House explores workforce transformation

"GAO testimony on Transforming Government to Meet Current and Emerging Challenges"

House lawmakers interested in federal workforce reforms debated for two hours yesterday about how to make a 125-year-old civil service employment system operate more like a modern business organization.

Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), who presided over yesterday’s hearing, said he is pessimistic about getting a deeply divided Congress to support fundamental changes in how the government manages its business.

But Porter, who is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee’s Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee, said he and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee’s chairman, will introduce legislation today that would create a results commission to examine federal agencies’ effectiveness. Porter said the federal government would work better if its employees had more of an entrepreneurial spirit. That means feeling a sense of ownership in the business of government and a strong commitment to customer service, he said.

But panelist David Walker, U.S. comptroller general, said lawmakers have more fundamental reasons for considering legislation to change government operations.

Because of a large and long-term financial deficit, Walker said, “we are on an unsustainable path.” The federal government can no longer afford to adhere to entitlement, spending and tax policies created in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

Walker said the federal government, like every business, needs a strategic plan. “The Office of Management and Budget should be tasked to do a strategic plan,” he said.

Another panelist, Maurice McTigue, a distinguished visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, told lawmakers that they need to communicate a clearer vision of results they expect when they appropriate funds.

He suggested that lawmakers require agencies to spend appropriations to obtain a specific result. For example, when lawmakers appropriate money to the Agriculture Department’s Food Stamp Program, they could require department officials to use the money to reduce hunger, say, 10 percent in the year in which that money is appropriated.

The panelist who drew the most attention was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who offered numerous practical suggestions to the subcommittee about how a federal workforce revolution could be achieved, even in a partisan and ideologically divided Congress.

To avoid partisan tangles, he advised Republican leaders to identify five or 10 bills that Democratic lawmakers have introduced that would move the federal government “in the direction you want to go” and pass them as freestanding bills.

Noting his record as “a fairly aggressive partisan for much of my life,” Gingrich said passing those Democratic bills would soften partisan feelings and create better conditions for bipartisan agreement on fundamental management and work force changes.

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