The Urgent Case for Reforming the Civil Service

We’ve forgotten the first lesson of the best-run companies: people are the most important asset.  

Our government is beset by problems. Not all of them are “people problems,” but none can be fixed without reforming the government’s network of human capital—the federal civil service system.

For example, we can’t provide the quality health care that our veterans deserve without figuring out how to hire more doctors. We can’t secure the border without fully staffing agencies that are already short-handed. With a massive backlog of disability claims, we can’t pay disabled Americans what we owe them—and prevent overpayments—without hiring additional skilled workers needed by the Social Security Administration. The list goes on.

The United States is currently engaged in a fundamental debate about what it wants government to do. There is a long list of government programs that command broad public support, but in far too many of them, government can’t deliver what citizens expect because it doesn’t have the workers with the right skills in the right places.

Almost everyone agrees that the system is broken. Straining under conflicting pressures, the government’s system of human workers is breaking down and getting in the way of doing the people’s work. It is hindering the government’s ability to develop agile solutions for fast-moving problems, and that is undermining the morale of far too many government employees. This has led to a disruptive debate on “accountability,” which has been perverted into a commitment to making it easier to fire employees instead of helping them do the jobs the public expects. There’s widespread support for running government more like the private sector, but we’ve forgotten the first lesson of the best-run companies: people are the most important asset.  

Following an intensive investigation sponsored by the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust and conducted by a five-member panel of expert fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration—the Congressionally chartered organization charged with examining how best to make government work—we have determined that there are ways to fix the system, to make the government more effective and agile while preserving the principles of merit that have been at the core of American government for more than 130 years. The basic steps are clear, straightforward—and urgent. There is no time to wait.

First, we’ve concluded that two popular ideas won’t work. Cutting every agency loose, or reforming one agency at a time, would risk big problems: unmooring the government’s personnel system from the critical, time-valued commitment to merit and an apolitical service; or recreating all the old rules without building the agility that the government needs. An infinite number of personnel systems sailing in loose formation would surely only make things worse.

Instead, we’ve determined the federal government needs a federated human capital system to meet the needs of a 21st Century government. Every agency needs great flexibility to hire, motivate, assess, and fire if necessary, to meet the needs of its mission. The current system is crumbling under one-size-fits-all pressures that no longer meet the needs of agency leaders working hard to manage their programs. 

At the same time, the system needs to follow the merit principles, updated for the 21st Century. The merit system was implemented in the 1880s to keep the government from being whipsawed with every new administration, and the goals remain valid today. It wouldn’t make sense, however, to expect the Transportation Security Administration, with its 55,000 airport screeners and security experts, to apply the principles the same way as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with its 15,000 public health experts. We need merit that matches mission.

We believe the federal human capital system needs to be held accountable—not in the narrow sense of making it easier to fire employees, but in the fundamental sense of serving mission and merit. A new system of accountability, rooted in data analytics, could help the fleet of federal agencies as a whole move as fast as its fastest ship. 

It would be easy to dismiss the federal civil service as the most inside of inside-the-Beltway issues. But that’s far from the case. If we want government to work efficiently and effectively for the things we all want, we need workers who can deliver. There’s nothing more important to make government perform. And there’s no time to wait in taking the critical steps we’ve recommended in our report.

Terry Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.