Can the Civil Service be Broken?

A recent Federal News Radio piece by Nicole Ogrysko said “the Agriculture Department is exploring whether it can rehire former employees to return to work for the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to supplement potential workforce gaps this fall.” The gaps are the result of USDA’s plan to move the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City. Both Bureaus are likely to lose more than half of their employees as a result of the move. Given the critical missions of the organizations and the specialized skills of the employees, losses of more than 50 percent would likely result in mission failure.

The outcome of the planned moves should not be surprising. When the government does geographic moves of large numbers of employees, the result is virtually always the same — most of the employees do not go. Some people argue the USDA workers’ refusal to move is because Washington DC is a government town and they don’t want to leave it. The Washington Examiner reported that Office of Management and Budget Director and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said “What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.” Mr. Mulvaney said “Guess what happened? More than half the people quit. Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried. You can’t do it. By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out to the real part of the country,’ and they quit.” Whatever one might think of Mr. Mulvaney’s policy positions, at least he has to get credit for saying what he really believes.

If the only time federal workers declined to move was when their jobs were moved outside of Washington, DC, Mr. Mulvaney’s observation might hold up. However, that is not the case. When the Department of Defense moved large numbers of employees during the Base Realignment and Closure era, large numbers of employees declined moves out of “liberal” areas like the National Capital Region and “conservative” areas like Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Federal workers are not declining jobs because of the politics of the area where they live. They are doing it because they have lives in those locations. They have family and friends, churches, civic organizations, and other ties. Most are in two-income households where packing up and moving is not so easy. And because the government has failed miserably at hiring young people, most federal workers are older and may decide that retirement (early or optional) is a better decision.

The USDA situation raises the question — Can the Civil Service be Broken? Although I used to think the answer is no, I now think the answer is yes. It is not easy, but it is possible to systematically dismantle the components of the career civil service. The Trump Administration may be more actively attempting to weaken the civil service, but it is not the first one to do so.

President Ronald Reagan attempted to freeze federal hiring retroactive to the day he was elected, and to outsource thousands of jobs. Many jobs were outsourced and the Supreme Court ruled that a federal job offer is not a binding contract.

The Clinton Administration weakened the Civil Service by gutting federal Human Resources and Contracting offices. The one thing those two occupations have in common is that they are responsible for carrying out the programs that deliver talent to the government, whether that talent is in the form of federal workers or contractors. Both disciplines are still recovering. The Clinton Administration also outsourced thousands of jobs in an effort to, as they often bragged, “reduce the federal workforce to the lowest level since the Kennedy Administration.”

President George W. Bush attempted to weaken the civil service through MaxHR at the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Personnel System at the Department of Defense, and by continuing to outsource jobs.

Even though President Barack Obama’s administration was generally pro-civil service, President Barack Obama froze federal pay and gave the Presidential Personnel Office what many would consider to be an inappropriate role in management of the Senior Executive Service.

Democrats may be more friendly to the federal workforce, but politicians of both parties seem to always tilt in favor of what they think will get them reelected, and criticizing “unelected bureaucrats” is something they think works. Political appointees of both parties often come into government with the idea that the career civil service is the enemy, because they offer information that might show that proposed policies have been tried and failed, or are not supportable by data.

I have heard people say that relocating employees out of the National Capital Region is just like BRAC in DOD, so what’s the big deal? The difference is that BRAC was specifically designed to be a nonpartisan process. Even more simply put, it was a process. There was extensive data collection. Stakeholders were consulted. Public hearings were conducted. A committee of experts made recommendations. The entire process was transparent, and data-driven, so it had credibility.

Wanted. A government clerkship at a salary of not less than $1,000 per annum. Will give $100 to anyone securing me such a position.

Washington Newspaper Ad, c. 1880s

In the past 40-plus years, presidents and their administrations have chipped away at the foundations of the career civil service. Some have done lasting damage. Each time an administration weakens the civil service, it diminishes confidence in government. There is a real risk that continued moves to weaken the civil service will eventually break it and return us to some degree to the spoils system. In the pre-Pendleton Act government, people were hired solely because of their support for politicians and their financial backers. It was common to see ads in the papers seeking federal jobs. Qualifications were irrelevant. Commitment to the mission of an agency and even to the Constitution were not a concern.

The spoils system that existed before the Pendleton Act established the career civil service was something few Americans would want to see. Imagine a Department of Labor where the Bureau of Labor Statistics is staffed with political sycophants who are beholden to the political leadership for their jobs. Want lower unemployment numbers? Boom! You have them. Want to drive pay down everywhere (not just in government)? No problem, the data on pay levels can be made lower. Imagine a Department of Defense spending billions of our tax dollars to feather the nests of their political patrons.

Some folks might say that is OK, as long as their party is in power. But what happens when their party is out of power? And what happens when tens of thousands of federal managers hired through a spoils system do whatever they want? No president has the ability to monitor all of those people. Corruption was the result prior to the Pendleton Act and it would be the result now.

Some people would argue that the difficulty in firing federal employees makes it necessary to radically change the system. Much of the difficulty in firing federal workers is deliberately designed into the  career civil service. If it is too easy to fire employees, the likelihood of a spoils system increases. Even if there isn’t a real spoils system, employees who fear they will be fired if they do not pander to the political appointees will produce a similar outcome.

If we want a government that works, that functions effectively and makes policy based on facts rather than politics, a strong career civil service is the only alternative that has been proven, both in the U.S. and in other democracies, to get the job done.

