The Trump administration has big plans to completely overhaul the civil service system, a herculean task that would affect 2 million federal employees, from hiring to firing (or a more amicable workplace separation).
In a YouTube video with the newly installed director of the Office of Personnel Management, Jeff T.H. Pon, and deputy director Michael Rigas, Pon said President Trump “had been voted in as a mandate to change certain things across our government. It’s nice to have a president that actually will go up to bat for civil service reform, for changing the way … of recruiting people, rewarding people, managing people.”
“Mandate” is a dubious word for a man who lost the popular vote, yet civil service reform has many champions — and some key doubters.
“But, somehow in the last several decades, we’ve been doing it piecemeal,” Pon continued. “We’d like to do a lot of different changes not at the piecemeal level but as a whole, and we will come up with different types of personnel systems for occupations. There are a lot of occupations out there that desperately need a whole entire system to surround their success. It’s not just about time to hire. It’s not just about how much they get paid. It’s the whole entire thing.”
Despite decades of reports advocating civil service reform, there has been no concerted effort in recent years to accomplish that. The piecemeal efforts have focused largely on hiring and finding ways to fire feds faster and cut their compensation. Undermining civil service protections of Department of Veterans Affairs employees has been a favorite target of punitive legislators reacting to the scandal over the coverup of long patient wait times that broke in 2014.
“This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act, the last comprehensive overhaul of the civil service system,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, one of the good government groups that has produced reports calling for an overhaul. “Forty years is a long time, so it is exciting that the administration is thinking boldly about modernizing the system.”
Pon’s quest likely will be opposed by federal labor organizations and many of their Democratic allies in Congress. Labor leaders strongly defend the General Schedule pay system for its fairness and argue that existing workplace disciplinary and corrective procedures would work better if managers were better trained.
With Trump’s record on federal employees — his plans to freeze pay, reduce benefits, facilitate firings and undermine unions — expect any administration effort to meet stiff resistance.
“President Trump has shown contempt for public servants from his first day in office, when he prohibited federal agencies from filling vacant positions.” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that would oversee civil service reform.
“Rather than draining the swamp, he has been feeding public servants to the alligators. We need to protect the independence and professionalism of the federal employees. The cornerstone of an independent, nonpartisan civil service is the due-process protections in current law, and those are exactly what President Trump wants to eliminate under the guise of ‘reform.’ ”
Pon and Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) did not respond to requests for comment.
Federal unions are willing to discuss civil service reform, but probably not what Trump’s folks have in mind.
J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, “We are open to reform that strengthens the apolitical, professional civil service and expands the ability of federal employees to protect the integrity of their work and to defend their jobs from rapacious contractors. We are also eager to work with Congress and the administration to bring federal salaries up to comparability with the standards set by large private employers.”
But if it means “cutting pay, pensions, and health insurance benefits, undermining collective bargaining, union representation and due process rights and outsourcing government work to political cronies,” Cox said, “then the answer is no, and we will strongly urge Congress to block this agenda.”
As Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union said, union leaders “do not believe the civil service system needs a major overhaul. The existing General Schedule is already a pay-for-performance system with the ability to reward good employees or remove poor performers. Just like in the private sector, rewarding employees for exceptional work is a key part of recruiting and retaining highly skilled professionals. Employees can also be removed for poor performance, but it requires managers be trained in how to do it properly and for the right reasons.
“Many of these performance measures are not used as often or as effectively as they could be because managers lack the necessary training or because elected officials interfere with or refuse to adequately fund the federal personnel system.”
The road to change is choked with opposing needs and expectations.
“There’s strong consensus on the need for reform, but there’s no consensus at all on what reform ought to look like,” said Donald F. Kettl, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. “Everyone is afraid that, if the door is ever opened, things that they opposed will creep through.”
If Pon, who provided no specifics, wants something to reform, perhaps he should look within.
“First issue is OPM itself,” said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor of public service. “Pon sits atop one of the most important yet least respected agencies in government. Its reputation could not be poorer.”
Light is not optimistic that Pon’s attempt to reform the civil service will be successful.
“Don’t hold your breath waiting for a grand vision here,” he said. “This isn’t the crew to do it, and Congress doesn’t have the temperament for the long slog.”