NAPA report calls for overhaul of civil service system

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Reforming the civil service system has become an increasingly hot topic inside think tanks and certain congressional offices. Most proposals to fix the system center on reforming the protracted and often-frustrating federal hiring process.

A recent report produced by the congressional chartered National Academy of Public Administration, however, takes the case for reform much further. “The federal government’s human capital system is fundamentally broken,” NAPA argues.

“This is not the time for modest, incremental tinkering,” the report states. “The current system’s breakdown is irremediable, to the point that any agency that can escape the system’s shackles has done so.”

The report cites the breaches at the Office of Personnel Management and the Internal Revenue Service as real-world examples of the system’s failure to recruit and retain staff with the necessary cybersecurity skills. It also points to the dearth of medical professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the massive disability claims backlog at the Social Security Administration and difficulties in hiring federal law enforcement officers as further evidence of a broken system.

Despite the cynical assessment, however, the report’s authors and former federal officials insist the problem is both solvable and necessary.

To overhaul the current system, NAPA eschews a “one-size-fits-all” solution, opting instead for a federated human capital system that caters to individual agencies based on three principles: focusing on how to best achieve their missions, promoting the merit-system values and redefining accountability based on meeting citizens’ needs.

The last major bipartisan civil service reform effort, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, “did a relatively good job,” said NAPA President and CEO Emeritus Dan Blair, but it created an “alphabet soup of civil service agencies” and is long overdue for reform.

The 40-year-old law has “had a midlife crisis now for at least 20 years,” he said.

Don Kettl, a professor and former dean in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, emphasized the importance of finding what works best for individual agencies and allowing mission to drive the personnel practices. Unilateral solutions are “bound for failure” in the 21st century, he said.

Prioritizing the merit system will protect against arbitrary or ideologically driven action against the workforce, and ensure nonpartisan service from qualified federal employees, Kettl said.

The perception outside the Beltway that federal employees are not held accountable, Blair said, makes it clear that real accountability entails focusing on results, not the number of employees fired.

“The obsession with firing federal employees has gone overboard,” he said.

Since gaining landmark fast firing and discipline authority, VA has highlighted its new workforce powers by posting an online adverse action report, which has received pushback from union representatives.

Although the NAPA report stresses the importance of a federated civil service system, Blair said that “orchestrating this federated system requires structure.”

Blair, who served as OPM deputy director during the George W. Bush administration, said he’d like to see an independent agency as an oversight entity to protect against politicization and disruption across transitions between administrations.

Whether it’s a revised OPM or a new entity, Kettl said the central entity could, at least at first, comprise as few as 20 members, but it would need substantive commitment from Congress or the White House to get off the ground.

On the congressional side, Blair acknowledged that “getting reform legislation of this magnitude through Congress is very difficult,” but noted individual members could take up the mantle.

On the Senate side, he pointed to the workforce reform efforts of Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management 

On the House side, while civil service reform was of consistent interest to former Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Blair noted he hasn’t “seen an appetite yet from Chairman [Trey] Gowdy (R-S.C.) to take on something like this.”

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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Reader comments

Fri, Jul 21, 2017 Bill Harshaw Reston, VA

I think I understand where this is coming from. But I've a couple reservations: 1 A "federalized" personnel system likely means that Congressional committees will exert even greater influence over their agencies, tweaking their systems to serve their constituents. Suppose the Ag committee required 75 percent of new USDA hires to be from rural areas? 2 Given the perfect record in the 21st century of vigorous Congressional oversight, you're opening the doors for most executive branch abuses of authority. See the current EPA for an example of what's possible within today's rules.

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