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bob gilson

Questions Needing an Answer in a Republican “Reform” of the Civil Service

SEA Member Bob Gilson discusses civil service reform obstacles in this month's Managers Corner article.

By Bob Gilson

Over the last sixteen years, many Republicans on the hill have called for a reform of the civil service, addressing issues such as recruiting, retention, labor relations and performance management. During the Bush administration, reform was attempted in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Much of this initiative fell by the wayside due to wording of the law involved and a court decision that put a crimp in the efforts. The law was ultimately repealed in 2009 by a Democrat dominated Congress and White House. NSPS and MAXHR (you don’t want to know what the acronyms stand for) proved the point that if you want substantial change, you must pass comprehensive laws specifically addressing issues not ones creating broad policy initiatives relying on Agency interpretation for implementation.

Virtually everything done by a government Agency has a basis in law, despite claims that executive orders can thwart Congressional intent. Those hill Republicans who have had their hopes for civil service reform have learned a lot of lessons in the last sixteen years and this writer believes they might actually be able to effect substantial change. This, of course, requires an administration that agrees and wants the same changes.

Below are some of the questions any potential reformer needs to address.


There are three key issues in recruiting reform:

  • Will veteran’s preference continue to be the principal factor in hiring outside the Agency?
  • Will the government find a way to recruit college graduates that works?
  • Will anti-discrimination and affirmative action policies continue to dominate as opposed to supplement internal selection actions?


  • Will decisions in employee disciplinary actions and resulting appeals continue to mirror criminal indictments and trials in complexity, cost and time involved?
  • Will federal employees continue to be able to appeal actions to a wide variety of Agencies each of which has its own processes and produces inconsistent results?
  • Will reduction-in-force laws and regulations be simplified to put mission requirements above individual employee entitlements?

Labor Relations

  • Will Federal unions be able to continue to delay Agency initiatives for months and years through the use of complex processes that often put union institutional rights ahead of an Agency’s need to get a job done?
  • Will the total, yes total, subsidy of Federal labor unions continue? Did you know that unions often get 100s of times the amounts employees pay in dues in union institutional benefits at absolutely no cost to the union?
  • Will Federal employees continue to get hundreds of millions of dollars in official time at taxpayer expense to represent a workforce in which often less than 20% pay dues?
  • Will taxpayers continue to fund a system in which everyone involved in a dispute including the judge, the witnesses, a Federal Agency advocate for the union, the union, and the Agency advocate are paid for by government funds for every aspect of the dispute?

Performance Management

  • Will a system continue in which more time and money is spent on its administration and defense than on any visible result in almost any Agency?
  • Will Congress fund a meaningful reform that involves pay for performance not limited to a miniscule percentage of salary dollars while continuing to ensure seniority raises (Step increases)?
  • Will Congress enact a system recognizing that managerial assessments are real and so called performance standards are artificial?

I have not discussed the Senior Executive Service in this Article, but hope that one of SEA’s members with real expertise in the good, bad and ugly of the program will step up to the plate and address what should be kept, stopped or started to encourage the development and retention of the best leaders in career government executive ranks. Most days, I favor the British system involving a permanent under-secretary who assures continuity and educates incoming political leaders. Some say I’ve been watching too many “Yes, Minister” reruns on Netflix. Watch one yourself, you may come to agree with me.

Bob Gilson is a retired Federal Agency advocate who continues to work with Agencies on employment issues, negotiations and training.  He can be reached at


Bob Gilson is currently a Senior Associate with RGS Inc.  His specialty is working with and training Federal Agency clients to resolve employee problems at all levels.  Both before and since retiring, Bob has negotiated on behalf of Federal clients.  A retired Agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues.  He can be reached at

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Tags: Managers Corner

Ten Considerations For Civi Service Modernization

Summary: The Senior Executives Association (SEA) and the Hoover Institution hosted three Civil Service Modernization Dialogues in the summer and fall of 2018 that had a goal of developing a consensus around general themes and concepts that a diverse group of organizations could support. Those Dialogues were organized around three general themes:

  • Civil Service Workforce Modernization
  • Civil Service Administrative Modernization
  • Civil Service Regulatory Modernization
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