There’s no ‘easy button’ to modernize the civil service

TommL/Getty

But the hard work of cultivating effective, accountable federal managers is essential.

Federal supervisors work every day to effectively manage their employees to deliver critical services for the American people. Unfortunately, many in Congress have shown no interest in leadership development for the federal workforce. The longstanding inattention to equipping leaders with the tools for success, coupled with bureaucratic inefficiencies that have long been endemic to national government, has prevented even the best leaders from managing most effectively. The results are seen each year in low scores for agencies on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. 

Proponents of the Public Service Reform Act and Schedule F cite an interest in government modernization and accountability. But these proposals are merely “easy button” solutions, and there is no easy button to federal leadership and accountability. Still, there is a consensus among the professional associations of federal managers and executives we represent that Congress must modernize the civil service. 

Common sense solutions in the world of human capital management should be employed to increase accountability in the civil service, but they don’t involve stripping the civil service of the basic protections in place to maintain the merit system. Government managers and executives have implored Congress and the president to enact these changes for decades, but political leaders have lacked the will to do so. With little progress, the situation continues to deteriorate, stoking the calls for dire actions like PSRA and Schedule F. 

Select and Train the Right Managers

Congress and the president can improve agency performance by ensuring that federal agencies focus on the selection, development and cultivation of managers. This has been a near-constant topic of discussion since the passage of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. Successful companies do these things for a reason—to develop a performance-oriented culture. 

Government watchdogs like the Merit Systems Protection Board and the National Academy of Public Administration have stressed the importance of first-line supervisor and manager selection and development in various reports for decades: 

Helping managers do their job only works if the right people rise to management and effective training regimes are already established. As Anita Blair pointed out recently, before she became chief human capital officer at the Defense Department, the agency lacked a framework for manager training to ensure that everyone entrusted with supervising others had the knowledge and resources to help all employees do their best. Most agencies remain in this state. 

A single agency’s story of effective management-building does not negate the decades of research showing systemic shortfalls across government to provide managers and executives the tools for success. The PSRA places the duty of reinforcing a fair and competitive merit process in the hands of supervisors ill-equipped to meet this task. The only thing currently protecting the system is the merit protections overseen by the MSPB, which provide an independent check on ineffective managers for retaliating, discriminating, or engaging in prohibited personnel practices. The PSRA will weaken these protections and, with no strong supervisory culture in place to maintain the merit system, will result in a civil service responsive only to the political will of administration appointees. 

Develop Public Service Leaders

Federal agencies do an inconsistent job, at best, of preparing and supporting supervisory employees to succeed in their roles. These travails, despite the best intentions of the Office of Personnel Management guidance, are well documented by MSPB and the Government Accountability Office. Moreover, agencies allow managers who prove incapable of serving in those roles to continue doing so through ineffective use of the probationary period. Agencies must get serious about using the probationary period effectively for new managers, as for all new employees. Both GAO and MSPB have reported on this.

Good managers are the key to effective performance management. Few would disagree that performance management in the federal government falls well short of effective practice. OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller testified as much before the House Oversight and Reform Committee during a hearing on the future of federal work in late July. And the issue has been well-documented by GAO:

Consensus for Change

In 2018, the Government Managers Coalition, made up of five major federal sector professional associations representing managers and executives, who constitute the Government Managers Coalition, said the selection and development of career leaders are the single most important areas the government must address to improve performance and accountability.

The Government Managers Coalition recommends that civilian federal agencies follow the Defense Department’s lead and invest in improving their management cadres. Training and development are always first to be cut—if they are funded at all—in civilian agencies. 

Another top recommendation of the coalition is to make the system less complex and cumbersome while still maintaining a balance of employee rights and process. Since the early 1990s, federal managers have pleaded with policymakers to streamline the federal personnel dispute system. We agree. 

Federal human capital management has been atop GAO’s high risk List for more than two decades for a reason. Leading people is hard. Change is complex. Leaders of the Government Managers Coalition and across the federal sector know the civil service must evolve to meet the needs of America today. Congress needs to step up and do its job to modernize it. That means more than efforts like PSRA or Schedule F, which throw the baby out with the bathwater by simply making it easy to fire employees. More critically, lawmakers need to remind the president that they created the civil service and will be responsible for their fate. 

Creating More Problems

The PSRA is not about reminding people what public service is all about, helping managers do their jobs, and maintaining a proper balance to preserve fairness and secure performance. That may be how certain chief human capital officers would implement the legislation, but nowhere does the bill actually require these initiatives. The PSRA simply purports to create a more accountable federal government by making it easier to remove federal employees.

Political appointees, removable at will, already exist in the federal workforce to give the president political control over the executive branch. However, at lower levels in the federal government, career leaders ensure the laws are carried out in accordance with congressional intent rather than influenced by a president’s political motives. The PSRA and Schedule F would weaken the career employee buffer that ensures presidential prerogatives are in line with congressional intent, as outlined in the law.

Not only would this politicize the federal government, but it would erode critical democratic values like consistency and reliability of the law. One of the key reasons Congress decided to abolish the political patronage system was to ensure as the country grew that there was continuity in the application of the law. This requires a professional career workforce.

If employees can be fired without cause (as the PSRA allows) and the buffer between career and appointed leaders is removed (as Schedule F does), there is no check to ensure laws are carried out in a consistent manner. Continuity in the execution of the nation’s laws provides stability for businesses engaging with the federal government, industries regulated by the federal government, and ultimately, taxpayers. 

The solution to our government’s challenges is not the PSRA or Schedule F. It is not doing away with the civil service protections. The answer is doing the necessary work to effectively address systemic management challenges. Accomplishing this will better enable federal civil service leaders to fulfill the public’s expectations of the U.S. government.

James M. Durant III is board chair of the Senior Executives Association. Elizabeth Barcus is president of the Federal Aviation Administration Managers Association. Craig Carter is president of the Federal Managers Association. Chad Hooper is executive director of the Professional Managers Association. David Lescarini is president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations. All are members of the Government Managers Coalition, collectively representing more than 250,000 career executives, supervisors, and managers in the federal government. The comments herein do not represent the interest or opinions of the Department of Energy, where James M. Durant is employed. They are personal to him.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.