Getting the Federal Workers We Need

By Linda Bilmes and W. Scott Gould
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The federal government is losing the battle for its fair share of our nation's most talented workers. Yet it must hire about 100,000 people per year, and soon many more, given the huge numbers of federal workers expected to retire in the next five to 10 years. Without reform, it is unlikely that the government will be able to hire and retain people with the technical and professional skills necessary to meet the increasingly complex challenges it faces.

President Bush's ambitious federal personnel management reform efforts have hit two major roadblocks this summer. On Aug. 12, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a Bush appointee, halted implementation of a new personnel management system at the Department of Homeland Security, ruling that the system violates the congressionally bestowed collective bargaining rights of employees. And in early June, implementation of the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System was delayed for several months as Pentagon officials sought to review and address the 58,000 public comments they received on the preliminary rules and a counterproposal by the agency's labor unions. Simultaneously, the administration is testing the waters for legislation to reform the rest of the civil service. But the faltering status of the reform agenda at Homeland Security and the Pentagon make wider reforms increasingly unlikely in the near term.

The disagreement between the Bush administration and the unions over collective bargaining issues is important. But that disagreement should not be allowed to overshadow the elements of federal personnel management reform that are just as important and that could have a greater impact.

The government is facing a serious recruitment challenge. Approximately 90 percent of college juniors and seniors simply are not willing to wait the three months to a year it typically takes the federal government to hire an employee. Over 60 percent perceive their opportunities for career advancement within government as limited. By a ratio of 3 to 1, these students believe the private sector would do better than the federal government in giving them an opportunity to advance as high as their abilities will let them.

Yet, the results of our research and interviews of key stakeholders in the personnel reform process suggest that most government agencies have failed to make the business case for reform. Furthermore, reform efforts already underway have failed to provide a comprehensive vision of a new system -- one that draws on the most effective practices of the existing system, government pilot programs, the military and the private sector.

At a minimum, the reform priorities must include: (1) a workable pay-for-performance system; (2) a market-responsive, competency-based job classification system to replace the General Schedule (GS) system; (3) a streamlined recruiting and hiring process; (4) meaningful performance management training for managers; and (5) secure, reliable funding to successfully implement these changes.

Highly skilled and motivated people expect to be rewarded when they excel. A pay-for-performance system combined with a reformed classification system would enable government managers to compete with the private sector for top candidates. Streamlining recruiting and hiring would make it possible to get those candidates through the door.

Unfortunately, many government employees doubt that government managers have the experience to provide useful and timely feedback and make meaningful, data-based distinctions about performance. This highlights a critical and often undervalued (by government) factor in whether reform succeeds -- new practices must be accompanied by adequate training for managers and reliable, long-term funding.

The changes we advocate are not as controversial as the collective bargaining issues that are stalling current reform efforts. In fact, we believe that if Congress and the Bush administration worked in partnership with the unions and focused on this basic set of top priorities, they could design a plan that could be embraced as fair and effective by all stakeholders.

Federal personnel management reform is complicated and generally thankless. Voters do not reward politicians for devoting their energies to this issue. But the brave few who accept the challenge understand how critical reform is to the efficient functioning of our government.

Our government is called on to address some of the world's greatest challenges. We need a workforce that can deliver. And we need to get to the heart of the reform issues to make that happen.

Linda Bilmes teaches public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. W. Scott Gould is a vice president for public sector strategy and change at IBM Business Consulting Services. They are co-authors of a forthcoming book on federal personnel reform, "The People Factor," to be published by the Brookings Institution.

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