Civil Service Modernization
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
Each Dialogue centered on key questions that discussants vigorously debated. The result of the Dialogues were 10 Considerations for Civil Service Modernization, as follows:
- The general framework of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) is sound, but is in dire need of modernization to promote a 21st Century civil service that is responsive to emergent national challenges.
There was a strong consensus of dialogue participants that the CSRA established a sound framework for the Federal civil service, including codifying the Merit Principles and establishing the Senior Executive Service (SES), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), among other notable actions.
Participants were equally in consensus that the world has changed dramatically and that the CSRA requires modernization to build a civil service workforce well suited to carry out the missions that Congress has entrusted to it. Cumbersome and outdated statutes, regulations and administrative requirements – such as acquisition and hiring processes – impede agencies’ abilities to carry out those legislatively defined missions on behalf of U.S. taxpayers.
The justifications for the Federal civil service, including the need for a non-partisan Federal workforce, remain strong, but changing times require new approaches that improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Federal workforce.
The CSRA was passed during a time when public faith in government was recovering from post-Vietnam War declines1 and the civil service was viewed as a bulwark against the previous “spoils
system” that enabled political parties to unduly influence and benefit from Federal programs. Since 1978, however, political polarization and other trends have led to a decline in public confidence in government and an increase in questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of the civil service.
Rapidly accelerating changes, including emerging technology, growth in knowledge-based occupations that defy traditional requirements, increased reliance on contracting, workforce demographics, and growing interest among young workers in high mobility within their careers are among the key trends that were not anticipated when the CSRA was approved.
- A “Public Service Ethic” is missing from the general discourse, which has led to a misunderstanding of the role of government in general and the civil service in specific.
The civil service framework was created to exemplify a national spirit of public service. Participants strongly believe that it is time for the country to restore this spirit so that the civil service can function optimally and new generations of civil servants can be recruited and retained. This sense of a public service ethic drives many young people, including many high performers, towards the civil service.
Employee engagement and public recognition of the civil service’s successes can also invigorate current public service and inspire a new generation to serve. While we recognize the urgent need for modernizing the civil service, we also recognize that reflexive attacks on “bureaucracy” disconnected from substantive critiques risks corroding trust between the public and the public’s servants, and demoralizing the civil service.
- Regardless of views on the size of government and performance management within the civil service, all of us agree that we want a civil service that is smart, trustworthy and professional.
Much of the current debate in Washington about civil service modernization has focused on the size of the workforce and how to motivate high performance and deal with poor performers, but we also need a discussion about creating a 21st Century civil service workforce that is smart, trustworthy and professional. This requires a greater investment in professional development, adoption of new technologies, and increased accountability.
Agencies have ample authorities to address low performance and reward high performers, but agencies do not consistently use those authorities due to cultural, budgetary and administrative reasons. Streamlined processes, sufficient resources, and a cultural shift that promotes accountability in the workforce is required. This would include training of supervisors to incentivize high performers and ensure that poor performance is appropriately addressed.
- For any modernization effort to be successful, all stakeholders must be involved in both the dialogue and the future direction of the modernization effort.
All stakeholder groups have legitimate concerns about how modernization efforts will impact their members. Policymakers should start the modernization effort with issues that could attract widespread support, such as hiring/retention or reskilling/retraining that are obvious wins for all sides of the debate. All stakeholders should aspire to discuss even hot-button issues constructively; and even when there is disagreement on some issues, there may remain opportunities for 3
consensus on narrower issues. True reform requires good-faith cooperation and compromise from all stakeholders.
- Modernizing administrative systems requires a long-term journey that will include cooperation with Congress, particularly when it comes to modernizing budget and acquisition processes.
Consensus emerged that budget and acquisition processes are broken in many ways. Agencies operating on annual budgets and continuing resolutions have challenges with efficient and effective delivery of mission. Acquisition is hampered by limitations on multi-year funding that could allow for capturing return on investment over time, and by the way that the current Federal Acquisition Regulation has been implemented to focus on process and to minimize flexibility.
- The core of the issue when it comes to administrative system improvements is the need to reskill/retrain the current workforce and to attract a future workforce that will embrace new technology uptake, including artificial intelligence, robotics, and data analytics.
The current civil service workforce requires a significant investment in retraining and reskilling to be effective and efficient. We also would benefit at all levels from a system that offers opportunities for individuals to bring their talents to government, whether for a full career or on a short-term basis.
This could include far greater use of hiring authorities that enable limited-term appointments—for example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is implementing the Cyber security Talent Management System, a new approach to hiring, compensation, and management of professionals with cyber security responsibilities. And similarly, we would benefit at all levels from a system that offers flexibility for the government to bring talented individuals to government on an untenured, task-oriented basis.
The addition of more portable benefits for those who do not wish to spend their entire career in Federal service would go hand-in-hand with these modernization efforts. The civil service workforce of the future must be agile and highly technically competent. Changes in pay, benefits, hiring authorities and accountability will be necessary to achieve that agility and competence.
- In order to facilitate agencies’ administration of the statutes that Congress has entrusted to them, their resources and capabilities must be modernized.
The laws that Congress has passed, both to empower agencies and to promote transparency and democratic participation, are well established. But the practical challenges of administering those laws has greatly increased due to technological and social changes—from higher volumes of FOIA requests to increased public interaction with government through social media.
Yet agency staff responsible for rulemakings, adjudications, FOIA, and other agency activities are severely constrained in terms of IT resources and skills. Congress should provide agencies with the resources and flexibility necessary to fully comply more efficiently with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, FOIA, and other foundational laws.
- Congress should look for bipartisan opportunities to promote the training and reskilling of the current workforce to ensure the integrity, efficiency and efficacy of the regulatory process.
Agencies require highly skilled staff to implement the laws passed by Congress through the regulatory process. The current workforce is not set up well for the stochastic and unpredictable volume and topics involved in regulatory work. Flexibility and agility are required, but are not rewarded by the current system. Personnel processes that encourage bringing in networks of experts and the development of collaborative processes, such as “e-regulatory negotiation,” would supplement training and reskilling efforts. Better coordination between Federal, state, and local regulatory authorities also will help.
- Simplify, simplify and simplify some more.
Agencies are crushed under the weight of internal rules and regulations. Agreement is needed on core process improvements and specific solutions. A tremendous amount of work has been done by good government groups, such as the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), the Senior Executives Association, the Partnership for Public Service, and the Volcker Alliance that could form the basis for specific solutions. Rules and regulations are not an inherently bad thing for agencies, just as they’re not an inherently bad thing for the public, but hiring and acquisition regulations, in particular, are far too complex. The result is a system that is extremely risk adverse and out of sync with fast-changing business practices in other sectors