This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
Civil service reform is badly needed, but for a long time I believed the political situation in Washington made it too risky to attempt. The polarization that infects our political system also infects views of the civil service. To hear some people tell it, civil servants are either saints who can do no wrong, or they are leeches sucking the blood out of America. Federal workers are either underpaid, or they are paid 50, 60 or 70 percent more than their counterparts in the private sector.
That kind of disagreement over what ought to be factual makes talking about civil service reform risky. Remember what happened when politicians decided they would come up with a way to force themselves to do their jobs and pass a budget? They created sequestration. It was supposed to be an outcome that was so horrible that neither party would allow it to happen.
After all, who would think that just mindlessly cutting the budgets of virtually every agency in government would work? How would defense hawks allow DoD to get whacked? How would proponents of social programs allow them to get whacked? But whacked they were.
Even with a gun of their own creation aimed squarely at their heads, we did not get a budget passed this year. Or last.
So why on earth would I think that we should start looking at civil service reform in that environment? Why not just ask the Office of Personnel Management to find every flexibility it can within the current laws and make do with that until we get to a more normal political process?
Because that is not happening. We have seen some tweaking of rules and processes, but OPM has not done a comprehensive look at their own regulations to try to find every possible way to make the civil service better within today’s laws.
There is a lot of room within existing laws to make things better. For example, we do not need 400+ job series. Having that many makes keeping classification standards up to date more difficult and makes it much harder for job seekers from outside government. OPM has the authority to reduce the number to something manageable (I’d suggest no more than 100). There are many other examples of simplification and streamlining that can be done without congressional action. The benefits could be significant and achieved quickly.
Even if OPM did that, some of the biggest problems the government faces with its people programs are not fixable by regulation or process changes. They need a new legal underpinning to make big changes happen.
With every passing day, the federal government moves closer to a talent crisis. The government workforce is aging and turning over at increasing rates, and high quality replacements are not coming fast enough. The time to fill jobs is on most leaders’ lists of problems that need to be fixed. So is the quality of applicants, the abysmal process for advertising jobs, the poor job most agencies do at screening applicants, the cumbersome and hard to understand job classification system, and last, but certainly not least, a pay system that offers few tools when competing for in-demand talent.
There are real costs to not having the right talent in place. For example, in January 2015, the Government Accountability Office said “…a decline in telecommunication expertise across multiple agencies compounded the General Services Administration’s (GSA) challenges in transitioning those agencies to a new network of telecommunications services, contributing to delays and cost overruns of 44 percent.” Not having the right people can interfere with vital operations of government. Whether you are a proponent of more or less government, it is safe to say most people would prefer that the Department of Defense be able to do its job. Defense is finding more and more problems with recruiting and retaining talent for civilian jobs. Those jobs are an essential part of our war fighting capability. Without them, ships, boats, aircraft and tanks do not get rebuilt. Our troops do not get the spare parts they need, nor do they get the food, fuel, medical supplies, uniforms, or anything else they need.
It is not limited to those examples. Do we want the Social Security Administration to be able to pay benefits? Do we want NASA to explore space? Do we want the Department of Energy to ensure the integrity and safety of our nuclear weapons, advance nuclear nonproliferation and promote international nuclear safety? Do we want the Weather Service to give us weather information? There are hundreds of other programs that are vital to our national security, the free flow of commerce, and the general operation of our society. Without the right talent they do not work.
So I believe civil service reform has moved from “nice to have” to a national imperative. We can argue about what that reform should look like, but it is getting harder and harder to argue that it does not have to happen. The next president should make civil service reform a priority and begin the process (in cooperation with the House and the Senate, unions, and other appropriate parties) of crafting a set of civil service reforms that build a 21st century civil service.
While that is happening (it may take a couple of years) the new president should order a comprehensive interagency review of existing OPM regulations to identify every reasonable way of enacting reform through executive action. In order to ensure that legal questions are resolved quickly and with an expansive view of what is possible, the Department of Justice should provide legal advice to the reviewers. The objective should be identifying the most needed and impactful regulatory changes and drafting interim regulations within 120 days of the inauguration.
If we do not address the weaknesses of the current civil service system, the kind of problems we have today are only the beginning. Agencies will struggle to recruit, develop and retain talent, costs will be higher than they need to be, and vital programs that our nation depends upon will be put at risk every day. Those risks are real, growing and pose a significant danger – so much so that, despite the political mess, we have to act.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.