Civil service modernization is essential — here is one way to make it happen

The United States is facing immense challenges with COVID, the environment, the economy, global adversaries, and more. The pandemic accelerated discussions regarding the future of work and reminded us that government must play a critical role in addressing challenges whose scale is far beyond the capabilities of individual states, cities and industry. That means an effective, merit-based civil service is essential.

We attempt to meet that essential requirement with civil service pay and job classification processes driven by a law that is 72 years old and a hiring process that limits the government’s ability to compete for talent. For a deep dive on the government’s human capital challenges, check out the National Academy of Public Administration study “No Time to Wait.”

Even with such immense challenges and a clear need for reform, civil service issues are not immune to our toxic political climate. There are clear partisan battle lines on civil service issues that make significant changes difficult.

It is not just the parties who fight over civil service issues. Other constituencies have their own interests. I participated in a roundtable discussion in 2019 where virtually everyone in the room had an issue they considered sacrosanct. They mostly agreed civil service modernization is necessary, as long as their issue was untouched. Unions wanted to protect collective bargaining and the institutional rights of the unions themselves. Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) wanted to protect veterans preference as it is handled today. Conservative think tanks wanted fewer federal workers, with lower pay, less generous benefits, and less job security. Individual agencies wanted flexibility for themselves, even if it makes things more difficult for other agencies. Whether you agree or disagree with those interests, the idea that various groups have issues that they want off the table before they discuss civil service reform is the primary barrier to modernization.

So how do we make civil service modernization happen? It is unlikely everyone is going to walk away from protecting their own interests. It is even more unlikely that Congress will ignore their constituents and the interest groups that weigh in on civil service issues. Does that mean civil service reforms will be doomed? That we will have to be satisfied with tinkering around the edges? Or that Democrats should just ignore the Republicans and pass civil service modernization on their own? The answer to all those questions is no.

A partisan bill would not contribute to restoring confidence in government and trust in the civil service. It would be likely to be replaced with equally partisan changes the next time Republicans are in power. It is also unlikely that a one-sided civil service bill could be passed in the Senate due to the filibuster.

We need some mechanism for allowing a policy discussion to occur outside the walls of the Capitol. There is a model that might work, and that is the one created by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. BRAC was designed because the Defense Department needed a means of shedding excess infrastructure, but it was apparent that no sane member of Congress wanted to go on record voting to close bases where their constituents work. There was also a recognition that DoD’s infrastructure was too big and too costly. In order to reduce the political problems, Congress passed the Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990. This act, amended in 2005, created a presidentially-appointed BRAC Commission to review and make recommendations for closures and realignments. The Congressional Research Service described the BRAC process this way:

“Congress has defined BRAC selection criteria in statute, thus requiring the Secretary to prioritize military value over cost savings. Additionally, Congress has required the Secretary to align the Department’s recommendations with a comprehensive 20-year force structure plan. The commission may modify, reject, or add recommendations during its review before forwarding a final list to the President.

“After receiving the Commission’s list of recommendations, the President may either accept the report in its entirety or seek to modify it by indicating disapproval and returning it to the commission for further evaluation. If the President accepts the commission’s recommendations, they are forwarded to Congress. BRAC implementation begins by default unless Congress rejects the recommendations in their entirety within 45 days by enacting a joint resolution. During the implementation phase, DOD is required to initiate closures and realignments within two years and complete all actions within six years.

“The BRAC process represents a legislative compromise between the executive and legislative branches wherein each shares power in managing the closure and realignment of military bases. The imposition of an independent, third-party mediator was intended to insulate base closings from political considerations by both branches that had complicated similar actions in the past.”

I believe a process modeled on the BRAC process is the best approach to achieve real bipartisan civil service modernization. It is clear that we cannot have reform if no one is willing to talk about their favorite issues or either political party believes it is the big loser in reform. All the civil service issues have to be on the table and considered by a bipartisan Commission that is charged with developing a comprehensive reform package that addresses the talent needs of the government, not just the parochial interests of the various constituencies. A bipartisan Commission that conducts public hearings, provides the opportunity for all interest groups to present their views, and conducts a transparent review and analysis, can work. The size of government would not be within the purview of the Commission, because it is a completely different issue.

Following a BRAC-like process, the Commission would make recommendations that President Joe Biden could accept, return to the Commission for reconsideration, or reject. Congress could reject the reforms only if both the House and the Senate voted to reject them.

Opponents of modernization most likely will not like this approach, because it makes changes more likely. Proponents of reform who want reform only on their terms will probably not like this approach either.

Some will say the Biden administration should use executive orders to make reforms happen now. I agree. Executive orders and other administrative actions are not a bad idea, because there are many needed improvements that can be done administratively. They are not enough, because some needed reforms require statutory changes and the actions that can be done administratively can also be undone by a succeeding administration. The Biden administration should proceed with administrative changes where it can to address urgent needs, but also support a Civil Service Modernization Commission with BRAC-like authority to make lasting changes that we need.

Those who argue that commissions are a Washington way of dodging issues should keep in mind that the General Schedule system that we have used for 72 years grew out of the recommendations of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government – commonly known as the Hoover Commission. That commission, authorized by statute, was remarkably prescient, making recommendations that are still relevant today. Its recommendations included category rating, simplified and more effective performance ratings, and selection processes for supervisory jobs that focused more on ability to be a supervisor than on technical experience. The Hoover Commission also recommended that pay include locality or industry differentials. The Chair of the Commission, former President Herbert Hoover (R), was appointed by President Harry S. Truman (D). Coming so soon after the existential threat of World War II, the Hoover Commission accomplished far more than was expected of it. Perhaps the existential threats of a global pandemic, cyber warfare, and everything else we have faced recently may inspire our leaders to take a lesson from Truman and Hoover.

A two-track approach of administrative change coupled with a BRAC-like commission fulfills Biden’s promise to “Build Back Better” and approach challenges through bipartisan solutions. It also makes civil service modernization more likely to be based upon what will work best rather than who the changes please the most. It ensures modernization is based on data rather than politics. If we want modernization that can stand the test of time, it is the way to proceed.

Jeff Neal authors the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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