Politics and the Importance of the Civil Service

Note: Updated March 6, 2019 with excerpt from and link to testimony by John Palguta, former Director, Policy and Evaluation, MSPB.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a prominent voice for elimination of the spoils system in federal employment. Mr. Roosevelt served as a member of the Civil Service Commission from 1889 to 1895 and remained an advocate for the career civil service for the remainder of his life.

Mr. Roosevelt believed the spoils system was like a cancer on public life. He once wrote, “The government cannot endure permanently if administered on a spoils basis. If this form of corruption is permitted and encouraged, other forms of corruption will inevitably follow in its train. When a department at Washington, or at a state capitol, or in the city hall in some big town is thronged with place-hunters and office-mongers who seek and dispense patronage from considerations of personal and party greed, the tone of public life is necessarily so lowered that the bribe-taker and the bribe-giver, the blackmailer and the corruptionist, find their places ready prepared for them.”

So why am I writing about a President who has been dead for 110 years? Because some of the actions being taken or proposed in Washington endanger the career civil service that President Roosevelt so tirelessly advocated to expand and preserve. Here are two examples of recent attacks on the career civil service:

  • A 2017 Bill in the House of Representatives called the “Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act” would have eviscerated the career civil service. The core of the proposal said “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any employee in the civil service hired on or after the date that is 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act shall be hired on an at-will basis. Such an employee may be removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.” Most people would agree that public servants should be discharged for “good cause.” How many would argue they should be fired for bad cause or no cause at all? Such a policy would result in a return to the spoils system.
  • The Merit Systems Protection Board, and agency that does exactly what its name says, has no Members. With the expiration of former Board Member Mark Robbins’ term last week, MSPB was left with no members. That means much of the work of the agency is halted. Employee appeals can still be heard by administrative judges, but an agency or employee who wants to petition for review of those decisions has no place to go. MSPB’s Office of Policy and Evaluation will also not be able to publish its studies. It may be able to continue publishing its excellent Issues of Merit newsletter. President Donald Trump has nominated two individuals (Dennis D. Kirk and Julia A. Clark) to serve on the Board (a third nominee withdrew from consideration). There is little disagreement that both nominees are qualified to serve. For now their confirmation is being delayed by Sen. Ron Johnson, Chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who said he would not bring the nominees up for a vote until the president provides a third nominee. Sen. Rand Paul said he believes MSPB is failing and has turned into a job protector for civil servants.

While MSPB can function with only two members, it is best to have all three positions filled to enable tiebreaking. It is clearly in the best interests of the civil service to have a functioning MSPB, so rapid movement to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees would be wise. As for the idea that MSPB is just a job protection agency for federal workers, there are no facts to back it up. In fact, 8 in 10 cases are decided in favor of agencies. Not many people would think that batting .800 or more is bad.

In short, the impact of the extended vacancies has been devastating. MSPB has an extremely important role to play in protecting and enhancing a merit-based civil service system designed to provide the executive branch with a highly qualified and motivated workforce. The current situation has substantially undermined MSPB’s ability to fulfill its statutory mandate to provide due process for federal employees and to protect the public interest in a civil service free of prohibited personnel practices, including actions taken for discriminatory or partisan political purposes.

John M. Palguta, former MSPB Director of Policy and Evaluation, testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Operations on February 28, 2019 

Knowing that there is not a fully functioning MSPB may encourage agencies to take more actions that are not consistent with merit principles. Not having the ability to review issues and provide findings will make necessary improvements less likely to occur. Combine that with proposals like the idea that keeps resurfacing to make federal workers at will employees, and the result is significant damage to the merit-based civil service.

Is the civil service perfect? Of course not. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “There are, of course, defects and shortcomings in the merit system. We do not for a moment pretend that it is perfect. We only assert that it is a great improvement upon the old spoils system, and that as a matter of fact in every instance where it has been tried in good faith it has worked well.”

The career civil service rules need updating for a modern workplace, but returning to a spoils system is the logical outcome of removing or substantially weakening civil service protections. The only interests served by the spoils system are those of politicians. Before the Pendleton Act created the merit-based civil service, wholesale firings resulted from every election, with their replacements hired based on politics rather than merit. That was the problem that the civil service solved, however imperfectly.

As Mr. Roosevelt said, “They can no longer be scrambled for in a struggle as ignoble and brutal as the strife of pirates over plunder; they no longer serve as a vast bribery chest with which to debauch the voters of the country. Those holding them no longer keep their political life by the frail tenure of service to the party boss and the party machine; they stand as American citizens, and are allowed the privilege of earning their own bread without molestation so long as they faithfully serve the public.”

The Federal Government’s Employer Brand is in Trouble

I recently participated in an ACT-IAC panel where we discussed the effects of the recent partial government shutdown. One comment I made is that I believe the government is still a good employer, but its brand as an employer has tainted by the government shutdown. I also talked about the same issue in a recent interview with Louis LaBrecque for Bloomberg Law. Bloomberg’s headline referred to the government’s “tarnished brand.”

