Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) has served in Congress for almost 24 years and is well known for his efforts on behalf of federal employees and military retirees. Moran, who has announced he will retire from Congress at the end of this term, spoke about the government workforce with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. Do you think federal employees get a fair shake in the public arena?
A. Well, I’m certainly proud of having stood up for the federal workforce because I think that it gets scapegoated. Federal workers are subject to bullying because they can’t fight back, and too often their elected folks have not necessarily defended them as strongly as I think they should have. We have a terrific civil service. It’s not perfect, but you can’t find another large civil service in the world that is as uncorrupt and as effective and responsible as ours.
Q. You have been on the record about the need for civil service reform. Given the current environment, what would need to happen for significant reform to move forward?
A. The president and the directors of the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget need to propose it. You have to assign people who know what they’re doing. They would have to come up to Capitol Hill and explain it to members on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That committee would probably be sufficient to carry it, if you could get beyond all the partisanship. Notwithstanding that we’ve a lot of anti-government sentiment right now, I think the time is right to move forward. It should be nonpartisan, but we have to work with the unions so that they don’t see it as a direct affront to their desire to protect their members.
Q. What are the changes you think need to be made with the Senior Executive Service, the government’s career leadership corps?
A. I don’t think the SES has been properly acknowledged or rewarded—incentivized, we should say. The SES was designed to be the instrument of reform. You need top managers to move around in the government so that they can share best practices. It hasn’t worked that way. I’ve listened to the SES folks and their advocates, and they feel they are being punished if they actually move from one agency to another agency. The SES was designed to do that kind of thing, to move people around so they wouldn’t become calcified in their positions.
Q. What are the obstacles to getting great talent into government?
A. Have you ever heard of anybody that actually got a job through USAJOBS.gov? The problem is not a new one. The people who write these qualifications are removed from the people who need the qualified person, so they don’t really care. They have some manual, I suppose, or they go to human resource conferences and they write these things down. There is virtually no human judgment as far as I’m concerned.
Q. There is a widespread perception that federal managers do not have the flexibility to get the talent they need. Is that an issue of concern?
A. It’s hard to make room for new talent by moving employees who can’t take the pressure, who don’t have the experience, aren’t willing to acquire the skills or don’t have the technical background to do the job that they’re in. You don’t necessarily want to fire them and yet you can’t move them. We hear about that in corporations, but you fix it in corporations because their revenue goes down, their profit margin is squeezed and eventually they go bankrupt or get acquired and then somebody takes a sledge-hammer to the whole organization.
We need to be able to take a scalpel to some of these agencies and we can’t. I know my good friends in the federal employee organizations are going to squirm when I say these things, but I suspect if I was having a beer with a lot them after work, they would acknowledge this.
Q. Why doesn’t Congress spend more time examining ways to improve the management of government, which is critical to carrying out the policies that they enact?
A. Right now you don’t want them doing that, because they will only do it for partisan reasons. In the last few years, this Congress has been abysmal in terms of its oversight and, as a result, there is no credible oversight. It does it for the purpose of finding scapegoats — of embarrassing top officials — not for the purpose of fixing something but for the purpose of exposing something.
Q. What do you wish people knew about public servants?
A. You can find all kinds of offices throughout the federal government where people are working their tails off when they could be making much more money in the private sector, but they believe in what they do and they love this country. They give this country reason to be proud. They are responsible for what this government achieves day in and day out on behalf of all of us.