A National Academy of Public Administration report identified five challenges that pose substantial risks to effective government.

A National Academy of Public Administration report identified five challenges that pose substantial risks to effective government. Stephen Schildbach/Getty Images

The Challenge of Modernizing the Civil Service

What has been done over the past few years to prepare the federal workforce for the 21st century? Virtually nothing.

The federal civil service, with its merit-based foundation, is essential to delivery of critical services to the American people. Hiring and retaining skilled workers are essential aspects of the civil service that need immediate attention.

More than four years ago, the National Academy of Public Administration issued No Time to Wait, Building a Public Service for the 21st Century, a report that identified five challenges that pose substantial risks to effective government. Successfully meeting those challenges with civil service rules that are 74 years old is just not going to happen.  

Building on three principles – Mission First, Principles Always, and Accountability for Both – No Time to Wait made specific recommendations to improve hiring, accountability, retention, and effectiveness of the civil service.

Sadly, we have been waiting four years and virtually nothing has been done. Partisan politics seems to make meaningful civil service reform impossible. Rather than more moderate voices on both sides of the aisle combining to lead reform, those on the extremes dominate debate. 

Should there even be a debate over the size of government? Sure. But reasonable people should also agree that a government of any size must be effective for the American people. 

Calls for civil service reform are not new. Everyone knows that the federal hiring processes are a nightmare that no one would deliberately design. The process is so miserable that it appears to be designed to see how desperately an applicant wants to work for the government. Government pay is equally opaque, and the combination of a byzantine hiring process and inflexible pay make it difficult for the government to recruit top talent, especially in high demand occupations. There is also a widespread belief that agencies neither adequately reward high performers, nor deal effectively with poor performers. Even common-sense solutions that could satisfy most reasonable people have not made their way through the politics and bureaucracy.

So why does common sense not prevail? Why does a system that many believe simply does not meet the challenges of a 21st century workplace continue without significant change? Discussions with interested parties typically lead to the same result – interest groups agree reform is necessary, but partisan and interest group differences lead to widely diverging solutions. Most groups insist their favorite aspects of the existing rules must remain untouched. There is no consensus on specific changes that would comprise comprehensive civil service reform.

Tackling Critical Issues to Address the Most Compelling Federal Workforce Challenges

A working group of Fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration, with government HR and management expertise, including former career and political executives, concluded that proposing a comprehensive reform of the civil service would be futile. Instead, the group decided to adopt a targeted approach to modernization that focuses on issues of broad agreement that could address the hiring, pay and accountability issues that comprise the biggest weaknesses in the civil service.

Over the coming four months, the Academy will release a series of white papers that address these challenges and our recommendations. We will start with the Merit System and the future of work, and the reasons that a merit-based civil service is essential for a federal government that serves the needs of the people. Next we will bring our recommendations on hiring, along with a proposal (including specific legislative language) to modernize veterans’ preference in a way that dramatically simplifies federal hiring while providing more employment and advancement opportunities for Veterans. 

In the third installment we will address pay and job classification, with specific legislative language that would speed the adoption of modern pay practices and provide agencies with more tools to compete effectively for talent in the rapidly evolving 21st century workplace. In May we will address accountability, including the questionable data comparing federal employee and private sector accountability, and the challenges of rewarding good performers and dealing effectively with poor performance. 

We believe we must balance the compelling need for modernization with the political realities. We will propose reforms that can gain acceptance across a broad spectrum of interest groups that are active in civil service issues, along with bipartisan support in Congress. We cannot wait until the government faces a crisis without the talent to solve it – that will be too late. 

Jeffrey Neal, former chief human capital officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.