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How Attempts at Fixing the Civil Service System Have Made It Worse Off

Top federal HR officials describe a system bogged down by special authorities.

Federal human resources officials on Wednesday said that congressional efforts to fix an outdated civil service system have complicated it as much as they have improved it. 

Lawmakers have repeatedly taken a piecemeal approach to providing relief to laws governing the federal workforce that date back to the 19th century and were last updated on a wholesale basis in 1978, but federal officials said those agency-by-agency and job-by-job laws have created an overly layered and disparate series of special authorities. The HR professionals made their comments at a panel discussion in downtown Washington, D.C., hosted by Government Executive.

“Over the years we’ve seen special authorities, special regulations solve specific problems,” said Mary Pletcher, the Agriculture Department’s chief human capital officer. “But what it’s also done is create a very complicated system.”

Col. Gregory Johnson, chief of the Army’s Functional Management Division, Integrated Personnel and Pay System, said the military maintains 300 different pay systems. Those have piled up over the course of several decades, he said, and are now posing problems for the Defense Department.

“How do you understand soldiers’ talent in the military, how do you manage 1.1 million people when you have that many systems that are disparate, where the data is fractured?” he asked. “How do you do that?”  

Johnson said the Army is seeking to address that question by creating an Integrated Personnel and Pay System, a project he is spearheading. The goal is to centralize all the data from all the different systems into one place, clean it up and use it to evaluate the workforce. This will enable a whole new personnel management system, he explained, and allow the Army to better evaluate each soldier’s talents to better match them to the service’s needs.

The Army is unveiling the system in phases, starting with the National Guard next year. By 2020, it will fold all Reserve and active-duty personnel into the integrated system. Johnson said those initiatives will help change the overall ethos at the Army.  

“We’ve been around for a long time and culture change is hard,” he said. “So as we take a look at our current personnel processes and try to drive a talent management process, the system will help us change.”

While the military is moving the ball forward on HR simplification and consolidation, Pletcher said the civil service laws and regulations applying to civilian employees have become so complicated that very few people in government actually understand all of them. Meanwhile, she explained, lengthy hiring times and career ladder climbing have remained rigid. That has all added up to agencies losing out on top talent.

“All of the special legislative authorities, the pilot authorities…the intent is to solve specific problems, but they create even more complexity because we still haven't changed the underlying system,” Pletcher said.

Agencies do have flexibilities, she said, but they struggle to educate their managers on what they are, how they work and whether they are legally applicable in certain situations.

“The amount of knowledge that’s required to navigate all of those different flexibilities, all of the different ways to make the system work more, while they may exist, they add a lot of complexity,” Pletcher said. “And some human capital officers say they have too many authorities right now.”

That has complicated things not just for HR professionals but for hiring managers as well, some of whom only bring on a few employees each year and struggle to keep track of all the latest authorities. Pletcher estimated USDA will hire 8,000 permanent employees and 15,000 seasonal workers next year, and each job category will come with its own recruiting challenge.

Johnson explained in blunt terms the dichotomy between what soldiers currently face in their day-to-day jobs versus what they deal with when making broader career decisions.

“We ask soldiers to go in and make life and death decisions,” Johnson said, “but we don’t really tell them what their personnel actions are.”

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