Carolyn Kaster/AP

Trump Calls for 'Reskilling' Federal Workforce, Firing ‘Overhaul’ and Reducing Union Influence

Budget is light on specifics but supports broad civil service reforms.

President Trump proposed major reforms to the civil service in his fiscal 2019 budget request, focusing on streamlining the hiring and firing process, transitioning current employees to new federal jobs and minimizing the influence of labor groups.

The blueprint largely did not spell out the specifics in these areas, but laid out a broad vision for a “modern workforce.” The budget repeatedly noted the president’s priority to trim agency rolls across government, but also suggested agencies find new positions for workers whose jobs have or will become obsolete. The administration will invest in “reskilling the workforce to meet current needs,” the president said in the document.  

“Current employees can shift from legacy positions into emerging fields in which the government faces shortages, including data analysis, cybersecurity and other IT disciplines,” the White House wrote.

The administration said that federal vacancies often take more than one year to fill, deterring individuals otherwise interested in government service. The White House hinted the Trump team would make it easier to hire term employees, while also calling for “fundamental reform” to the background investigation process. It expressed concerned about the retirement eligibility of the top ranks of the civil service, pledging a “more robust pipeline” for Senior Executive Service positions. The administration said it may boost outreach to the private sector as part of “continuing efforts to modernize policies and practices governing the SES.”

The White House acknowledged that a “vast majority of employees uphold their oath of office and work diligently,” but said too many federal workers are “unable or unwilling to perform their jobs at acceptable levels.” It noted the various avenues employees have to appeal negative personnel actions and the propensity of agencies to settle cases despite the evidence they hold. Too many employees receive top performance reviews, the administration said, which further exacerbates agencies' inability to identify and remove bad workers.

“This sort of grade inflation does little to help managers reward high performers or otherwise make necessary distinctions to inform decisions concerning the workforce,” the White House wrote. “This is yet another area where the federal workforce could benefit from adopting some private sector norms.”

One of the appeal avenues many employees pursue is through their union, another area where the administration is looking to make changes. The White House noted the labor groups are actually able to negotiate over few things, and argued the organizations instead serve as a roadblock to a well-functioning government. Trump signed an executive order in September disbanding labor-management forums at federal agencies and said in his budget he would continue down that path. “Collective bargaining contracts can have a significant impact on agency performance, workplace productivity and employee satisfaction,” the president said in his blueprint. “The administration sees an opportunity for progress on this front and intends to overhaul labor-management relations.”

The administration suggested its reforms would ultimately help the good workers across federal agencies be even more effective. 

“The federal workforce also contains untold numbers of selfless civil servants who perform their jobs in a manner that honors and uplifts their fellow citizens,” it wrote. “They are part of the fabric that makes this nation great.”

The administration plans to announce more specific strategies next month to advance its management priorities, including “concrete goals” and “trackable metrics.” They will include “developing a workforce for 21st century” and shifting employees from low-value to high-value work.