Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Civil Service System is Another Pandemic Casualty

The need for a new work management paradigm has never been more obvious.

Government’s operational response to the pandemic has finally set the stage for rethinking the civil service system. Federal employees have proven repeatedly over the years they are ready to respond to crises and capable of performing at far higher levels. But the normal federal work environment has been dominated by what the National Academy of Public Administration has referred to as a “culture of compliance ...  where meeting the requirements of the rules has become more important than delivering value to taxpayers.” The culture makes agencies slow to react to unexpected problems. That’s clearly not acceptable today. The need for a new work management paradigm has never been more obvious.

The culture of compliance has been a problem at all levels of government since civil service systems were adopted a century ago. It influences supervisor-subordinate interactions, impedes efforts to improve performance, and has been a barrier to competing for essential talent. Culture governs the thinking and behavior of managers and employees. To quote Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Broad scale organizational change is normally very difficult; a high percentage of initiatives fail to achieve planned results. But in March, COVID-19 and fear overtook the usual resistance.

Shock to the System

The sudden need for workers to be able to do their jobs without coming into an office is the primary catalyst driving change. It alters how supervisors and their people interact and communicate. Working from home gives an employee considerably more autonomy and discretion in how they approach their work. That’s the definition of empowerment. The future will be different—a new normal.

Another popular phrase—“try it, you’ll like it”—aptly captures how most employees react to the increased freedom. Many will not want to return to being closely supervised. That makes it appropriate when employees do eventually return to their offices to discuss how best to organize and manage work.

Working remotely with intermittent contact makes it important for managers and their people to agree on what everyone is expected to accomplish. That is consistent with SMART goal setting. Transitioning to goal-based management is proven to improve performance but it redefines the supervisor-subordinate relationship. It also leads to increased reliance on metrics to track and evaluate goal achievement.  

The last four administrations have stressed the use of metrics but as one expert commented, “government managers want to claim they are engaged in performance management but collecting data is not management.” There continue to be examples across government where the use of metrics borders on being counterproductive. And goal setting is even more scattershot. Textbooks on management have portrayed how interlinked goals cascade to lower levels, but that’s rare in government.

All of this highlights the need for new skills for both managers and employees. Prior to the pandemic, the skills needed to manage performance were understood. Then, the state of Tennessee was a model for transitioning to goal-managed management. The state’s initiative had strong, vocal leadership at the highest levels along with three years of training and coaching for managers and employees. It was a solid success. It was only a few weeks ago that Steve Goodrich, CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence, arranged for Rebecca Hunter, the state’s HR commissioner, to tell Tennessee’s story to federal leaders. She believes the state’s initiative changed the culture and was instrumental in making the state a more attractive employer.  

Now, of course, agencies are confronted with a different reality. There is clearly greater urgency; managing and succeeding in a remote work paradigm requires new skills. The planning should start as soon as possible.

Three additional words highlight work issues that could be problematic for employees working remotely—collaboration, trust and accountability. Each has been discussed on websites for private sector employers. They are known to be concerns in the public sector. Those issues and others should be addressed in each agency and each location by task forces.

Private employers are investing heavily in technology to support the new normal. However, while technology makes working remotely feasible, it’s not going to solve ineffective management or employee relations concerns.

The pandemic has also made it clear that the General Schedule and the usual steps to classify jobs are barriers to responsive talent management. As long ago as 1980, the first “demo” project at the Navy’s China Lake facility was triggered by the bureaucratic practices associated with reclassifying jobs. Forty years later, the bureaucracy on paper is unchanged—there are standards that have not been revised since the 1960s—but today new challenges and new job specialties occur far more frequently.

A New Normal

State and local jurisdictions have recognized across-the-board policies do not fit the new environment; they have been laying off ‘nonessential’ workers. That recognizes the importance of attracting and retaining essential workers. It’s contrary to traditional civil service principles.

On the same point, Office of Personnel Management Director Michael Rigas announced the administration was waiving limits on premium pay “for work performed in response to COVID-19.” The risks those workers are taking justify whatever compensation the market dictates.

The demand for cybersecurity specialists is no longer in the headlines but those problems continue.  Workforce demographics and talent shortages will continue to drive up the pay for high demand jobs. The importance of remaining competitive for essential talent cannot be overstated.

The Office of Management and Budget inadvertently added to this argument with its April 20 memo to agency heads, “Aligning Federal Agency Operations with the National Guidelines for Opening Up American Again.” The gist of the memo is that flexibility is a key to moving government operations back to “normalcy.”  The announcement cited a number of factors to be considered: “agency missions, workforce demographics, geographic locations, occupations, facilities” along employee concerns like “school and daycare closures, mass transit availability.” Recent reports from the Federal Salary Council made a similar argument. Those factors in combination influence job seekers and sometimes make even neighboring towns somewhat different labor markets.

Now the emergence of COVID-19 hot spots promises to trigger increases in demand for critical skills in sometimes unexpected locations. For those exposed to the virus, there have been calls for hazard pay. Plus, it's essential that government be able to hire medical specialists. The GS system does not have the flexibility to respond adequately or quickly.

The point is that a national salary schedule, even with the increasing number of locality areas, is not a workable model for managing pay. The GS system is based on antiquated ideas. Relying on seniority-based pay increases is a barrier to attracting and retaining knowledge workers. The number of jobs paid special rates has mushroomed. It’s the oldest essentially unchanged pay system in the world. It’s far too bureaucratic to be responsive to today’s workforce problems.

Public employers at all levels were experiencing skills shortages before the crisis: Pay levels and recent increases have been below market levels; government’s brand as an employer impedes recruiting; the hiring process takes far too long; support for training is inadequate; seniority-based promotions are a turn off for younger workers; the workforce is aging and older workers are blocking Millennial career progress; performance is not well managed—the list of negatives makes it difficult to attract the better applicants.

Possibly the most egregious obstacle to solving the staffing problem has been the staggering number of days it takes to fill vacancies. Prior to the pandemic, qualified job seekers could quickly find jobs outside of government.  

When the crisis eventually fades, there will be a new normal. OMB’s guidelines correctly dictate localized planning that will shift the focus away from the traditional national concerns. Local metrics and local staffing will drive decisions. That is consistent with the Federal Wage System and the universal practice in other sectors. Market realities dictate decentralized, local decision making in hospital systems, for example. The urgency of the COVID-19 crisis complicates what were already mounting workforce concerns.  

Three decades ago the private sector started redefining and expanding the role of HR to focus on creating high performance organizations. Those are organizations where employees are engaged and committed to their employer’s success. People love working in those organizations. Unfortunately, the civil service system was conceived in an era when employees were seen as a cost to be minimized. COVID-19 expenditures have depleted government budgets but the focus now should be on supporting employees to become more productive, not on cutting costs. That’s a new, vital role for HR.