The inescapable future reality has only increased the need for more—and in many cases new—expertise among federal workers.

The inescapable future reality has only increased the need for more—and in many cases new—expertise among federal workers. Jarmo Piironen / Getty Images

The Federal Workplace Is Changing Rapidly, But Merit Principles Must Remain Untouched

The merit system should be at the core of any reforms agencies make to adapt to fast-changing workplace dynamics.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series from the National Academy of Public Administration looking at the challenges and urgency of modernizing the civil service. Find the Academy’s full essay on the merit system here.

The late great public administration expert Wallace Sayre once said, “public and private management are fundamentally alike in all unimportant respects.” But when it comes to adapting to the future of work, government in fact ought to run more like the best-managed private organizations.

Those organizations are planning for what work to automate, who can do the work, where to perform the work, and how best to balance new technology with new work practices. As the Ford Foundation concluded, “The nature of work is changing—and at a magnitude that we have yet to fully grasp, let alone respond to.”

Many doubt government’s ability to meet the challenge of the changing nature of work. Qualtrics’s 2023 “Government Experience Trends” report found that government lagged behind private companies in satisfaction and trust in dealing with people. The “Edelman Trust Barometer” scored trust in business at 62%, trust in nonprofits at 59%, and trust in government at 51%.  

Can the federal workforce reorient around big and inevitable changes—and ensure that the government does not lag years behind the rest of society? Government has demonstrated the capacity for rapid change, at least when exigencies leave no choice. Over just a few weeks in the spring of 2020, public and private organizations went through perhaps the fastest change in their histories.

When gathering in offices became dangerous due to COVID-19, managers reached for new technologies and fresh ways of connecting their teams. Zoom daily meeting participants, for example, increased 2,900% from December 2019 to December 2020. Federal agencies that had been slow to embrace telework suddenly found their options were telework or mission failure.

A 2020 report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “Distance Work Arrangements: The Workplace of the Future Is Now,” found that adaptation to the new world of distance work arrangements accelerated when the pandemic hit. Federal, state and local governments not only had to switch their workforces to work from home, but also had to change to remote service delivery—such as using electronic signatures for contracts and ensuring security for confidential information.

Proving the success of remote work and greater use of technology might lead to the expectation that organizations would embrace those changes and continue to innovate in the workplace. However, after three exhausting years of the pandemic, many managers, employees and political leaders yearn for a return to the old pre-pandemic normal. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., introduced the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP) Act, which would roll the federal government’s telework policies back to December 2019. And the government is not alone in longing for the past—even high tech companies like Google and Apple are attempting (with mixed results) to get more workers back in the office.

Hoping for quieter days, however, will not turn the tides back. The pandemic forced rapid changes in work, but the nature of the workplace and work itself were changing long before COVID-19 emerged. One 2020 report from the Society for Human Resource Management and Willis Towers Watson contended that “85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet.”

That’s true for government as well as the private sector. For example, automated screening and biometrics technologies are transforming airport screening by the Transportation Security Administration. The Social Security Administration has plans to allow recipients to manage their benefits “anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

The inescapable future reality has only increased the need for more—and in many cases new—expertise among federal workers. And this only reinforces the imperative to strengthen the professional skills of the federal workforce to address the future workplace, driven by hiring and promotion decisions based on merit and skill level.  

Hiring based on merit and skill, workforce management, and implementing laws in nonpartisan ways, provide for continuity to deliver key services to the people across presidential administrations. The merit system builds on basic principles: hiring based on what applicants know, not who they know; promotion based on demonstrated competence, not favoritism; stable tenure in office, not mass turnover with each election; access to effective education and training; providing fair and equitable pay; and accountability to the U.S. Constitution, laws, and duly authorized officials, not to political pressure. These principles have stood at the core of American government since enactment of the first laws establishing the civil service 140 years ago, and they have had strong support over the decades from presidents of both political parties.

With merit at the core, the evolving workforce can continue delivering on the government’s increasingly complex and critical missions, whether workers operate from home or perform in jobs that must take place in a workplace—such as intelligence, air traffic control, public health, or transportation security. 

Indeed, a spectrum of workplace futures has emerged, which require adaptation by career civil servants and political appointees and new approaches to accountability by elected officials, especially members of Congress:

  • Redefining the office—online. This is where most traditional organizations have landed. But offering access to e-tools without redesigning how work gets done is not sufficient.
  • Adapting to the medium. Leading organizations are investing in better equipment, from improved technology for securing confidential communications to helping employees buy better lighting for video calls.
  • Asynchronous communication. Leading organizations are structured more with how work gets done than where or when employees work. Presence does not necessarily lead to productivity.
  • Office transformations. Leading organizations have redefined how teams work. In many cases, there are “distributed teams,” with members who might be scattered geographically but can join effectively in contributing to their shared mission.

These are just some pathways by which government can manage like the best-performing private organizations and strengthen merit-based skills and professionalism. In addition, many government organizations are developing innovative models, avoiding the false choices involved in having to get things right the first time—instead, building an iterative model of continuous improvement.

This effort is consistent with the Biden administration’s president’s management agenda, which includes a focus on the future of work as part of Priority 1 on the workforce.  The strategy to “Reimagine and build a roadmap to the future of federal work informed by lessons from the pandemic and nationwide workforce and workplace trends” calls on agencies to develop metrics that measure progress. Any effort to modernize the civil service, as will be discussed throughout this series of articles, would have a greater practical impact if its effects were measured in tangible ways.

The best performing organizations in the coming decade will look around the corner and over the next hill. Government must not move back to a past that no longer exists or move away from a system relying on merit, especially in transforming to meet an accelerating future.

Daniel Chenok is the executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Both are fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration.