The Civil Service is Becoming Fractured. Should We Care?

When most people who know something about government think of the federal civil service, they think of workers covered by the General Schedule and Title 5 of the United Sates Code. Proposals for reform typically have that population in mind. Traditionally, most knowledgeable folks thought fracturing the workforce into different hiring, classification and pay systems, or “Balkanizing” the federal workforce is a bad idea.

Fragmentation is Nothing New

I am not so sure that fracturing is a bad idea. Let’s start with getting the idea of a homogeneous civil service out of our heads. It is not, and has not been for many years. Here are a few numbers:

Nonpostal federal employment 2,075,006
    GS/GM/GL 1,430,297
    Prevailing Rate (Blue Collar) 187,250
    White Collar Non-GS 416,935
    GS Equivalent 40,123

It is apparent that only 3/4 of the federal workforce are in a GS or equivalent plan. That is not a new development. Although we have seen moves to pay banding in some agencies and occupations, most of those pay bands are based on the General Schedule and the number is not a large as people typically think it is. The blue collar workforce is actually much smaller than in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s there were more than 450,000 blue collar employees in a workforce of 1.9 million. So – from the perspective of pay and classification rules, the federal workforce is no more segmented today than it was 60 years ago. The segments are different and there may be more of them, but the big block of GS employees is close to the same number.

Another way of looking at it is the hiring/firing authorities. There is a bit more variation here:

Permanent Appointments # of Employees
Career/Career Conditional 1,381,112
Excepted Service Schedule A 56,620
Excepted Service Schedule B 4,192
Excepted Service Schedule D 9,216
Excepted Service – Executive 27
Excepted Service ­– Other 449,179
Senior Executive Service – Career 7,162
Senior Executive Service – Noncareer 570

That big block of “Other” excepted service employees will probably draw your attention. Almost half are in the Department of Veterans Affairs (222,913). Another 53,000 are in the Department of Defense (many in reserve technician jobs) and another 63,143 are in Homeland Security. Over 61,000 of the DHS employees are in the Transportation Security Administration.

The various types of appointing authorities cover a wide range of classification and pay systems. Many are GS, but others are not. Examples of the non-GS employees include medical personnel in VA and Transportation Security Officers in TSA.

Why Do Agencies Want Their Own Classification, Pay or Hiring Rules?

Most agencies do not put considerable time and effort into efforts to get their own authorities just to be different. They are trying to solve legitimate problems that get in the way of accomplishing their missions. Here are three examples of the most common problems they encounter:

  • Inability to hire needed talent. When agencies consistently have difficulties with getting talent on board, they look for solutions. The most common of those is direct hire authority. For many agencies, direct hire is the holy grail of reform. They see it as the solution to many of their problems, with veteran preference being the biggest one. In fact, if veteran preference did not exist in its current form, there would be little benefit to direct hire authority. The sad fact is that direct hire is not a panacea. It is a great solution to a small set of problems, but it does nothing to address other issues that may contribute more to agency hiring woes. One observation from many policy folks at the Office of Personnel Management is that agencies that are able to get direct hire authority frequently make little use of it. That is because the problem they are trying to solve is not helped at all by direct hire.
  • Pay. When agencies look for alternative classification and pay systems, they are trying to find ways to compete for talent in a labor market where government pay is not adequate to attract talent. In some cases the problem is pay for full-performance level employees, while at other times it is entry-level pay. The GS system is not flexible enough to deal with pay disparities. Pay many also lead to retention problems due to the GS being so rigid once someone is on board.
  • Rewards. The inability to adequately recognize good or great performance, and to avoid pay increases for poor performers, drives some hiring, retention and morale problems.

Why Have a Single Civil Service System?

There are many arguments supporting the idea of a single civil service system that applies to every agency. Chief among them are the need to have a set of common rules that enables movement from one agency to another, and the need to make the civil service more understandable to the talent that government needs to hire. A 2014 Partnership for Public Service report described the need this way:

Unlike the private sector, the government’s success is judged by how it serves the broader public interest, promotes the general social welfare and protects society and its citizens. The federal government also aspires to be a model employer and an example for others, with a long and respected tradition of placing a high value on merit, nonpartisan independence, preference for our veterans, equal employment opportunity and nondiscrimination, due process and collective bargaining.

A modernized civil service system should continue to be based on these long-held principles. It should have the consistent policies and procedures and level playing field that are characteristics of a single enterprise, but also be flexible and adaptive enough to accommodate the wide variety of agency missions, cultures and constituents. 

Can we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

I understand the interest in a single civil service system, but the truth is that we have not had a single civil service system for decades. Whether based on classification and pay, hiring and retention practices, or other characteristics, the civil service is already fractured. Agencies that have their own rules are unlikely to have an interest in moving to a new government wide approach. More significantly, it may not be in their interest, or that of the taxpayers, to do so.

We can view the federal government as a single enterprise and still accept that it has so many varying missions that a single set of civil service rules is not realistic. Can we use the same rules to hire physicians, cybersecurity experts, contract specialists, clerks, budget analysts, housing policy experts, economists, electricians, and any other of the 400 hundred or so occupations in the federal government? Does the Department of Defense have the same needs as the Department of Education? Or Homeland Security? Or the National Weather Service?

