Report on civil service reform includes controversial recommendations

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 3

Most of the good-government types discussing the federal civil service system seemed to agree that it is “out of touch . . . obsolete . . . archaic.”

Those words come from a two-year study, prepared by the Partnership for Public Service and the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm, that takes a thorough look at the civil service system and finds it in bad shape.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Federal employees too often “succeed in spite of the current civil service system, not because of it,” says the report, released at a Wednesday meeting in the Partnership’s office.

The document presents a series of well-considered, but not universally accepted recommendations designed to “free” the federal workforce “from the rigid, outdated system” and urges “a new civil service system that is up to the challenges of 21st-century government.”

Just the notion that the system needs serious overhauling is controversial and rejected by federal labor organizations.

Among the recommendations:

●Build a “market-sensitive labor system” for federal employees.

●Create “a unified personnel system . . . to level the playing field across the federal landscape.”

●Make the performance management system “consequential by awarding pay raises only to those employees and managers who perform above expectations, and no pay increases to those whose performance is unsatisfactory.”

●Condense the General Schedule’s (GS) 15 grades into five.

●Consolidate the federal employee appeals process into “a one-stop . . . reconstituted Merit Systems Protection Board” (MSPB) and eliminate appeals to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

●Reorganize the Senior Executive Service into a four-tier operation.

“Our nation’s civil service is a relic of a bygone era,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership, a nonprofitorganization that studies federal workplace issues. “Our nation’s leadership must make it a priority to create a civil service system that our public servants deserve and that will produce the results our country needs.”

More than once, President Obama has called for a Commission on Federal Public Service Reform. It was raised during 2011 deficit-reduction talks. Obama again proposed the commission in his budgets for fiscal 2013 and 2014. The plan went nowhere. Even House Democrats rejected the idea in 2011, saying “it makes little sense.”

Federal union leaders feel the same way. That’s a problem for civil service reform advocates. Unions must be important participants in any conversation about civil service reform, but they don’t really want to talk about it — at least not to the extent the report outlined.

“Many of the Partnership’s proposals have been presented previously and discarded,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “The merit-based, competitive hiring system and the General Schedule pay system have served our nation well and should not be discarded in favor of a variety of unworkable schemes.”

The American Federation of Government Employees said the report is “fundamentally flawed.” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. hit the recommendation for a revamped MSPB.

“The report is a direct attack on the EEOC and threatens to undercut decades of progress in the fight against discrimination in the workplace,” Cox said. “Transferring jurisdiction exclusively to MSPB is a ham-handed attempt to tamp down discrimination claims. . . . We reject that approach.”

Much of the union fire was aimed at the pay-for-performance recommendations. Pay for performance has been tried in some federal agencies, notably the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System that was killed by Congress in 2009 after the program failed to gain the trust and support of employees.

“Pay tied to performance rating creates a level of mistrust,” said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “Was a rating based on a truly objective look at performance or on the amount of money” available for pay raises, he asked.

Tellingly, of the 51 people given “special thanks” at the end of the report for their thoughts, only one, Dougan, is a current union leader. A former union president is listed, as are representatives of other employee associations, including four from the Senior Executives Association (SEA).

SEA President Carol Bonosaro endorsed some of the Partnership’s recommendations, but a tier system for senior executives was not among them. It has been tried in some agencies, and that “resulted in its own set of problems, including lack of transparency (no information regarding why positions are placed in specific tiers and no information regarding how one moves from one tier to another),” she wrote in an e-mail.

One recommendation that could strengthen labor’s influence in the civil service system, as well as in other personnel issues, is the call for codification of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, which Obama created by executive order. “The council should be given permanent institutional status and a substantive advisory role . . . in major government-wide civil service policy decisions — including pay-setting,” the report suggested.

“Clearly unions are critical stakeholders here,” said Stier, who added that additional union officials were consulted for the report, although not named. He emphasized that the report represents a starting point, a framework that can be built upon.

“They don’t have to agree with everything,” he added, “but they need to be part of the conversation.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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