From Human Resources to Helpful Robot — How AI May Transform HR

In my last post, I wrote about the idea that Artificial Intelligence (AI) may begin to replace knowledge workers in the federal government. This post addresses some of the ways AI may replace HR in the not-too-distant future. The ideas I am covering are not fantasies or science fiction. They are based on actual technology that is either in use or far along in the development process.

So how might your neighborhood HR Specialist be replaced by AI? And how likely is it to happen? Let’s start with the simpler processes such as proving routine information to employees and job applicants. Many of the calls HR receives are requests for information. Employees and applicants want to know the status of something, or how to do something. This type of call rarely requires in-depth analysis — it just requires someone who understands the question and knows where to find the answer. Chatbots can handle much of this type of work, and their capabilities are advancing rapidly. Here is an example of a chatbot from Amazon Web Services. Services such as these do not rely on a user picking from a list of options, then from another list, then another, until the user eventually gets to an answer or to someone who can help. They rely on natural language, so the caller can ask the question in the same manner s/he would with a human HR Specialist.

Another part of HR that lends itself to AI is benefits. The largest numbers of interactions between employees and HR are for benefits. Workers want to sign up for health insurance, change to a different insurance plan, ask for retirement estimates, file an injury compensation claim, or perform some other benefits related task. In much of the private sector and in some agencies, the bulk of human interaction of benefits work is performed in call centers. In the past 20 years, much of the rest of it has moved to employee self-service. When we combine emerging natural language generation capabilities of AI with the trend toward employee self-service and centralization of benefits work, it is easy to see how the benefits counselor of the future will have silicon rather than flesh.

Another aspect of HR is compliance. The traditional approach to compliance is laborious audits that consume resources and offer little return when the agency is following the rules. AI will eliminate much of that work by analyzing data for transactions that do not comply with established norms. That type of analysis will also help agencies to identify issues with policies, decision-making, and other aspects of agency people programs.

Much of what is left in HR revolves around establishing and filling jobs. The fields of staffing and position classification have been the focus of much of the process automation in HR for many years. What has happened in those areas is not Artificial Intelligence. In fact, I would argue that it has been closer to artificial stupidity. The technology we have used to classify jobs and fill them did not relieve HR Specialists of mundane tasks and allow them to focus on providing great customer service. What actually happened was an over reliance on technology that was not intelligent, combined with poor training for HR Specialists, that resulted in barely functional HR processes. Let’s take a look at each of those and see what happened, and where AI could help solve the problems.

Position classification is one of the processes that has been subject to automation for about 30 years. Because the classification process was cumbersome, required significant expertise, and often resulted in managers and employees not getting the grade levels they wanted, there was a move to automate the process. The products that were produced did not automate anything. They dumbed down the process so position classification devolved into a process of selecting the right set of words from existing job descriptions and classification standards to match a grade and job series a manager wanted. To make the process easier, HR moved to more and more generic job descriptions (more on those later). The process gave the illusion of savings, but did not really save anything. We may have eliminated some Position Classification Specialists, but every dollar we saved by getting rid of them was spent many times over in over-graded jobs, hiring processes that were broken because they were based upon generic job descriptions that did not produce the right talent, and other similar problems.

Hiring is another area that was automated poorly. What we see in most systems in use in the government (such as USAStaffing) is not artificial intelligence. We replaced cumbersome Knowledge, Skill and Ability essays with poorly designed applicant questionnaires that do not identify the good applicants, even if we can get them to apply. HR Specialists use canned questionnaires over and over, including garbage filler questions that make it far less likely that the best applicants will show up on a referral listing. This is one of the areas where AI has the opportunity to truly transform the process. Many years ago, the Department of Defense, NASA and some other agencies used a system called Resumix. The idea behind Resumix was great — the system would scan résumés for the knowledge, skills and abilities that were necessary for the vacant job. The problem was that the technology did not exist at the time for that to work. The result was that HR, after years of telling people they did not simply look for keywords in applications, deployed a system that looked for keywords. Resumix did not find a wide market and eventually was discontinued.

We are now arriving at a level of AI that can make the idea of the early products a reality. Within a few years, we are likely to see a rapid growth in use of AI to read résumés and do the screening that needs to be done. Such a move would replace the self-assessment questionnaires that have proven to be so unreliable. I believe the transformation will go far beyond HR replacing one tool with another. Instead, I expect to see these tools made available directly to hiring managers. When so much of the process can be automated, why do we need an HR Specialist in the middle of the process? Why not allow managers to write and classify job descriptions, then fill the jobs? Moving beyond simple screening of the application, we should expect to see other parts of the process, such as interviewing, on boarding and initial training, automated as well.

If that happens, what is left of HR? Is it just the Helpful Robot, with only a handful of people left to advise on matters such as labor relations and disciplinary actions? I think the answer is no, it can still be far more than that. HR professionals have said for years that they want to be trusted advisers. At the same time, they undermined that objective by providing substandard services that made them anything but trusted. There is a role for HR in hiring, but it is probably going to be filled by experienced recruiters who can help hiring managers find the talent they need, rather than the stop sign waving bureaucrat who says no to everything and runs a process that cannot separate the good applicants from the bad. There is probably a role for someone who understands how organizations work and how they can be structured to get results. There is a role for the training professional who understands what kind of skills workers need, how adults learn, and how an organization can ensure that its people maintain the skills they need to succeed.

I believe the AI-enabled HR office can finally achieve the goal of being a trusted and needed part of every agency. The biggest risk is not that the technology will not work, it is that fear of risks will cause agencies to take timid baby steps, or that the defenders of the status quo will fight tooth and nail to preserve what we have now. My next post on AI will address the steps I believe we need to take to ensure that the future wins and the naysayers do not.