Solving the Right Problem with the Federal Workforce

We’re careening down the road, steering by looking in the rear-view mirror.

Conflict over the government workforce has never been greater. From fighting to protect federal jobs to making it easier to fire poorly performing employees, political battles over the government workforce have grown increasingly fierce.

What if these battles are focused on the wrong problem? It’s one thing to protect jobs, but what mission should these jobs advance? It surely is important to make it easier to remove those who don’t perform well, but who should we hire instead? We’re careening down the road, steering by looking in the rear-view mirror, instead of sizing up the road we need to be on for the future.

Here’s the problem: While we’re fighting the last decade’s battles, the nature of government’s work for the next decades is fundamentally changing. Technology is changing job functions in virtually every sector, from health care to transportation. It’s wiping out some jobs completely, like routinized tasks in financial management that computers are mastering through artificial intelligence applications.

But technology is also making some jobs far more important, especially those that only smart government managers can perform, like building bridges among the increasingly networked government and connecting with the ever-growing array of government’s constituencies.

In 2017, we released No Time to Wait, the first of our white papers on the future of the federal public service. We argued then that there was truly no time to wait. In our new report, released today, we conclude that there is even less time to wait. We need to act today, quickly and creatively, to build the government workforce we will need in the years to come.

In the first paper, we argued that the government’s workforce strategy needs to build on three elements: putting mission first, driving the principles of the merit system always, and ensuring accountability for both. In our new report, we outline a game plan to accomplish that:

  • Build flexibility in the pursuit of mission. Federal leaders know best what they need to do their jobs, and they should have the flexibility to build the systems to meet those needs. A flexibility available to one agency ought to be available to all of them. Evidence ought to drive the system to what works best, through a four-part strategy: experiment, test, learn, then authorize.
  • Replace the over-defined job specifications of the current system with a competency-based, talent-management model. Competencies should be vested in individuals and individuals should be matched to missions, instead of having static occupations define both. Rules have calcified the federal personnel system to the point that compliance has become the driving rule. What the federal government most needs is a system that recognizes that it doesn’t matter where government employees sit—what matters is what they know and how they contribute to the mission. It’s the capacity of the government’s managers, not the specifications of their seats, that counts. As work becomes more complex and more managers need to work across complex networks to get the job done, that’s going to be increasingly important.
  • Reinforce the pursuit of merit-system principles. These principles have become even more encrusted in rules than job classification. Nonetheless, the core values of the system remain: hiring and promoting federal employees based on what they know, not who they know; and ensuring that they can do their jobs without political interference. We need to recast the system to advance these principles while freeing them from the rules that too often bind them.
  • Lead from the center. The federal government unquestionably needs a strong enterprise-level entity to lead the transformation of its human capital system. It needs to focus on encouraging flexibility and innovation in federal agencies, on promoting governmentwide merit-system principles, and on developing a learning system so that government can move forward at the speed of innovation.
  • Transform the federal government’s human capital backbone. Title 5 of the U.S. Code is the system’s core, but it hasn’t had a thorough house cleaning in more than two generations. We can’t lead for the future while trapped so deeply in the past. Some of these changes require legislation, and Congress needs to get to work on drafting new laws, but we believe that more than half of the necessary changes can be accomplished through administrative action. There’s no reason—and no time—to wait in moving forward. We recommend that a task force of federal chief human capital officers be given 90 days to draft a plan of reforms that can be implemented administratively.

We need, in short, to move from stand-alone personnel operations in agencies to human capital planning that’s woven into the very framework of every agency’s leadership team. We need to move from a focus on rules and compliance to a focus on performance and learning.

These steps are essential. The timing is urgent. Government’s ability to govern depends on it. There is simply no time to wait.

Teresa Gerton is the president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Donald Kettl is the chairman of the Academy’s No Time to Wait Panel on the future of public service and a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.