A bipartisan opportunity for a better federal government
When a sharply divided Congress convenes in January amid signs of rancor and gridlock, the opportunity for major legislative accomplishments may appear slim. Yet Congress can use this moment to make meaningful bipartisan progress on an issue that normally flies under the radar — the health of the nonpartisan, professional civil service.
The federal workforce, comprised of 2 million individuals who live and work in communities all across the nation, is responsible for everything from ensuring our national security and protecting public health to providing critical social services, responding to natural disasters, caring for veterans and strengthening the economy.
Members of Congress have differing views on the size and role of government, but there is broad agreement that the public deserves excellence and efficiency in the services delivered by federal employees.
Providing support for the federal workforce should be an area where the political parties, even in these divisive times, can find common ground. This includes taking steps to bring more young people into government to reinvigorate the workforce with new skills and ways of thinking; providing leadership training so employees and federal programs can be better managed as well as requiring broader experience for senior career leaders; dealing more effectively with poor performers; improving customer service; and investing in technology to create more efficient government operations.
When it comes to talent, like the private sector, the government is on its heels after nearly three years of fighting the pandemic, coping with the “Great Resignation” and economic challenges, and the dealing with seismic changes in the world of work. All this uncertainty comes atop the longer-standing and alarming trend of a rapidly aging federal workforce and the government’s competition with the private sector for talent.
Currently, for example, only about 7 percent of the full-time nonseasonal permanent federal workforce is under 30 years of age, compared to almost 20 percent in the broader U.S. labor force. In addition, over 30 percent of all government employees are eligible for retirement within the next three years.
Among other things, Congress could build stronger entry-level talent pipelines by ensuring that internships are paid, by easing the ability of agencies to convert effective interns into full-time employees, and by expanding expedited hiring authorities Congress recently created for students and recent college graduates.
Another noncontroversial issue centers on leadership training, a key to developing highly competent managers who can effectively carry out governmental policies and be responsible for the organizational health of their agencies.
Congress should require leadership training and performance standards for career leaders as well as political appointees to help ensure they can best meet their agency’s mission and serve as true stewards of the public trust. In addition, it should require that those elevated to the Senior Executive Service, the highest professional level for career employees, have experience working in multiple agencies, sectors or levels of government.
One contentious issue over the years has been dealing with workers who do not meet the expectations of the job, with the annual survey of federal employees finding that only 42 percent of employees believe that steps are taken in their work unit to deal with poor performers who cannot or will not improve.
This problem can be addressed by ensuring agencies make effective use of the probationary period for employees, during which an agency decides whether an individual is the right fit for the job. Too often, the probationary period passes without a clearly articulated, documented decision on the employee’s performance. Congress should require that supervisors affirmatively determine that the employees meet the required standards, and if they do not, termination proceedings would follow.
Building a modern, customer-focused government also should be high on the reform agenda, with many government services, processes and systems difficult to use. While some agencies have improved their services, Congress should support technology modernization and building a customer-focused workforce across all of government.
This could involve making it easier for agencies to acquire and use emerging technologies; securely collect, share and use data; and ensure federal programs and services offered to the public are reliable, accessible and easy to use for all.
An additional issue involves reducing the number of political appointees subject to Senate confirmation, which currently number about 1,200 positions. The complexity of the appointment process makes it difficult for any president to get a full team in place quickly, and this hampers the functioning of federal agencies that must cope with leadership voids for long periods of time.
A smaller corps of politically appointed officials, supported by career employees, will promote professional expertise, stability and greater accountability to Congress and the public.
These steps will not grab headlines, but they present an important opportunity for Congress, on a bipartisan basis, to make constructive changes that will enable our federal agencies and employees to serve the public more effectively, and in the process, build faith and trust in our government.
Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to building a better government and a stronger democracy.