Good government groups say time is right to reignite passion in public service

Celebrations this past week for the 40th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 have been met with respect — but also some resignation that the landmark legislation needs a serious overhaul.

Today in 2018, there are certainly new bills that Congress could pass or authorities that the Office of Personnel Management could implement to update the civil service for the present and beyond.

But the days of a big, sweeping legislative package like the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 aren’t quite within reach. At least not yet.

Good government groups have quietly been dissecting and debating their ideas to modernize the civil service for years. This week in particular, their voices are growing louder.

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“I’m a firm believer that the government is functioning at a very high level,” Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said earlier this week on Your Turn with Mike Causey. “But I also believe that we’re at a tipping point right now. Over the course of the next 10 years, changes in our society, changes in the way we do work [and] changes in the workforce are going to lead us to either a very effective, very efficient government, or we’re going to have a disaster on our hands.”

It’s why SEA, the Partnership for Public Service, Volcker Alliance and others are teaming up to support each other and their ideas for a modernized federal workforce.

They’re taking a two-part approach to the work. On one hand, SEA and others are recommending concrete, administrative changes OPM and Office of Management and Budget can take on now to address some of the more immediate challenges with federal hiring and talent management.

But on the other hand, these organizations are also attempting to start and then sustain a conversation about the importance of public service.

When Valdez asks his students why they chose to work for a federal agency, they’ll cite job stability, pay and benefits and interesting work as the main reasons for their career choices.

“The phrase ‘public service’ rarely enters into the dialogue,” Valdez said. “We at the Senior Executives Association are really interested in restoring that public service ethos, and we see the SES as the tip of the spear to be able to do that.”

SEA has been teaching training courses that are focused on the message of “public service leadership as a profession.”

It’s also a priority for the Volcker Alliance, which launched its “Government-to-University” initiative earlier this fall. The alliance will host conversations with colleges and universities across the country to discuss how institutions of higher education can better prepare their students for a career in the public sector. Dustin Brown, deputy assistant director for management at OMB, has been taking a sabbatical to focus on the alliance’s new initiative.

“The word ‘service’ is out there,” Tom Ross, Volcker Alliance president, said. “Young people today are committed to service. They just don’t necessarily tag government service to the service they’re thinking. They’re headed into non-profits or other areas of service. We have lost a little bit of the sense of public service being in the government.”

Stressing the importance of public service

As good government groups attempt to revive conversations about the importance of public service, they’re also focused on achieving common ground on a set of policy initiatives that the Trump administration, or really any administration, could use as a guide.

“All of us have our own legislative policy agendas that we’re developing, and the more that we can do together as good government groups to promote that unified policy, the faster we’ll get going on it,” Valdez said.

Valdez said SEA has also been meeting with the Partnership and Volcker Alliance, as well as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society to develop a consensus on ideas for modernizing the civil service.

It was that mentality that inspired SEA, the Partnership for Public Service and the Volcker Alliance to develop a new policy agenda for the SES.

The agenda offers a series of recommendations that the administration can take to set senior executives up for success, improve SES talent management and strengthen the link between political and career leaders.

Kristine Simmons, vice president for government affairs at the Partnership, said the agenda has gotten a positive reaction from the administration and others in the community.

“We really think that our collective voices are more powerful than any of our organizations talking individually about this leadership corps in government,” she said.

In addition, both the Volcker Alliance and the Partnership for Public Service formed a joint advisory group to develop a set of goals and principles to “renew” the civil service.

Former OMB Director Mitch Daniels, former House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) , former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) are among the members on the advisory panel.