Don’t fear the Public Service Reform Act

Tolerating poor performance is the antithesis of good public service.

Tolerating poor performance is the antithesis of good public service. Prasit photo / Getty Images

A former chief human capital officer says it is time to re-center and simplify the rules to balance individual fairness and organizational effectiveness in the federal government.

As a former federal agency chief human capital officer, I would welcome enactment of H.R. 8550, the Public Service Reform Act introduced on July 28. Tolerating poor performance is the antithesis of good public service, yet managers feel discouraged from taking adverse actions when needed. The PSRA would help managers and the great majority of federal employees by setting clear standards for dealing with those who cannot or will not perform as required. 

Sometimes it takes a bold move to reset systems and put the mission first, again. We view the purpose of Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices specified in 5 U.S.C. sections 2301-2302 as protecting the rights of employees. In fact, these provisions establish basic standards for managing the executive branch workforce fairly and effectively. 

We tend to emphasize the parts of the MSP/PPP that protect individual federal employees from unlawful discrimination or retaliation. But the institution has rights, too. For example, MSP 6 states: “Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.” 

If I were an agency CHCO implementing the PSRA, here’s what I would do:

First, remind everyone what public service is all about. As the PSRA acknowledges, adverse personnel actions that violate the MSP/PPP law remain unlawful. When I was CHCO of the Treasury Department, we needed to improve the speed and efficiency of hiring and still comply with MSP/PPP rules. Some hiring managers wanted to speed the process (improperly) by hiring their pre-selected personal favorites. 

To reinforce a fair and competitive merit process, we wrote and distributed a plain-English practical handbook called “Merit Matters” with commonsense advice on handling typical situations. We also sent periodic emails to all 11,000 Treasury Department managers and supervisors with tips on how to manage for high performance. We incorporated these efforts into our strategic plans and goals to gain visibility and support from leadership throughout the department. 

Second, help managers do their job. As a civilian CHCO of the Defense Department, I tackled the (then) perennial “worst question” of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS): "In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve." 

We sponsored a RAND report with recommendations on "Support for DoD Supervisors in Addressing Poor Employee Performance.” We also adopted a new framework for manager/supervisor training to ensure that everyone entrusted with supervising others had the knowledge and resources to help all employees do their best. In my years at DoD, the FEVS responses agreeing that “steps are taken to deal with a poor performer” rose from 29% in 2016 to 42% in 2020. 

Third, maintain a proper balance to preserve fairness and secure performance. Merit Systems Protection Board studies were always helpful to me as a CHCO. I would regret seeing them go, but now may be the time to devolve those responsibilities to agencies, which are experts on their own work and workforces. 

If I were a CHCO implementing the PSRA, I would set up an agency “Merit and Performance Council” to evaluate processes and outcomes of cases under the PSRA. In particular this Council would examine how processes might be adapted to suit the needs of different occupations or workforces (e.g., knowledge work, blue-collar, law enforcement). I would also want to share and compare results with other agencies.

On the problem of “political resistance,” the PSRA is a much more effective solution than “Schedule F.” That proposal would have entailed a whole new bureaucracy to adjudicate who is or is not a policy-confidential employee. At the same time it would have done nothing to reduce abuse of MSP/PPP claims. 

It is instructive to review the history of federal civil service reforms. The Pendleton Act of 1883 ended the spoils system. The Lloyd-LaFollette Act of 1912 ended the practice of removal for non-merit-based reasons. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 codified MSP/PPPs to end the proliferation of complex personnel rules. In 2022 we again face the need to re-center and simplify the rules to balance individual fairness and organizational effectiveness. The PSRA meritoriously serves that purpose.

Anita K. Blair retired from the federal government at the end of 2020. She held career and non-career executive positions in the departments of the Navy, Treasury, and Defense. 

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