The National Commission on the Public Service went out of business yesterday, its efforts to rebuild the public service far from fulfillment despite growing evidence of the seriousness of the problem.
"I think we helped to raise the level of consciousness about the issue, but there is an enormous unfinished agenda out there," said commission head and former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker.
"It's a hard slog to increase interest," he said, citing a commission adviser's adage that civil service news is always a "fourth priority."
Even so, he said, "You look at what has happened in the past year" -- scandals at the Defense Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Food and Drug Administration -- "there is more and more evidence that reform is needed."
None of the commission's 45 recommendations has been fully implemented, and Volcker said he intends to "write a few letters -- I might use my old letterhead, I'll tell them I don't want to waste it" -- to push for some of the recommendations.
The Volcker commission grew out of a symposium sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute to prepare recommendations to Congress and the president on what the symposium concluded was a "quiet crisis" in the quality of the civil service.
The prestigious commission -- led by Volcker and including the heads of five universities, many of the nation's biggest public service, business labor and civil rights organizations, a former president, several former senators, Cabinet secretaries and high governmental officials -- spent more than two years documenting the problem and preparing recommendations.
One of its major recommendations was that the government "provide competitive pay and demand competitive performance." Although the commission hailed the congressional pay raise and ethics legislation that passed recently, it is less than the commission recommended and covers fewer people than the commission thought necessary.
"It is now going to be up to us to make sure that the recommendations are carried out," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) told the commission yesterday at a Capitol luncheon. "We made a small start last year."
"Our problem," Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) said, "is inertia in the Congress."
Another major recommendation of the Volcker commission called for reducing the number of political appointees at the top levels of the government from 3,000 to no more than 2,000.
But Glenn said the issue is "worse than the Hatch Act" in terms of triggering partisan fights. He said that even though the administration has yet to nominate candidates for some of the 3,000 jobs it has to fill 18 months after Inauguration Day, any administration is loath to give up its right to name a single appointee.
Volcker had pressed for an independent advisory council to monitor the ongoing state of the career public service, and even this modest recommendation has moved slowly, although it may go before the House next week.
A proposed scholarship program also has support in the House, and committees in both houses are considering legislation to pay federal workers more competitively in different localities.
"I think this commission leaves three fantastic accomplishments," said Rosslyn Kleeman, director of federal work force future issues for the General Accounting Office. "They vastly increased the interest in the public service, they got people to focus on the problems and they pulled a lot of pieces together in one place." As the specifics are addressed, she said, "the commission can take credit for a lot."