Agency-specific reforms are the trend now.

Agency-specific reforms are the trend now. Joe Rebello / Getty Images

Government Reform Isn’t Dead. It’s Just Changed.

There isn’t much appetite for large-scale governmentwide reforms right now, but there’s still movement at individual agencies. 

The year 2023 marks several anniversaries in the recent history of large-scale government reform. It is the 45th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act, the 30th anniversary of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, and the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government initiative. As we look ahead to the rest of 2023, it is also a good time to also look back over our 40-plus years in Washington.

We were both heavily influenced by our graduate school experience in schools of public policy. Upon reflection, we came away with an inherent bias in favor of large-scale reforms. Our “heroes” in public administration were the “good government” reformers of the Progressive Era and the New Dealers of the 1930s who strengthened the White House and the executive branch of government.  

This era of change was reflected at the national level during the 1970s with the implementation of budget reform, new sunshine laws and an overhaul of the civil service system with the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act. Reform was “in,” and large-scale reform was indeed possible.  

The decades since are best described by what Paul Light, professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, aptly called “the tides of reform.” The emphasis on large-scale, governmentwide reforms did indeed seem to go in and out with the tide. The 1980s were dominated by a focus on “fraud, waste, and abuse,” as reflected in the Grace Commission’s recommendations to reduce what it deemed as “waste;” the growth of agency inspectors general offices; and the mandating of internal control audits. The 1990s saw the Reinventing Government movement, which enacted both governmentwide reforms and agency-specific changes to reduce overly centralized controls and improve customer service.

The decades since can be characterized by a focus on legislation aimed at reforming specific mission-support functions, such as creating chief operating officers, performance improvement officers, chief human capital officers, chief data officers, chief acquisition officers, and other related measures.

From this perspective, how do we envision the future of government reform? Should we be waiting for another era of large-scale governmentwide reform, such as civil service reform or the Government Performance and Results Act? Or should we be looking elsewhere? Based on the political landscape of the 2020s, large scale reform seems highly unlikely. We have not seen much appetite for large scale reform over the last two decades in Congress.

Congressional interest in government management has been narrowly targeted. If anything, future debate on topics such as the civil service might be dominated by a defensive fight to keep current systems in place.

If our premise is correct that large-scale reform is indeed “dead,” we recommend that the public management community and government managers shift their focus to “fixing” and “improving” individual agencies. Strategically, this means taking executive branch action and each agency working with its congressional authorizing and appropriating committees.

The role of central management agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management should be to encourage agency-level innovation. In addition, they should provide agencies more flexibility and encourage cross-agency collaboration. One such example is the Biden administration’s management agenda, which encourages agencies to collaborate around improving customer experiences for targeted “life experiences.”

Today, every federal agency faces a distinct marketplace for employees.  A “one-size-fits-all” civil service may no longer be practical. The labor markets for flight controllers, data analysts, doctors and engineers are radically different. An example—and perhaps a model—for the future can be seen in legislation proposed by Congress for the Veteran Affairs Department. The legislation would replace the current “antiquated pay system for VA’s doctors with the goal of helping the department hire for “hard-to-fill” positions such as doctors in rural areas. 

In a similar vein, the Defense Department recently created the Defense Management Institute to develop new approaches to improving the department’s management, organization, performance management and enterprise business operations. And the Homeland Security Department has created a Procurement Innovation Lab rather than waiting for governmentwide procurement reforms. VA, Defense and Homeland Security are not waiting for governmentwide reform. We believe that other agencies face similar unique needs to modernize their own operations. 

In 2018, the National Academy of Public Administration’s report on the state of the civil service titled “No Time to Wait” declared: “Because agencies know best what they need to do their jobs, they need to have the flexibility for devising the human capital systems to accomplish their missions.” Interestingly, the NAPA report concluded that large-scale reform was not needed to fix many human resource problems in government and that much could be accomplished administratively. NAPA observed: “After all, many of the barnacles encrusting the current system come from regulations, not the specific requirements of the law, and what was created administratively can be removed administratively.”

So, is it really the “End of Reform?” Well, maybe we’ll all be surprised, like Frank Fukuyama was after publishing his 1992 book The End of History when, in 2018, the New Yorker said that Fukuyama concluded that The End was postponed. While we may be facing the “death” of large-scale governmentwide reform, there are many sparks of smaller tailored reforms happening at the agency level. All is not lost. 

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His email:  John M. Kamensky is emeritus fellow at the IBM Center for The Business of Government. His email:  They are co-editors (with Daniel Chenok) of Government for the Future: Reflections and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (2018).