The Speed of Workforce Change Is Undermining the Civil Service

Personnel practices rooted in blue collar work from the last century continue to hold government back.

A recently released report from the Merit Systems Protection Board highlights how out of sync the civil service system is with current thinking for creating attractive, high performance work environments. The report was well done but its focus confirms how the “personnel” philosophy and practices of the 1940s continue to dominate and hold government back from becoming a great place to work.

The report focused on “job fit,” a narrow HR concern that considers how well an individual’s abilities and interests line up with the activities for a specific job. In practice it's relevant to employee selection and the methods (e.g., tests) used to assess applicants. The Office of Personnel Management has a discussion of job fit methods on its website but does not promote their use.

The report stands out because the focus on job fit ignores what many argue is the most important factor in work management in decades: the increasing pace of change. What’s unfolded in the past decade or more could not have been anticipated when the civil service system was created.

The Civil Service System is Badly Outdated

The logic of job fit and the civil service system follows from a line of thinking that emerged in the world of blue collar work early in the last century. An unstated premise is that jobs and worker requirements are static. Lengthy job descriptions have been basic to civil service but the commitment needed to keep them updated is not justified in an era of rapid change. (Their value has long been questioned.) Changes in the way work is managed have been ongoing but now COVID-19 has made the adjustments urgent.

More important, at a time when high performance management has become a prominent topic in business journals, is the civil service system’s silence on the work environment factors that affect an employee’s success—supervisors, training, culture, co-workers, technology, recognition and reward practices, etc. 

In today’s operating environment, with the ongoing switch to working remotely, any attempt to document a job or essential skills that’s even a year old should be reviewed. Working remotely also changes the skills that managers need to be effective. 

The diminished practical value of the job fit issue has implications for what is best described as an industry of companies producing tests and tools to support the assessment of job candidates. Laws passed starting in the 1960s necessitated increased employer concern with “valid” (i.e., defensible) methods. The need for non-discriminatory selection and career management methods continues to be important today but the validation issue is rarely discussed in HR journals.

The need for non-discriminatory selection and career management methods continues to be important today but the validation issue is rarely discussed in HR journals.

Knowledge jobs and the importance of so-called soft skills like critical thinking, persuasion, judgement, etc. has forced HR offices to rethink a number of traditional practices. The use of employment tests, for example, has declined because psychometricians have not developed valid methods to assess those skills. With knowledge jobs, continuing to rely on the do-what-you’re-told approach to supervision blocks the use of those skills and thwarts good performance. The phrase “culture of compliance” refers to that reality. Close supervision is the antithesis of worker empowerment.

When jobs are subject to frequent change, it has profound implications for the civil service system. The foundation for managing work and workers in government has been job classification, based on job descriptions. For decades, when an agency reorganized, a team of analysts—“Classifiers”—met with incumbents and managers to rewrite job descriptions. For jobs with multiple incumbents, that often took weeks and months. That time is hard to justify in an environment when jobs and work management practices are not stable.

The classifiers retired years ago. OPM and agencies no longer have the budgets or the skills to administer job classification as it was administered years ago. Delegating the responsibility to managers and job incumbents is an easy solution but there is no proof jobs are accurately classified. 

Focusing on Skills Not Seniority

Leading edge thinkers now downplay the importance of jobs and job descriptions. With knowledge workers, the focus is on their expertise and ability to apply that knowledge in teams or individually to address problems. Their careers are tied to their expertise. What they do day to day varies with the nature of the problems. The research focus is now on the ongoing work experience; studies look at issues like leadership, culture and environment, not isolated jobs. It reflects a broader understanding of work management. 

That was recognized when President Trump signed the executive order in June switching from requiring college degrees to “skills-based hiring.” The policy change is broadly supportive of government’s need to hire technology specialists—jobs where degrees are frequently not relevant. The EO gives OPM and agencies six months to identify or develop methods to assess essential skills. Those methods will have to be defensible and sufficiently practical to gain acceptance by hiring managers. 

The EO is silent, however, on what new hires should expect once they are on board. A lot has been written about what the “new worker” expects from employers to support their career plans. New hires will know they were selected because their skills were better than other applicants. They will expect continuing support to improve their skills. That includes development opportunities as well as coaching and mentoring from their managers. They will also expect their career success to be based on demonstrated skills rather than seniority. That extends to future salary increases as well. 

This skills-based model is broadly consistent with workforce practices in other sectors. It should help government compete for well-qualified talent. It should heighten attention to training and development, the careers of employees who demonstrate increased expertise, and to recognizing and rewarding their accomplishments. The latter is basic to transitioning to a performance culture.

But skills-based management makes little sense if employees are not empowered to use their expertise to tackle day-to-day problems. When new hires are not satisfied with their work experience, no one should be surprised if they resign and take their skills to employers where they are valued.

Three decades ago, a team assembled by the National Academy of Public Administration developed a framework for managing careers and salaries that is consistent with that description. The program model proposed in Modernizing Federal Classification was based on salary or career bands, with the bands defined with higher level competencies. The program model was central to successful reform in both the Government Accountability Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. 

The new emphasis on skills and competencies should trigger changes in the management of careers, staffing, performance management, and salary management. The NAPA team recommended replacing the General Schedule with a banded, competency-based system—and that was 30 years ago.

The Heightened Importance of Manager Skills

The urgent need to respond to the pandemic and the switch to working remotely makes two key points clear: When crises surface, federal employees are able to adapt quickly to essential change, and the new remote working relationships are forcing agencies and managers to accept employee empowerment. 

After six months of digesting the changes, it’s clear managers and supervisors need a new approach that requires new skills. Supervisors have lost the traditional oversight and control. Mutual trust and respect is important. They now have to rely on employees to tell them what problems they are experiencing, what help and new resources they need. They also have to discuss and agree in specific terms on expected work products. That is the essence of empowerment. 

Writers focused on lessons learned in the private sector emphasize the need for frequent, open communication. Managers need to be approachable, offering positive feedback and reinforcement. Checking in on family life helps to strengthen a personal bond. 

Working remotely is going to continue for many months; some argue we will never revert to working together in offices. That has important implications for the selection of new supervisors and for the criteria governing the promotions to higher levels of management. Effective management has to start at the highest levels. Agencies need to support managers in their redefined role.

For the next administration, the experience with remote working should be used to discuss and reach agreement on a new, more effective work management paradigm.

For the next administration, the experience with remote working should be used to discuss and reach agreement on a new, more effective work management paradigm. A step now common in major corporations is surveying employees; their feedback should be a consideration in the annual reviews of managers. It’s not new news that there are managers and supervisors not suited for the role. They should be moved to non-supervisory roles. The “job fit” question is important for managers but primarily for new supervisors since poor selection affects everyone they manage. First, agencies need to identify the skills that enable new supervisors to be successful.

The new paradigm increases the importance of managing for results. That’s basic at every level for managing remote workers. It’s time for government to commit to relying on SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals. The practice is essentially universal for managers in other sectors. In Tennessee’s reform, the state invested three years training and coaching managers in the use of SMART goals and performance pay. Linking year end results to pay increases reinforces each individual’s accountability for delivering on their commitment. 

Gallup’s research confirms supporting managers in developing the skills to be effective in the new work environment is the key to improved performance. That should be the focus of job fit studies.