Civil service continually gets the shaft

According to the General Accounting Office, the civil service is a work in progress, with an emphasis on progress.

In fact, in recent congressional testimony, GAO boldly asserted that "the civil service has never stood still." I suspect that there are some folks who might take issue with that comment.

According to testimony by L. Nye Stevens, planning and reporting director in the Office of the Assistant Comptroller General, civil service reform is a steady continuum dating back to enactment of the first federal retirement plan in 1920. The Civil Service Reform Act, according to Nye, was just another instance of Congress' "continuing efforts to create a professional, well-managed federal work force in keeping with modern employment practices."

But I find very few indicators that support this assertion. One of the hallmarks of a capitalist society is the pursuit of capital. Such an opportunity appears to be absent from the federal work environment.

Congress seems to have done everything it could to stifle the human inclination to seek rewards for work well done. For example, the way Congress has handled the issue of federal pay is shameful.

As long as Congress and the executive branch expect feds to work for a pittance, you will never see a federal government work environment that even remotely resembles the private sector. All the best and the brightest will invariably seek greener pastures, leaving only the mediocre attracted to the supposed "security" provided by the civil service.

To its credit, GAO has acknowledged that the merit pay system is a failure and that the establishment of the Senior Executive Service has not lived up to expectations. GAO also admitted that the issue of poor performance "remains a frustration."

So far, so good. But then GAO put its foot in its mouth when it hailed the National Performance Review as a remedy for many of the civil service's failings. Congress really doesn't want to hear about the NPR because it is a creature of the executive branch—not to mention that most of the NPR recommendations are goofy and will never see the light of day.

The civil service needs to become "more flexible in response to a changing environment," according to GAO's Stevens. Yes, but how?

GAO said changing social, economic and technological conditions call for changes in the way people are managed. These conditions challenge the government's human resources people to find that new management strategy, including following private-sector practices.

GAO conducted a symposium last spring during which it reviewed private-sector personnel management practices. GAO concluded the following:

In today's high-performing organizations, people are valued as assets rather than as costs.

The organizational mission, vision and culture should be emphasized over rules and regulation.

Managers should be given the latitude to manage their people flexibly and creatively so they can focus on results and be held accountable for outcomes.

These may be GAO's conclusions of how to apply "lessons learned" from the private sector to the government, but I don't see much application.

I hear that instead of setting—and adhering to—high standards for performance and personal behavior, the government plans to opt for a pass/fail performance management system that can only breed mediocrity.

As far as the NPR notion that the government can scrap a lot of its work rules, I don't think this will work either. The federal government is too big a bureaucracy to be able to function without prescriptive rules.

As far as holding federal workers accountable for outcomes, this seems like ivory-tower talk. Emphasizing results instead of doing things by the book can be disastrous in an environment as unwieldy as the federal bureaucracy.

For example, if I call the phone company and say there's an erroneous call on my bill, a customer service rep can delete the charge for that call from my bill right on the spot.

Try running the government that way, and you'll have chaos because there is no personal accountability. Screw up, and nothing will happen to you.

Given this reality, you must have rules and regulations. It's the only way to control the work force.

Everybody keeps citing the private sector as the model the government should use, but no one wants to pay what the private sector pays, nor does anyone want to discipline employees the way the private sector does, so the comparison falls apart.

GAO says that if Congress decides to allow greater flexibility in tailoring personnel systems, congressional guidance and oversight will grow in importance.

How? I can't think of anything less effective than congressional oversight. It sounds like GAO hasn't the foggiest idea what civil service reform should consist of, which may be a blessing in disguise because tinkering can only make it worse.

Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week. You can read Bureaucratus on FCW's Web page at "" or send e-mail to


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