John Palguta, retiring vice president for policy of the Partnership for Public Service. (Handout photo by Aaron Clamage)

Few people, if any, know the federal workplace better or have spent more energy trying to improve it than John Palguta. Now he is ready to retire.

He first joined the federal service in 1968 as a letter carrier while in college. His career in federal personnel management began after graduation with a Civil Service Commission internship. In 2001, he left government as the Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) director of policy and evaluation, a Senior Executive Service position.

For the past 14 years, Palguta has been with the Partnership for Public Service, a think tank focused on good governance. There he helped develop the influential Best Places to Work in the Federal Government series. Top officials pay close attention to the annual reports, celebrating when their agencies rank high, promising to do better when they don’t.

“I don’t think there is anyone in modern times who has done more for the people … and for talent management in government than John Palguta,” said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO.

“I could always rely on his solid knowledge of public policy and his extensive institutional memory of important public sector human capital initiatives,” added Reginald Wells, the Social Security Administration’s chief human capital officer, or CHCO.

“John is fabulous. He just is,” said Gail Lovelace, former General Services Administration CHCO. “He’s the best.”

Before leaving, Palguta, 69, looked back and ahead at the federal space for this column, which has used his expertise often. This is an edited transcript of that exchange:

Q. You were instrumental in the Partnership’s Best Places series. What differences have you seen in agencies because of the reports, which draw from the Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey (FEVS)?

A. The Best Places initiative has demonstrated that listening to and taking action on feedback from employees can result in a more productive workforce. It’s not about making sure employees are happy, it’s about making government more effective and efficient. Since FEVS was started in 2002, I’ve seen a major change in the amount of constructive attention agency leaders and managers give to the goal of improving employee engagement and, more importantly, a number of agencies have demonstrated that there are common-sense actions they can do to improve that engagement.

Q. How would you characterize employee engagement or morale today, compared with years ago?

A. With some notable agency exceptions, the last five to six years have been tough on federal employee morale and engagement due to rising workloads and decreasing resources, anti-government rhetoric, congressional gridlock, the 2013 shutdown, sequestration and so on.  However, there have been previous times when over the last 45 years when morale similarly suffered but then improved. The lesson learned is that federal employees are resilient and given a worthwhile mission, the right leadership, and the resources to do the job, they will respond.

Q. What is your view of congressional moves to reduce workplace protections for federal employees, starting with the cut in due process for VA senior executives?

A. Federal employees need to be accountable for getting the job done and there is certainly room to improve how due process protections are provided, but simply eliminating or reducing those protections is the wrong way to go. The political nature of government makes it important that there be safeguards against career civil service employees being disciplined or having their voices silenced for partisan political reasons.

Q. Given your long history with the Merit Systems Protection Board, what is your reaction to comments from House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)? He called MSPB “an unaccountable board with a strong bias against accountability” that is “setting the entire federal government up for failure” and is “so biased in favor of misbehaving government bureaucrats.”

A. I understand the sentiment behind Congressman Miller’s comment, but he may not have all the facts.  Looking at MSPB’s track record, there is no evidence to support a claim that MSPB has a “strong bias against accountability.” Ironically, over its history, MSPB was more likely to be accused of having a management bias, since well over 80 percent of the cases decided on the merits uphold the agency decision. In fact, some federal agencies almost never lose a case before the MSPB.

Q. Do you believe broad civil service reform is needed?

A. There are a number of specific areas in need of reform but I would start with replacing the 1949 General Schedule pay system with a market-based pay system that would set pay based on what other major employers pay for comparable jobs, by occupation and by geographic areas. Paying all GS-12 employees the same, regardless of occupation, doesn’t make sense when it results in some employees being paid “above market” and others being paid “below market” because of supply and demand.

Q.  Any final thoughts?

A. It’s a strength of our democracy that we are able to have a healthy debate over what we want government to do and not to do. However, we need to be careful that when we disagree about the value of a particular government program or agency … that we not denigrate the employees who are trying their best to carry out the mission assigned. As the next president will quickly discover … the real job of governing is figuring out how to make government work, and that includes ensuring that the government has the workforce it needs to get the job done.