Let’s thank public servants by strengthening the merit-based civil service

If we truly want to honor them, let’s take the next steps to make certain they are able to continue to do their jobs.

Every year we set aside time to recognize public servants for all that they do. The preceding year has driven home more than ever the need for a career civil service that is free of political interference, fact-based, and hired and retained based on merit.

Think of the last year and what has happened during the pandemic. Two million federal workers kept on working. Half of them reported to their government workspace every day. They took the risks of exposure to the coronavirus so our military would have the services and supplies they need, so air travel could continue within COVID restrictions, and so many other vital services would continue. Postal workers continued to deliver our mail while many of us remained safe at home.

At the same time, the previous administration questioned the intent, capability and integrity of public health officials who were trying to make public health decisions on the best available science. They also attempted to undermine the career civil service with the ill-intentioned Schedule F Executive Order that could have made tens or hundreds of thousands of federal workers little more than political appointees.

If we want to honor our public servants, here are a few things the Biden administration and the Congress should do:

Revitalize OPM. The Congress requested the National Academy of Public Administration conduct a study of the proposed OPM/GSA merger and make recommendations for a way forward. NAPA completed the report and it is full of excellent recommendations for revitalizing OPM. Many of them, such as designating the Director of OPM as the President’s principal human capital advisor, are completely within the control of the Biden administration. Others, such as giving OPM the funding it needs to succeed, require action by Congress. The Executive and Legislative branches should work together to make that a reality.

Restore guardrails to the civil service. One of the strengths of the civil service is the non-political nature of its design. The Hatch Act was designed to make sure it stays non-political. The previous administration ran roughshod over the Hatch Act, and the Obama administration had at least one high-profile Hatch Act violation of its own. While there are arguments that can be made to reform the Hatch Act and allow more free expression by civil servants, at the very least congress should give the Office of Special Counsel authority to independently take action, including removing political appointees who violate the Hatch Act, and banning egregious offenders from ever serving in a federal job. In addition, Congress should enact the bipartisan Preventing a Patronage System Act to eliminate the possibility that a future administration will attempt to enact another Schedule F.

Reduce the number of political appointees and reform the Vacancies Act. I get why administrations like to use political appointees. They get to pick who they want (with some subject to Senate confirmation), they are mostly assured the people they hire will be cooperative with administration goals, and they can easily fire them if they are not. The problem is that there are too many of them in many departments and agencies. Some of them are not well-qualified for their jobs, and their average tenure is so short that they have little time to get anything meaningful done. Replacing a thousand of them with career employees would be a good start. The Trump administration’s willful disregard of the requirements of the Vacancies Act also clearly demonstrated the need to reform that law. What good is the Constitutional requirement for the advice and consent provision of the Constitution if a president can simply assign a stream of unconfirmed political hacks into key jobs. The Constitution clearly did not intend that to happen. The best solution is to reform the vacancies act to require that, in the absence of a Senate confirmed first assistant, acting assignments go to the most senior career executive in the agency or department. Any reform should also include a clear and Constitutionally valid penalty for an administration failing to comply. For example, a reformed Vacancies Act could rescind many legal authorities of the organization whose leader is not assigned consistent with the Vacancies Act. Both parties should have an interest in having appointees who serve based on Constitutional processes and not just based on politics.

Provide a statutory requirement for the independence of science, public health and statistics agencies. We have seen what happens when politicians meddle in public health matters. We have also seen political interference in things as basic as the weather forecasts. The more that happens, the less confidence the American people will have in government. We need a bipartisan commitment to fact-based governance, with statutory prohibitions on political interference in such matters.

Federal workers have spent more than a year doing their work under difficult circumstances. If we truly want to honor them, let’s take the next steps to make certain they are able to continue to do their jobs, be hired and retained based on merit, and are free from political interference from either party. That would make our expressions of gratitude more than meaningless platitudes.

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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