Let’s Rethink the Management of Our Civil Service
In this op-ed, the executive vice president of the Partnership for Public Service posits that we should build up public servants and hold them accountable to improve government performance.
With a recent poll showing that nearly 60% of Americans believe our government needs “very major” reform, it is clear that the management and operations of our nation’s civil service—which often attracts little popular attention—is of growing public concern.
One major call for change in this area has been to revive Schedule F, a job classification created by a since-rescinded 2020 executive order that could make tens of thousands of federal employees who work in policy-related roles at will.
Schedule F seeks increased accountability over public servants. While the American people, by way of a duly elected president, must be faithfully served by the career civil service (who also swear an oath to uphold the Constitution) Schedule F misses the opportunity for meaningful and long-term reform. The nonpartisan career workforce is fundamental to our government—a key ingredient to ensuring our federal system has the talent, expertise and capacity to carry out a wide array of duties on behalf of the public—and its work must transcend politics.
While the order has become the subject of partisan disagreement and presidential politics, it also presents an opening for lawmakers, executive branch leaders and others in government to tackle substantive management reform. The need for this reform and the critical role our nation's civil servants play has been lost in the current discourse.
As a career executive who previously served in four different federal agencies, I view civil servants as central to a well-functioning government and a strong democracy. At the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, I watched analysts and operators defend our national security and forge international partnerships that reaffirmed America’s role in the world.
At the Veterans Affairs Department, I saw health professionals improve patient care and help vulnerable former service members access critical benefits. And at the Government Accountability Office, I witnessed auditors help save billions in taxpayer dollars through diligent reporting and watchdog activities.
These achievements would not have been possible without well-qualified, career experts who serve across administrations and develop the institutional knowledge necessary to ensure a continuity of government.
Still, our government needs greater flexibility in how it hires top talent, retains and recognizes its employees, and removes poor performers. Our nation must invest in its civil service and a more substantive agenda to manage and improve federal employee performance is needed.
First, managers and supervisors should address poor performance head-on and at the earliest possible point. Holding employees accountable, especially during probationary periods, and making better use of progressive discipline and time-limited performance improvement plans would lay the groundwork for necessary removals and increase accountability. Agencies should empower managers through more frequent management training on these issues and by encouraging further support from senior leaders.
Second, agencies should expand their efforts to reward good performers. In addition to providing financial incentives and internal recognition, agency supervisors, leaders and federal communicators should work together to amplify positive stories about their employees to the public. The Partnership for Public Service’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals® program models this strategy, shining a national spotlight on the invaluable accomplishments of career public servants.
Third, our government needs new and more coherent leadership standards that motivate better leader and employee performance. The Office of Personnel Management should refresh the Executive Core Qualifications, which outline leadership competencies for members of the Senior Executive Service, while Congress should codify a single leadership standard that holds leaders accountable for impactful work.
Finally, Congress and the executive branch should fill major federal talent gaps by creating a simpler and more accessible job application process, implementing skills-based hiring practices, recruiting from more diverse locations and sources, ensuring mobility of executives across agencies and job functions, and updating the antiquated pay system. At the other end of the spectrum, Congress should convert some Senate-confirmed positions to nonpolitical roles, enabling long-tenured and highly qualified career leaders to fill critical management positions.
No matter who occupies the Oval Office or holds majorities in Congress, now is the time to embrace long overdue changes to the management of our civil service and ensure that we have a federal workforce that can best meet the needs of our country today and in the future.
James-Christian Blockwood is executive vice president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.