What Managers Want in Civil Service Reform

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A group of associations representing federal managers last month outlined priorities for any effort to reform the civil service in a letter to the chairman of a key House subcommittee.

The Government Managers Coalition, which is made up of the Senior Executives Association, the Federal Managers Association and other groups, penned a letter July 16 to House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., urging lawmakers to avoid “piecemeal” changes to the civil service. The letter was first reported by Federal News Radio. 

“The GMC believes this more holistic approach is necessary and is developing comprehensive proposals to lead this conversation,” the groups wrote. “Some of the changes needed are regulatory, while others require cultural shifts in how we manage and identify talent—changes which could be accomplished in the absence of legislation. However, there are several core items that require legislation.”

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The letter marks the first public push by management groups on civil service reform in several months. In June, SEA expressed its support for moving the policy arm of the Office of Personnel Management into the Executive Office of the President. And in May, the Federal Managers Association said it was “apprehensive” about three controversial workforce executive orders, which are now subject to a legal challenge by federal employee unions, citing concerns with a process that “seems to run roughshod over a responsible deliberate review of the current system.”

Office of Personnel Management Director Jeff Pon has indicated that he plans to propose broad civil service reform legislation on behalf of the Trump administration before the 2018 midterm elections.

Much of the coalition’s priorities fall into the categories of providing better development opportunities for managers, reducing the number of political appointees and holding those employees accountable, making it easier to hire and fire federal workers, and reforming the compensation structure.

In improving agency leadership, the coalition advocated a number of measures that would improve training and professional development of managers. It also suggested creating a dual-track system for promoting people—one for traditional managers and another for technical and subject matter experts—to more effectively retain high quality employees.

“Many of the government’s personnel and performance issues stem from the fact that, often, technicians and subject matter experts are promoted into supervisory roles in order to earn promotions, even as many do not actually wish to manage people and, indeed, often lack the political, negotiation and interpersonal skills necessary to successfully do so,” they wrote. “This problem is not unique to government.”

In the area of federal firing, the coalition advocated both the removal of steps in the firing process, as well as better training so that managers feel empowered to discipline poor performers. The group proposed elimination of the statutory requirement that employees should receive performance improvement plans before they can be fired and consolidating the Office of the Special Counsel, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the federal arm of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into one entity.

The coalition also proposed the creation of new training elements for new employees, supervisors and senior level employees, as well as making supervisor training mandatory every three years.

The group called for a “comprehensive overhaul of the pay and classification system,” something that would replace what it describes as a “byzantine morass” of dozens of existing pay systems. The letter offered a number of proposals to that end, including market incentive pay to deal with skill gaps and flexible pay bands to replace the General Schedule, but suggested that these ideas alone would not improve agencies’ recruitment, retention or efficiency.

“Absent the creation of a strong and professionalized talent management and assessment system, pay reform will not be as effective in meeting government needs as it could and should be,” the coalition wrote. “[Given] what federal employees are able to accomplish within the current system, just imagine what they could do without the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy hindering their work to deliver on their agencies’ missions on behalf of the American people.”

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