, CDC’s chief human capital officer, said the agency’s “partnering to win” initiative successfully improved its applicant pool, cut the hiring process by several weeks and improved customer satisfaction. NAPA helped CDC institute pilot programs to focus on those issues and then expand them across the agency.

CDC increased collaboration between human resources and program offices and boosted engagement with subject matter experts during the candidate assessment phase. Taylor said the results were so positive they ended up sharing their candidate ratings across multiple vacancies and making multiple hires off a single job announcement.

Simmons echoed Gerton’s warnings, noting that Congress gave both CDC and FAA special hiring authorities, but that alone was insufficient to effect change. Improvement occurred only after NAPA arrived and urged management to focus on personnel reform efforts. She provided a series of recommendations at both the management and legislative level to improve the current state of affairs.

PPS suggested agencies benchmark the federal hiring process, improve training for supervisors, strengthen the career Senior Executive Service and require performance plans for political appointees. The group said Congress should make it easier to deploy direct hire authority, allow for greater pay flexibility for mission-critical positions, conduct oversight of agencies’ restructuring and downsizing efforts and encourage the Trump administration to fill top political vacancies by the August recess.

At a broader level, Gerton said agencies should focus on “additional leadership commitment at the most senior levels of departments and agencies; stronger capacity in federal HR offices; a deeper partnership between HR and hiring managers; more effective change management practices; and enhanced oversight, monitoring and evaluation.”