Civil Service Reform is Coming: What Should it Be?

img_0177By now it should be apparent that civil service reform is likely to happen. Most good government organizations and academics who prepared transition papers prior to the election recommended that the next president work with the Congress to design and implement some sort of comprehensive civil service reform. We are hearing from Senators and Representatives on both sides of the aisle that they are interested in reform. So – the big question is what reform looks like. Actually, that is a lot of questions. Is it one big bill? A series of smaller changes passed separately? Does it address every aspect of the civil service? Or does it focus on pressing needs and cherry pick the most solvable problems? Does it guarantee that getting a federal job is based on merit and not on who you know or what your politics might be? Does it get rid of the antiquated general schedule classification and pay system? Does it change federal benefits? Does it finally do something about performance management processes that virtually everyone hates? Does it address accountability and ensure that great civil servants are rewarded and terrible civil servants either get better or get gone? Does it give agencies the ability to shape their workforce in response to changing demands and labor market conditions? Does it fix a hiring process that is charitably described as broken? Does it provide for training and retaining critical talent? Does it guarantee equal opportunity? Are employee rights to collective bargaining preserved? And finally, does it change the process for downsizing so it ensures the government can retain its best and most in-demand talent rather than following an outdated and byzantine reduction in force process?

Whew! That is a lot of questions, and those are only the big ones. Comprehensive civil service reform will require the answers to all of those questions, plus more. A well-designed civil service reform program must recognize that public service is a public trust, and that the American people need to feel confident that the people who do the people’s work are doing their best every day. I plan to address the major components of civil service reform in a series of posts over the next few weeks. I will address compensation, retention, hiring, training, job classification, and more. What I will not do is weigh in on how large or small the federal workforce should be. I am going to leave that one to our political leaders. What I will recommend applies regardless of the size of the workforce. But – before I can get into what a reformed civil service looks like, I need to start with some underlying principles that I believe should apply to any attempt at civil service reform. These principles provide a foundation upon which we can build a 21st century civil service.

Foundational Principles

Federal employment should be based on merit. This one may seem obvious, but there are folks who believe government managers should be able to hire and fire anyone they want. Doing that would mean we have no guarantee that the people who work for the government are hired, paid, rewarded and retained because they are qualified for their jobs. I have seen what happens when managers hire unqualified people because they are friends, cronies, political associates, etc. It isn’t pretty. If our tax dollars are going to pay someone’s salary, we need to know they were hired based on merit rather than cronyism. I started crafting some guiding principles for reform, but kept coming back to the existing Merit System Principles found in Title 5 of the United States Code. They are remarkably thorough and already provide the underpinnings of civil service reform. In fact, where the civil service has weaknesses, they are generally the result of NOT adhering to the intent of the merit system principles. For example, failing to take action when an employee engages in misconduct or fails to perform violates principles 4 and 6. Overpaying or underpaying a federal worker violates principle 3. The ineffective and user-hostile hiring process violates principles 1 and 2. Duplication of functions in agencies and retention of failing programs violates principle 5. Here are the merit systems principles:

  1. Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.
  2. All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition, and with proper regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.
  3. Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with appropriate consideration of both national and local rates paid by employers in the private sector, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.
  4. All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.
  5. The Federal work force should be used efficiently and effectively.
  6. 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.
  7. Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.
  8. Employees should be protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.
  9. Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

I do not see any reason that the merit system principles should be changed – rather it is the implementation of the merit principles that should change. These principles are neither conservative nor progressive. They are neither republican nor democrat. For example, it is hard to argue that federal employees should be selected for any reason other than merit, subject to dismissal for no cause or for political reasons, paid unfairly, be the victim of reprisal for disclosing misconduct, or fail to maintain high standards of conduct and integrity. The merit system principles are not the source of problems in the civil service and they will serve as the basis for all of my recommendations for reform.

It is clear that the merit system principles are still sound. A reformed civil service system that truly adheres to the them would be something that anyone interested in good government (republican, democrat, independent or anything else) could support. In my next post I will start laying out ways we can build on these principles to produce the type of reform that delivers on the promise of the merit system principles. My proposals recognize that conservative members of Congress will most likely drive the process, but also recognize that both conservatives and progressives have good ideas that should be incorporated into civil service reform.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe there is actually common ground where our political parties can come together and agree on common-sense proposals, rooted in merit system principles and proven in industry and government, that will produce a more effective civil service.




4 thoughts on “Civil Service Reform is Coming: What Should it Be?

  1. Great article. You have identified all the real issues and problems with the current civil service. The whole civil service system needs to be reviewed with strong focus on hiring (internal and external), interviewing, selection, placement, retention and termination. The Merit System Principles should be enforced by instituting the right system and mechanisms to support the hiring, interviewing, selection, placement, retention and termination reform. Once we have the right reform for those personnel applications, the whole Federal workforce will be more effective and efficient. A Federal workforce can only be reduced, smaller but more effective only when the right candidates with the right qualifications are hired for the right positions at the right time. Managers should be trained well to understand the Merit System Principles so they can help with implementation and they should be held accountable for enforcement and compliance with merit system principles. It is always easy to say but very difficult in practice as human beings make mistakes and are biased. The current Civil Service Reform Act came into place to replace the Spoils Personnel System but the personnel practices are still very much like the Spoils Personnel System and it is unfortunate. There are good managers who want to hire the right candidates with the right qualifications for the right positions at the right time to serve but they do need help. I do think an independent internal and external recruitment and staffing panel or board can help agency managers minimize personal biases that have caused all of the corrupted personnel practices that you identified in your article. Managers should make hiring decisions based on recommendations of independent staffing panels. A review of the oversight processes and independent oversight agencies should be done as well. Do we have the right staffing professionals with the right competencies in HR offices? Are they free of influence of managers who do not adhere to Merit System Principles? Federal employees should focus on the positions and duties that they are hired to do free of partisan politics and free of all other irrelevant considerations. By hiring the right candidates with the right qualifications (knowledge, skills and abilities) for the right positions will bring efficiency and effectiveness to the Federal government, help with a smaller Federal workforce but with a high performance Federal workforce, and help reduce litigation costs. Hiring the wrong candidates because of ineffective and spoils systems is costly to the organization and to the Federal government as a whole. I don’t know how we can completely eradicate unfair or corrupted personnel practices but improving our focuses on recruitment, hiring, interviewing, selection, placement, retention and termination should be the primary focus for the reform. Compliance and wanting to do the right thing must come from the heart.


  2. I agree with ‘implementation’ of what exists. If new laws, etc are created, then we will still be dealing with the question of ensuring that what is in place is implemented. Creating something new does not solve the issue. And I will say it again,…. ‘implementation of whatever is created and what should be enforced.’


Comments are closed.