Panelists say a measured approach is necessary.

Panelists say a measured approach is necessary.

Is It Too Late for Comprehensive Civil Service Reform?

HR experts suggest reformers tinker with the current system rather than attempt to create a new one.

The government needs a measured approach to civil service reform, according to current and former top federal human resources executives, who argued a piecemeal approach would help sustain the progress already made and effect more realistic change.

Promoting lateral job changes moving employees across federal agencies, creating clearer hiring agendas and modifying the General Schedule would help recruiting and improve the workforce, panelists said Wednesday at Fedstival, a series of events in Washington, D.C., hosted by Government Executive Media Group. The ship for a large-scale personnel reform effort may have already sailed, they said.

Comprehensive reform, said Dan Blair, president of the National Academy of Public Service and former deputy and acting director at the Office of Personnel Management, is “nice in theory, but I’m not sure it can happen.”

Towanda Brooks, the Housing and Urban Development Office’s chief human capital officer, warned the next administration should not undercut the progress that has already been made.

“The first step is to assess what agencies have done,” Brooks said. “Don’t start from scratch.” She added: “It would be devastating to have to start over and redo this.”

Blair echoed that agencies should first focus on what the Obama administration has implemented. “Institutionalize successes we’ve seen over the last couple years,” Blair advised.

The panelists discussed reforming how federal employees are compensated, with David Chu, the Defense Department’s former chief of personnel and readiness, breaking from the other HR professionals to call pay issues the No. 1 priority for the next administration.

 “If you can’t pay competitively” versus other employers, Chu said, “you really can never succeed.”

The former Pentagon official called for the General Schedule, which he said has its roots in 19th century ideals, to be dissolved in favor of pay bands. He said previous personnel reform efforts at Defense, namely the National Security Personnel System, failed because of union resistance. He added, however, that local labor leaders were more inclined to support the program than those at the national level. 

Both Chu and Blair said reforms should be rolled out through pilot programs. That way, Blair said, an initiative “can create momentum on its own.” The Pentagon is implementing its overhauled personnel system New Beginnings through trial stages.

On the hiring front, Chu suggested agencies tackle the issue by treating it like a campaign. Brooks noted HUD’s recent hiring success through the help of Toyota, which has allowed the department for the first time to have new employees start at the beginning of the fiscal year. Typically, she said, HUD would stop all hiring activities between mid-September and February.

Blair argued improving hiring will depend on changing the way the federal workforce is perceived. One aspect of that process, he said, will be mitigating the perception -- especially to millennials -- that individuals hired by a federal agency stay there for their entire careers. Instead, agencies must push the narrative that a first time job is “an opening into government service, to public service.”