One of the outstanding successes of American public policy is the federal civil service. No one in 1883, the year the Pendleton Act was passed, would or could have predicted the crucial role that government plays in today's society. Nor could anyone have anticipated the professionalism, dedication and quality of today's public servants.
The civil service reformers of the late 19th century were primarily interested in eliminating or at least reducing the role of patronage in the selection, promotion and pay of federal employees. That by and large has been accomplished. In its accomplishment there has developed a professionalism in personnel management that is equal to that practiced in America's best-run corporations. From recruitment, to selection, to
position description, to clas sification (equal pay for
equal work), to pay admin istration, the federal system
does it well. (Pay setting is
excluded because is it han dled by Congress--and not
With these accomplishments, why shouldn't the system and its administrators rest on their laurels and ignore the continuous public ridicule to which they are subjected--a public ridicule encouraged and practiced by those who have ultimate responsibility for the system, the White House and Congress?
That ridicule and its underlying causes should set the agenda for the next stage in the evolution of federal personnel management. The causes are twofold: the original intent of civil service reform and the system's current political environment.
First, past success, with its emphasis on rules and regulations to prevent political intrusion in personnel decision-making, has distorted the purpose of many personnel practices. Instead of those practices being used to encourage ever better performance, they have become obstacles. They work against performance measurement, against rewards for outstanding performers, against a sense of ownership and responsibility of top civil servants for the effectiveness of their own system.
Second is the political environment in which good work goes unnoticed. Nonresponsiveness is charged but seldom proved. Inefficiency and waste are assumed to be the rule, but are, in fact, the exception.
Just as the causes are twofold, so must be the solution. Both civil servants and politicians, legislative and executive, must work together to correct past misunderstandings and to develop the next generation of programs, which will be based on the solid foundation already in place.
First and crucial to all else is the development of performance measurement and the use of it for rewarding outstanding performance. The one personnel management area in which the private sector has a distinct advantage over the public sector is its ability to meas- ure performance, both individual and organizational. Profitability data provide an ob- jective measure not available to the public sector.
However, the private sector increasingly is employing nonfinancial measures to determine performance rewards. These are not to the exclusion of financial measures but as a supplement--a supplement that frequently constitutes as much as 50 percent of the potential bonus. Further, there are many employees in corporations so far removed from operations-- corporate staff, for example--that relating their performance to the corporation's financial performance is a monumental task.
Not so monumental, however, that it can't be done, even though the art of doing it is still primitive. But if it can be done in the private sector it can be done in government. It can only be done, however, if those to whom it applies accept it, and that acceptance will come only when politicians openly recognize the quality of career federal employees and take advantage of their vast reservoir of policy, knowledge and management skills.
Unfortunately, the failure to use that knowledge and skill is as much a result of the lack of understanding of how to take advantage of it as it is a conscious decision not to use it. The glaring weakness in the executive branch of the federal government is the all-too-frequent incompetence of its sub-Cabinet level officials. Most of these political apppointees have seldom had any significant large organization management experience, seldom have they had prior government experience, and, surprisingly, they are often political novices. Drawn from law firms, consultant organizations and small businesses, they usually stay but a short time in any one government position--the average is about two years--and yet they are put in charge of huge operations responsible for complex programs costing billions of dollars. It is also the exception if they have any specific knowledge of the policy field for which they have responsi- bility.
Reporting to them are senior civil servants with vast program knowledge, many years of governmental experience and a commitment to professionalism. Often, it is these people who should be occupying the sub-Cabinet positions rather than the politically appointed novices. The Civil Service Act of 1978 makes it possible for them to do so without relinquishing their rights in the system. Unfortunately, that provision of the act has been little used, and the line between political appointees and career officials remains an obstacle to responsiveness, effective management and intelligent policy formulation.
To require that all such positions be filled by career public servants would also be a mistake. Flexibility is needed. But if future administrations do not take advantage of the flexibility current law permits, then legislation will be necessary.
Equally important is the need for change in rhetoric. Outstanding performance must not only be materially rewarded, it must also be publicly acknowledged. The contrast in this respect with the private sector is particularly striking. It is unimaginable that a senior officer of a major corporation would publicly ridicule his or her own employees while privately telling them what a fine job they are doing. Yet that is exactly what government leaders frequently do. Often an appearance of a Cabinet secretary at an awards ceremony for outstanding employees, where he praises their accomplishments, will be followed by another speech out on the stump denouncing not only the seat of government, Washington, but the bureaucracy that works there as well.
Finally, government leaders must keep their word: when legislation provides for bonuses, they must be paid; when pay is required to be comparable, it must be comparable; when retirement commitments are made, they must be kept. If policy changes are necessary in any of these areas, there should be full-blown legislative consideration--not appropriation bill riders, White House directives used too frequently in violation of the spirit of the statutes.
Perhaps what is needed is a treaty. All such agreements are based on compromise. Both sides must be willing to give up something.
From career public servants, there must be a willingness to accept a system that bases rewards on performance. They must be willing to accept a system that permits corrective action, including dismissal, for inadequate performance without an administration process so convoluted that it would make Rube Goldberg jealous. This requires, too, a willingness on the part of top career civil servants to take responsibility for government failures as well as successes. And they must abandon the attitude that it is somebody else's responsibility. The recently established Senior Executives Association can play a major role in this, but thus far it has focused too narrowly on pay and related issues.
From politicians, legislative and executive, there must be a recognition of the need for essential policy and management roles for career public servants. That acceptance must be both in deeds and in words. Some assistant secretary and even undersecretary positions must
be filled by career people,
promises must be kept and
recognition that means
something must be ac corded to those who de serve it.
Essential to all of this is a
change of attitude on all sides, but it will have to be accompanied by some legislation, some regulation changes and a recognition in the Oval Office that the president is the leader of the federal work force. Recognizing the role of Congress, the courts and the law, the civil servant still looks to the president as his chief spokesman.
Is all of this politically possible?
"No way" will argue any self-respecting political analyst, academic or otherwise. The interest-group lineup against it is too formidable. For politicians, the use of the bureaucracy as a whipping boy is too tempting, and for civil servants, the present protections of the system are too comfortable.
This same kind of analysis preceded the passage of the Pendleton Act, the pay comparability legislation and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. American politics has a way of eventually, although never flawlessly, doing what has to be done. To fail to take advantage of what the Pendleton Act has wrought would not only be too bad; it would undermine the effectiveness of one of America's most crucial government institutions--its career civil service. What better way to recognize the Pendleton Act in its 100th anniversary that to commit ourselves anew to continuing to build the finest civil service system in the world?