Civil service is stuck in the mid-20th century

Civil service is stuck in the mid-20th century
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News of scientific marvels come daily: the prospect of tourists in space, cars that drive themselves, watches as medical devices, drones informing emergency response and more. The future is here and it is resulting in rapid change in almost every aspect of American life.

We say almost because one area that is struggling to adapt is the federal civil service, the means by which our national government recruits and manages the workforce it needs to serve 21st-century America.

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In 1949 when the federal government established its current pay and job classification system, civil servants were engaged in mostly clerical and administrative work earning between $2,200 and $14,000 a year, television was in its infancy, the internet had not been invented and Studebakers were rolling off the assembly lines.

In 1978, Congress and the Carter administration worked together to pass the Civil Service Reform Act, the last major civil service change that created the Office of Personnel Management and the Senior Executive Service, established the merit system principles and addressed employee appeal rights and labor relations. 

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the civil service law this month, the time has come to overhaul the government’s outmoded and broken federal personnel system that does not reflect the changes in the nature of work or the expanded responsibilities of our government. 

The American public expects the federal government to effectively handle a wide array of difficult domestic and international challenges, to provide high quality services and to use taxpayer dollars wisely.

This requires good management and the best talent available in science, technology, data analysis, engineering, finance, health care and other critical professions.

But rather than contributing to effective government, the outdated civil service system has made it difficult to attract the expertise needed to drive innovation.

The hiring process is slow and complex. It takes an average of 106 days to hire a government worker, more than twice as long as in the private sector, and this discourages top-flight applicants.

The nearly 70-year-old pay and job classification system is completely disconnected from the broader labor market, failing to account for the skills, market demand and pay scales of different occupations as occurs in the private sector. 

Exceptional work is infrequently recognized and leadership training, development and accountability is sorely lacking. There also is a growing generation gap, with young people turning away from public service in part because of poor recruiting and the obstacles getting hired.

Today, only 6 percent of permanent, full-time federal employees are under the age of 30 compared to 24 percent in the private sector. 

The opportunity to serve the American people as a public employee is a noble calling and offers compelling advantages that few other employers can claim, but the government will continue to struggle to recruit and retain the talent it needs as long as the personnel system is stuck in the last century. 

True modernization of the civil service is possible and occurring in hidden corners of government. But meaningful reform will not come from incremental changes. It requires bold action that includes retaining the merit system principles and a commitment to value and develop often disparaged, but generally committed, high-performing employees. 

In 2019, Congress and the White House should work to improve the civil service, and in doing so, the management and the operations of the government. Such an outcome will serve the national interest regardless of whether one favors bigger or smaller government. The priorities for our leaders should include:

  • Fixing the arcane hiring process so that highly skilled, eager-to-serve individuals can be brought in faster, while also encouraging the use of internships to test young talent and extend job offers to those who excel.
  • Creating an occupation-specific, market-sensitive compensation system that will attract and retain employees with the skills needed to better serve the public. We shouldn’t be compensating nuclear physicists on the same pay scale as physical therapists. 
  • Treating high quality management as a priority, including making mandatory investments in training executives and continually assessing their capabilities.
  • Developing better systems and incentives to reward great performance by employees and managers, and to hold poor performers accountable. 

No successful organization is operating today with the same rules as it did 40 years ago, let alone in 1949. The civil service revisions of 1978 were enacted because President Jimmy Carter and both political parties in Congress worked toward a common goal of creating a more effective government.

Although reaching consensus today will not be easy in the current polarized environment, the goal should be the same as it was four decades ago: enhancing the ability of our government to best serve the needs of the American people.

Max Stier is the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization seeking that seeks to transform how the government works. Thomas W. Ross is the president of The Volcker Alliance, a nonpartisan organization that advances effective management of government to achieve results that matter to citizens.