The government employer brand has been a bit of a mixed bag for many years. Government is sometimes thought of as stodgy, bureaucratic, and not innovative. The idea that poorly performing federal workers cannot be fired (which is not true) contributes to the image of federal jobs not being the best place for top talent to go.

On the other hand, government has accomplished some amazing things. In July we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Government built the Social Security program, which provides a financial lifeline for millions of elderly citizens. Virtually every agency can provide a list of great accomplishments. The federal government was among the earliest employers to provide equal employment opportunity. It continues to provide countless options for career development for people who are willing to move around. Add to that good pay and benefits and you have an employer brand that should be great. Sadly, it is not. Even students in government-focused degree programs are generally more interested in a career in nongovernment organizations or industry.

The shutdown just added to the list of problems that are harming the government employer brand. Some people may wonder why the government should care if its brand as an employer has been tainted or tarnished. The reason is that the government has to hire people. A lot of them. In fact, they average more than 200,000 hires per year. Our unemployment rate is nearing the level that is considered to be full employment. Companies who want to hire the same people the government wants to hire are paying attention to their employer brand. In fact, in many companies leadership of efforts to improve the employer brand rest with the CEO. Employer branding is one of the chief battlefields in the fight for talent. The government is not well-positioned for that fight. Most of new federal government hires in recent years have been over 30 years of age. As I have said before, the government has to start hiring young people if it wants to have the experienced people it needs in the next five to ten years. That is much harder to do if your employer brand is damaged.

We have all seen organizations with damaged brands. Usually it is because some scandal happened and the organization has to recover. In government the most notable examples were the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data breaches. They generated enormous amounts of bad press and tarnished OPM’s reputation. The ongoing move of background investigations (and the billion dollars and 2,000 staff that go with them) to the Department of Defense is but one consequence of the breaches. The Administration’s proposals to virtually eliminate OPM may not have happened absent the breaches.

When we think of damage to brands, we typically think of challenges such as the data breaches involving Facebook, Marriott, Equifax, and others. Data breaches are not the only way to damage a brand. Examples include the Chipotle Norovirus outbreak and the BP oil spill. Possibly the most famous was the Tylenol tampering case in 1982. Tylenol was a good example corporate actions to recover the brand’s reputation. Usually when we see these types of incidents in the private sector we also see effective crisis management, deliberate steps to mitigate the damage to the brand, and a strategy to recover the brand’s reputation. We also almost always see an apology from one or more senior officers of the company.

How should government leaders act to recover the government’s employer brand? The sad fact is that the people who caused the shutdown are not going to apologize. Whether it is because they fear of loss of power or reputation, or they just will not admit when they are wrong, government is not big on apologies. Most of the complaints I heard following the OPM breaches were that no one ever apologized. There are exceptions, of course. President Obama apologized for the disastrous rollout of the Healthcare.gov website.

The shutdown was such a contentious political issue that neither side is likely to apologize. That does not mean there is nothing that can be done to begin repairing the damage to the brand. One step would be to end shutdowns for good. There are proposals on the Hill to do just that. In addition to ending a stupid practice where no one wins, it would help restore one of the best aspects of the government employer brand — the employment stability that government offers.

Agencies can take steps on their own by putting more time, commitment and resources behind improving the morale and engagement problems we see highlighted in the Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work rankings. It is easy to see who are the leading agencies in government. Good employers know that their own employees are among the best recruiting sources. Those employees are not going to encourage their friends to apply for work in an agency that does not demonstrate that it cares about its employees.

Some of the agencies that rank poorly have a litany of excuses. Managers tell me they would do better if the rules were different. They tell me they would do better if the questions in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey were rewritten. They say the surveys are completed by the unhappy employees and the good employees do not participate. They say they have no money to invest in programs for the workforce. All of those and the many other excuses most of us have heard are simply that — excuses. Agency leaders who are committed to making their agencies better places to work can do it and they will find the resources they need. The fact that so many agencies can consistently receive excellent reviews from their employees when they operate under the same Civil Service rules takes away most of these excuses.

OPM and OMB can also act to repair the brand. OMB can support agency requests for dollars to invest in training and engagement programs. OPM can invest in programs to advertise the benefits of federal employment. They can work on simplifying Civil Service rules that are under their control. The Administration could focus more on rebuilding OPM’s capabilities and less on trying to dismantle the agency. The President’s Management Council can make the employer brand a priority. And all of them could end the virtual ban on most agencies marketing themselves.

If the government employer brand continues to erode, we should expect to see a talent crisis in government. As increasing numbers of employees retire and agencies struggle to replace them, government services are likely to erode as well. And that erosion will not be limited to agencies that were affected by the shutdown. The damage to the brand harms the entire government and the people it serves.

Do we really want to see a Department of Defense that cannot hire the people it needs? Do we want critical health programs to have the same problem? Do we want the Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to hire the health care professionals it needs to serve our Veterans?

Whether you want bigger government, smaller government, or somewhere in between, you probably want DoD to work. You want elderly Americans to get their Social Security checks. You want Veterans to receive the services they earned. And you want safe food and hundreds of additional services the government provides. Those things do not happen if government cannot hire cannot hire the people it needs.