Let’s Thank Public Servants During Public Service Recognition Week by Strengthening the Merit-Based Civil Service

Every year we set aside time to recognize public servants for all that they do. The preceding year has driven home more than ever the need for a career civil service that is free of political interference, fact-based, and hired and retained based on merit.

Think of the last year and what has happened during the pandemic. Two million federal workers kept on working. Half of them reported to their government workspace every day. They took the risks of exposure to the coronavirus so our military would have the services and supplies they need, so air travel could continue within COVID restrictions, and so many other vital services would continue. Postal workers continued to deliver our mail while many of us remained safe at home.

At the same time, the previous administration questioned the intent, capability and integrity of public health officials who were trying to make public health decisions on the best available science. They also attempted to undermine the career civil service with the ill-intentioned Schedule F Executive Order that could have made tens or hundreds of thousands of federal workers little more than political appointees.

If we want to honor our public servants, here are a few things the Biden administration and the Congress should do:

Revitalize OPM. The Congress requested the National Academy of Public Administration conduct a study of the proposed OPM/GSA merger and make recommendations for a way forward. NAPA completed the report and it is full of excellent recommendations for revitalizing OPM. Many of them, such as designating the Director of OPM as the President’s principal human capital advisor, are completely within the control of the Biden administration. Others, such as giving OPM the funding it needs to succeed, require action by Congress. The Executive and Legislative branches should work together to make that a reality.

Restore guardrails to the civil service. One of the strengths of the civil service is the non-political nature of its design. The Hatch Act was designed to make sure it stays non-political. The previous administration ran roughshod over the Hatch Act, and the Obama administration had at least one high-profile Hatch Act violation of its own. While there are arguments that can be made to reform the Hatch Act and allow more free expression by civil servants, at the very least congress should give the Office of Special Counsel authority to independently take action, including removing political appointees who violate the Hatch Act, and banning egregious offenders from ever serving in a federal job. In addition, Congress should enact the bipartisan Preventing a Patronage System Act to eliminate the possibility that a future administration will attempt to enact another Schedule F.

Reduce the number of political appointees and reform the Vacancies Act. I get why administrations like to use political appointees. They get to pick who they want (with some subject to Senate confirmation), they are mostly assured the people they hire will be cooperative with administration goals, and they can easily fire them if they are not. The problem is that there are too many of them in many departments and agencies. Some of them are not well-qualified for their jobs, and their average tenure is so short that they have little time to get anything meaningful done. Replacing a thousand of them with career employees would be a good start. The Trump administration’s willful disregard of the requirements of the Vacancies Act also clearly demonstrated the need to reform that law. What good is the Constitutional requirement for the advice and consent provision of the Constitution if a president can simply assign a stream of unconfirmed political hacks into key jobs. The Constitution clearly did not intend that to happen. The best solution is to reform the vacancies act to require that, in the absence of a Senate confirmed first assistant, acting assignments go to the most senior career executive in the agency or department. Any reform should also include a clear and Constitutionally valid penalty for an administration failing to comply. For example, a reformed Vacancies Act could rescind many legal authorities of the organization whose leader is not assigned consistent with the Vacancies Act. Both parties should have an interest in having appointees who serve based on Constitutional processes and not just based on politics.

Provide a statutory requirement for the independence of science, public health and statistics agencies. We have seen what happens when politicians meddle in public health matters. We have also seen political interference in things as basic as the weather forecasts. The more that happens, the less confidence the American people will have in government. We need a bipartisan commitment to fact-based governance, with statutory prohibitions on political interference in such matters.

Federal workers have spent more than a year doing their work under difficult circumstances. If we truly want to honor them, let’s take the next steps to make certain they are able to continue to do their jobs, be hired and retained based on merit, and are free from political interference from either party. That would make our expressions of gratitude more than meaningless platitudes.

The Future Federal Workplace – What’s Next After the Pandemic?

As vaccine availability increases, the next logical question for many federal workers is “what is work going to look like in the next few months?” And what are the longer term implications?

One thing we have learned from the pandemic is that the naysayers who said telework does not work were wrong. Those folks resisted telework for years, making every argument you can imagine about how telework is completely unworkable. I imagine many of them are preparing their arguments now to insist that every federal worker show up in a government office as soon as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says it is safe.

