Margaret Weichert, acting Office of Personnel Management director, talks with reporters about civil service issues on Oct. 11. (Office of Personnel Management)
Columnist

Shortly after he became director of the Office of Personnel Management, Jeff Pon promised a major overhaul of the government’s civil service system — and not by doing it gradually.

"We’d like to do a lot of different changes, not at the piecemeal level but as a whole,” Pon said in an April video posted on OPM’s website. A few weeks later, he predicted the proposal would be ready by the midterm elections.

“We want to be bold and aggressive,” he declared, “and we want to make sure that not only is it good for America but it's also good for our civil service."

Pon is gone. He abruptly resigned from the OPM this month. Gone, too, is the expectation, always unrealistic, for a bold, aggressive, complete civil service reform proposal by November.

Instead, President Trump’s administration rolled out more modest proposals last week in time for Saturday’s 40th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act. The anniversary, marked by symposiums, publications and ceremonies, generated an increased push to change how federal employees are hired, classified, compensated, disciplined and fired.

Not everyone shares that call.

“The biggest challenge facing recruiting new federal employees is the Trump administration’s repeated attacks on federal service, including proposed pay freezes and scaling back incentives like telework,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government management. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) declined to comment.

Improved hiring is the least controversial element of civil service reform. Yet reaction to the Trump administration’s latest plan demonstrates how fraught even that is.

In a memo to department and agency heads on Thursday, Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert, wasting no time after taking over the agency days earlier, announced new “direct hiring authorities … enabling simple and strategic hiring to attract top talent” to government-wide positions with “severe shortages of candidates and/or critical hiring needs.” The policy allows managers to skip certain civil service procedures.

She also outlined an alternative pay system, beginning with federal economists for what an OPM fact sheet describes as “cases where the GS [General Schedule] pay and classification system doesn’t function as well for a position or group of positions.”

Why should folks outside the Beltway care about this?

“Some of the jobs they are trying to make easier to fill are in critical roles such as cybersecurity, medical research, and similar jobs that critical to national security. For example, what happens if government cannot recruit and retain cybersecurity experts?” said Jeff Neal, a senior vice president at the ICF strategic consulting firm and former chief personnel officer for the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Logistics Agency. The departments of homeland security and defense “are on the front lines of defending the U.S. against bad actors who would be happy to bring our power grid, financial markets, and other critical infrastructures down. They cannot do their job without the right mix of government and industry talent.”

Don Kettl, a University of Texas professor, called the OPM’s action “a very important breakthrough.”

Kettl, academic director of the university’s LBJ Washington Center, has been critical of the Trump administration, but on this issue he is not. “The administration’s action focuses squarely on hiring reforms,” he said. “... It creates a solid hiring plan for areas in especially great need, especially cyber, where the federal government is struggling to keep up.”

Kettl led a new National Academy of Public Administration report on the federal workforce. The OPM’s plan is consistent with the report, which argued that “the alignment between the government’s mission, strategy, and tactics on one hand, and the capacity of its workforce on the other, has fallen further out of sync. … The need is urgent. … The consequences of our failed system are serious.”

It urged the government to move from hiring employees “into individual job descriptions by each agency” to having “individuals receive qualification for positions across government, based on their professional and personal competencies.”

The urgency NAPA recommends must contend with the political reality that any civil service changes Trump’s OPM proposes will probably run into deep skepticism from Democrats and federal union officials. Trump’s aggression against federal employee pay, benefits and their labor organizations feeds their suspicions.

Jacqueline Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, “The problem with direct hire is that it can allow agencies, effectively, to bypass veterans' preference … and it closes off opportunities for lateral moves and career development for the existing workforce.”

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, “Certain job classifications in the federal government require special salary rates in order to remain competitive with the private sector . . . [but] the General Schedule has a number of incentives built into it to hire in hard-to-fill positions as well as reward top performers that are not effectively utilized.”

Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said, “Unfettered direct hiring can lead to politicization of the workforce and undermine merit principles. This administration has already sought … to increase the politicization of the federal workforce, undermine merit principles and limit due process for employees. So we remain skeptical of the new initiatives, fearing more of the same.”

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