State of Civil Service No Cause for Celebration

New York University professor Paul C. Light sees morale problems and staffing shortages.
New York University professor Paul C. Light sees morale problems and staffing shortages. (Brookings Institute)
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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, but don't expect any gala celebrations.

The Coalition for Effective Change, an organization of current and retired federal managers and professionals, did hold a forum to mark the occasion yesterday, but it was hardly a festive affair.

In fact, featured speaker Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, began the day by announcing: "The state of the federal service is not good."

A little later, Robert M. Tobias, director of public sector executive education at American University, was no less critical.

Citing the portion of the law that deals with labor-management relations, Tobias said if its vision and purpose was to achieve " 'the highest standards of employee performance,' we have failed."

Not everyone at the forum delivered such bad news, but no one was in a merrymaking mood.

"I think it's fitting to note there is no anniversary party for civil service reform . . . " Light said, "or at least that I've been invited to."

His problems with the civil service are many.

"I see significant morale problems, problems with ratings of leadership of agencies, the quality of appointments, staffing shortages just about everywhere on the front lines," he said in an interview after this talk.

"I'm very concerned that we are not investing in actual delivery of service."

For examples, he cited the length of time it takes to review claims for Social Security disability and veterans benefits, or problems with food safety inspections and in the air traffic control system.

And, of course, the federal hiring process has become a cliche for broken government despite many attempts to fix it.

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