That mass return to the pre-pandemic status quo is not going to happen. The return is likely to look different depending on the agency and the type of work it does. Some will try to get as many employees back in the office as possible, while others will adopt a hybrid model. I believe the norm for most agencies will be a hybrid, with the degree of in-office time determined by mission requirements (such as direct customer interaction). How those hybrid work arrangements look is likely to evolve as agencies and employees learn what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing in terms of technology, security, work flow, and many additional factors. That means we should not expect the workplace to look like the pandemic-induced stay at home model, nor should we expect it to land in the right place on the first try. A lot of learning is going to be needed to find the right mix.

One question I am hearing is “why not just keep going with maximum telework?” There are a few reasons why that is not likely to work for most agencies. Here are just a few of the considerations that are likely to influence agency decisions.

  1. What is possible is not necessarily what is desirable. The move to maximum telework was a response to a life-or-death crisis. Agencies learned that it is possible to have far more telework than they imagined. That learning is good, and it removes many of the anti-telework arguments from some managers. There are downsides of maximum telework that we can live with in a pandemic, but may not want to have permanently. For example, how do we onboard new employees and give them a sense of being part of the organization? What do we lose when those casual interactions in the office that no longer happen? Much of what happens in a workplace is not in the formal meetings, or when employees are sitting at their desks. It comes from the unplanned interactions that happen every day. Those are not going to happen in the same way, and losing them entirely presents risks.
  2. What happens to the cities? Imagine Washington, DC if half of federal workers are no longer working in the city. Agencies will shrink their office footprint rather than paying rent on empty spaces. Sounds good, right? It may be good for agency budgets, but what happens to the commercial real estate market? What happens to the small businesses that provide service to those facilities? What happens to the restaurants? As the largest employer in some locations, the government may drive down the economies of some cities if it continues the amount of telework that we have experienced since last March.
  3. How do we measure productivity? Some agencies have missions that lend themselves to measuring remote work. The processes and outputs are easily measured, and the agencies will have no trouble determining how productive employees are. Other agencies have work that does not lend itself to easy measurement. Even though most employees are productive at home, as we try to rebuild confidence in government, it will be critical that telework not be viewed as a way for people to get paid for not working.
  4. Do people have to live close to their agency office? This is one of the big questions. If I can telework full time, why would my agency ask me to live nearby? The electrons flowing into and out of my computer work the same whether I am 5 or 5,000 miles away. Even if I am in a different time zone, I can still work the same core hours that everyone else would be required to work. This one is workable for some jobs, but not so much for others. Agencies will need to assess what the real in-person requirements are.
  5. My office is in DC, but I moved to Iowa. Why don’t I get DC locality pay? There are pros and cons of relocating to low-cost areas. Locality pay is intended to reflect to some degree the costs in the area where you work. If you change your work location to a different city, you will benefit from the low costs, but you cannot expect to continue to get paid for working in DC.

It is clear that work and workplaces are going to change. It is also clear that we do not know how that will look and are not likely to have that knowledge soon. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the General Services Administration (GSA) are considering how the federal workplace will look in the future. I expect OPM to issue guidance soon that will help agencies as they evolve their workplaces. The good news is that OPM is being proactive and has an experienced team dealing with the issue.

The anti-government crowd will use increased telework to argue that government employees get paid for staying home all day. It does not matter that it is not true, and that most employees who work from home are at least as productive at home (and some even more productive). The people who do not want anything to change will argue that pandemic driven telework was a limited time necessity and a status quo ante approach is best. People who want maximum telework all the time will argue that we have proven it can work.

I am sure there are folks who want to know now what the future will be. They want OPM to issue guidance today. They want governmentwide policies. And they want everyone to get it right on the first try. I think that is asking too much. The changes the pandemic brought were driven by necessity, and even then it took a while to get to where we are now. We should expect this process to evolve as agencies learn what will and will not work for them. We should expect OPM to give agencies flexibility, within a common set of principles, to adapt their workplaces to the realities they face. I am confident that what we will end up with is a reshaped federal workplace that is far more flexible than it was in the past.