In the boiling debate over the federal civil service system, a congressionally chartered think tank offers this stark assessment:

“The federal civil service system is broken. This breakdown undermines the federal government’s ability to meet the needs of its citizens.”

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) rejects moderate fixes and recommends a fundamentally new approach — a federated personnel system giving each agency more power. The report says its title, “No Time to Wait,” was chosen to reflect a “profound sense of urgency.”

“So much of the conversation around the civil service right now is focused on the small pieces … the rules and the regulations and the processes,” said Teresa Gerton, NAPA’s president and CEO, in advance of the report’s release on Tuesday.

NAPA looked at the big picture and found it is not pretty.

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, agreed with the report’s findings. “The civil service system is badly in need of updating, as might be expected of any personnel system that is nearing 40 years of age,” he said. “Today’s system is a cumbersome patchwork that more resembles a Frankenstein monster than a well-thought-out 21st century workforce system.”

Rank-and-file union leaders rebut the notion of a broken system, while calling for better-trained managers.

In the current environment, the civil service discussion has largely focused on efforts to fire feds faster. NAPA rejects the notion that accountability just means dismissals, taking a structural approach to civil service reform.

Under NAPA’s design, agencies would have substantial latitude in developing personnel systems specific to their individual missions.

“This includes flexibilities for staffing, pay, promotion, employee engagement, employee assessment, career paths and motivation for high fliers, and strategies for dealing with poor performers,” according to the report. Yet, this does not mean, the report adds, “that the federal government should have an infinite number of personnel systems sailing in only loose formation.”

Under a federated system, NAPA envisions agencies would “compete effectively to hire, motivate, and retain the mission-specific talent they need.”  With this decentralization, the role of the Office of Personnel Management likely would diminish.

Mission first does not mean agencies could abandon the merit principles that are at the core of the civil service system, but the report says that “agencies should be able to tailor these principles to their missions.”

That sounds okay in theory, but in practice it would result in one boss, Uncle Sam, having many different systems for his employees. At some point, if NAPA’s recommendations were adopted, some reformer surely would say we need a centralized system with greater coordination. Inevitably, some agencies would have better systems than others, meaning that employees, and ultimately taxpayers, would be treated inconsistently because the quality of agency personnel systems would differ.

NAPA officials recognize this, but believe the successful agencies could act as innovative laboratories providing direction and best practices for others.

There already are “wild differences” among agencies, but without a mechanism that allows them to learn from each other, said Donald Kettl, a University of Maryland public policy professor and chairman of the NAPA panel that issued the report.  Using “more reliance on data with a focus on outcomes, we’re much more likely to figure out who is doing a better job and why and how,” he added, “and then how other agencies can learn from that.”

Union leaders echo Lee Stone, a vice president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, whose email said “there are many meaningful reforms that could also be instituted (e.g. increased/better supervisor training, promotion reforms, better accountability using existing authorities),” but argued that “flexibility” is a “common dog-whistle for at-will employment.”

The authors insist the merit principles that guard against at-will employment “remain sound bedrock for a federated federal human capital system,” but say that “agencies should be able to tailor these principles to their missions.” Just as a personnel system “ought to promote mission first,” the report continued, “it needs to uphold principles always. And no principles are more important or fundamental than the principles of the merit system. By recruiting, hiring, and managing its workforce in accord with these principles, the federal government can be a model employer that sets a positive example to which other employers can and should aspire.”

NAPA also proposes a system in which “accountability” centers on results, not the number of employees fired as seems to be the focus with many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“This is not a time for modest, incremental tinkering,” the report says. “The current system’s breakdown is irremediable, to the point that any agency that can escape the system’s shackles has done so.”

Despite NAPA’s rejection of incremental tinkering, Valdez said its recommendations are too modest.

“If anything, I would argue that the NAPA study does not go far enough,” he said. “We must completely rethink all elements of the civil service system, and while this study is a great start, we should devote much more thought and effort to fixing a broken system that, despite its many flaws, has been a major contributor to the U.S. innovation economy.”

Stone’s take: “The Civil Service system is not broken, it remains a vital and necessary American institution. It is the people’s last line of defense against the corrosive influence of politics in the delivery of government goods and services.”

The debate continues.

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