How does civil service efficiency square with agency reorgs?

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Current and former longtime government employees expressed excitement about reforming the civil service, embracing technology and shared service to cut costs, but have reservations about productivity gains from budget cuts and shrinking government.

At the annual fall meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration Nov. 16, Don Kettl, professor and former dean in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, stressed the need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to federal hiring.

"There's almost nobody who's an enthusiastic supporter of the current civil service system," he said, adding that it "attempts to be a one-size-fits-all that doesn't work for anybody."

Agencies need to move away from compliance as a basis for holding employees accountable to assessing outcomes, he said.

That's where technology and the expansion of shared services can fit in, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy Anita Blair.

However, in government, she noted, "technology is kind of a blessing and a curse because "it creates a lot of hunger for the kind of customization, flexibility, creativity that we get as soon as we go home and log on to our own computer" that government can't replicate.

The expansion of shared services is a priority in the Trump administration's management and IT modernization agenda. Kettl said he believes shared services present a "tremendous opportunity" when it comes to improving data management, cybersecurity, employee accountability, cost savings and "tech services of all kinds."

However, Ron Sanders, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, cautioned that "shared services is a somewhat dangerous slippery slope because it almost implicitly suggests uniformity."

To that end, Sanders, a veteran of the Pentagon, IRS and the intelligence community, argued agencies "ought to be demanding more customization from the shared service providers" that match their individual missions, rather than accepting a standard alternative.

When it comes to modernization, the steep cuts to civilian agencies proposed by the Trump administration, and uncertainties surrounding their funding, could undermine those efforts.

Sanders said that while some the budget cuts proposed by the White House are "draconian," he added that funding constraints can also force agencies to carry out internal reforms.

However, given the uncertainty, Kettl said, "it's difficult to figure out what [the administration's] hiring strategies are and where the agencies want to go."

"The problem is the uncertainty will swamp whatever productivity gains are possible," he said, adding that government needs talented people in critical positions to effectively carry out citizens' needs.

"Make no mistake about it.... There is a broad national effort to unravel government size and health," he added. "It's big, it's important, it's underway and it's something we need to grapple with," he said. "If we allow the threads one at a time to be pulled out without thinking of where we're going, we run the risk of not having any fabric left."

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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