I think the answer is no. The missions and occupations and the talent for which they compete are so varied that one set of hiring, classification and pay rules simply does not work. It is either so complex that no one can understand it, or it is so general that it meets the needs of no one.

If we accept that we need different rules to compete for talent, the real question should be whether the variations in rules should be driven by the organization or by the occupation. Should Defense have one set of rules and HUD another? Or should everyone use the same set of rules for cybersecurity jobs, and another set for administrative occupations? I believe the answer is that the rules should be driven by the competition for talent. That would lead to rules based on the type of job rather than the agency.

The reason I believe that to be true is that the very arguments agencies use to defend requests for agency-specific rules are almost always based on the jobs. Large agencies such as Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security have so many occupations that they would be unable to apply a single set of rules to everyone without encountering the same problems we have today. If every agency gets to do what it wants for every occupation, the result would be far more fragmented than anything we see today.

If we want to solve this problem, we should accept that fracturing has already occurred, and that it is going to continue. Once we accept that reality, we can move forward with doing it in a more deliberate and less ad hoc manner. As for the argument that the civil service should have the characteristics of a single enterprise, that can be addressed by retaining a few core ideas that would apply to every federal worker, regardless of agency or occupation. Those ideas  – merit based hiring and retention, an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, and a nonpolitical civil service – are neither new nor radical.

For Real HR Transformation, Begin With the Customer

It is no secret that the HR community is not typically viewed as the leader in customer service. Inadequate resources devoted to training HR specialists and a focus more on compliance than customer service are generally accepted as chief causes of the problem. We should add to that list the shared systems and services that simply replicate rather than transform the problematic systems and service delivery models they replace.

A new ICF survey of federal workers – Federal Digital 2018 Trends: Landing the Next Moonshot – highlights three critical challenges that the federal government must prioritize to achieve the digital transformation that is required. The survey results are not limited to HR, but my focus for this post is on how the findings relate to delivering HR services. One encouraging finding is that 78% of respondents believe government will succeed with digital transformation.

That success will not be without challenges. Getting it right will require that government:

  1. Create a culture of innovation that supports iterative, ongoing progress,
  2. Prioritize the citizen experience, and
  3. Implement an integrated approach to digital transformation

The challenge that I believe is most critical for HR is the citizen/customer experience. An HR organization that is viewed as providing great customer service is not the norm. As we move to a new generation of HR systems and to service delivery models that include more shared services, we have a perfect opportunity to get it right. Designing those systems and service delivery models around the customer is essential. In fact, the survey showed that 92% of respondents say agencies should focus on user experience vs. technology development.

The generation of large scale HR systems we use today was developed with much more of an inward focus. HR practitioners laying out requirements tended to focus more on what HR needed than what customers needed and wanted. The customer base of HR – primarily agency employees and job applicants – were left out of design considerations. In many respects the same thing applies to how HR services are delivered. HR organizations have been designed to facilitate the internal flow of work, and with a focus more on what HR needs than what the customers need. The hiring process is a great example of the disconnect.

Hiring processes are driven in large part by OPM regulations, but that does not mean an agency has to torment the customer who wants to apply for or fill a job. The systems that applicants use could be far more accessible in terms of ease of use and functionality. The HR organizations that deliver those services can also be more accessible and far more focused on delivering a great citizen/customer experience. My fear is that we will see a move from today’s legacy systems and HR offices to a new generation of technology and shared services that are no more customer-centric than what we have today. Rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to achieve real transformation, we will get no more than a technology upgrade and reshuffled HR organizations, with no real understanding of how customers are affected. We may see some attention paid to the user experience with the technology, but not on the overall customer experience with the HR organization and its people and processes.

HR is an ideal line of business to focus on a more inclusive customer experience approach rather than isolated pieces of technology and work processes. We should be asking what customers need and what they think. We should develop an organizational culture in HR that rewards customer-centric approaches, and we should engage in “journey mapping” to help HR practitioners walk in their customers’ shoes. If we do that, we may find we can create a next generation of HR service providers that can help customers in ways we would never see today.

We should also not forget that HR already plays a critical part in helping agencies implement new technology, processes and organizations. They do that by facilitating the hiring and development of the talent agencies need. Unfortunately, HR is not always considered the valued partner that it should be. The survey showed that only 17% of respondents said HR would be among the most likely to provide useful input. That means that the need for HR transformation is even more critical. Without it, agencies may not be able to recruit, develop and retain the talent they need.

When I was hired as HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we had a similar problem. The agency was beginning a billion-dollar modernization program, but agency leaders had no confidence that the HR organization could deliver. In fact, the task of leading the training required to implement the new technology and processes was given to the agency’s logistics operations organization. After we implemented sweeping changes in HR, including a move to a far more customer-centric approach to delivering HR services, the work was moved to the HR organization.

HR can transform itself into the vital player it needs to be, but it will require a very different approach that balances technology, human-centered design, change management, stakeholder engagement, and deep analytics to understand the needs of customers in and out of government.