A One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Civil Service Reform Won't Work, Study Says

Reform effort will require bipartisan buy-in and the balancing of flexibility with preservation of merit system principles.

The federal government's system for hiring, firing and measuring mission success is “fundamentally broken” and needs modernizing that moves beyond a “one size fits all” approach, says a new study from alumni of multiple agencies.

The study, released on Tuesday by a task force of the National Academy of Public Administration, argues that in accomplishing tasks from cybersecurity to border protection, the current human capital system lacks the agility and responsiveness to create a highly skilled modern workforce.

Only certain agencies have been given the flexibility to “break out” of the uniformity required under the now-creaky 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, according to panelists assembled Tuesday at NAPA’s offices.

What modern program managers need are reforms that encourage flexibility in hiring, motivating and assessing fulfillment of mission, but that adhere to the civil service’s founding merit system principles and are enforced through a modernized data-based system of accountability in the Information Age, the report said.

“The core of the federal government’s human capital dilemma is the pursuit of two different purposes: helping agencies get the people they need to get their jobs done; and upholding a set of common principles across all agencies,” said the study sponsored by the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust. “The first leads to flexibility and decentralization, the second to uniformity and centralization. Without a careful strategy to balance the two, the result is an inescapable quandary full of deep conflict.”

Neither Congress nor the Trump administration at present appear eager to take on such civil service reforms, noted the panelists.  

“Accountability as a word has been used for 100 years, but in the past several months it has come to mean firing feds,” said Donald Kettl, professor and former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

“Public servants should not be viewed as symbols of big government or as problems that need to be eliminated whenever possible,” the NAPA study argued. “The nation needs to follow the central lesson taught by its leading private corporations: the best-managed companies see their employees as their biggest assets, and government should too.”

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