Civil service reform is coming: What should it be?

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

By now it should be apparent that civil service reform is likely to happen. Most good government organizations and academics who prepared transition papers prior to the election recommended that the next president work with the Congress to design and implement some sort of comprehensive civil service reform. We are hearing from senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle that they are interested in reform. So, the big question is what reform looks like.

Actually, that is a lot of questions. Is it one big bill? A series of smaller changes passed separately? Does it address every aspect of the civil service? Or does it focus on pressing needs and cherry-pick the most solvable problems? Does it guarantee that getting a federal job is based on merit and not on who you know or what your politics might be? Does it get rid of the antiquated general schedule classification and pay system? Does it change federal benefits? Does it finally do something about performance management processes that virtually everyone hates? Does it address accountability and ensure that great civil servants are rewarded and terrible civil servants either get better or get gone? Does it give agencies the ability to shape their workforce in response to changing demands and labor market conditions? Does it fix a hiring process that is charitably described as broken? Does it provide for training and retaining critical talent? Does it guarantee equal opportunity? Are employee rights to collective bargaining preserved? And finally, does it change the process for downsizing so it ensures the government can retain its best and most in-demand talent rather than following an outdated and byzantine reduction-in-force process?

Whew! That is a lot of questions, and those are only the big ones. Comprehensive civil service reform will require the answers to all of those questions, plus more. A well-designed civil service reform program must recognize that public service is a public trust, and that the American people need to feel confident that the people who do the people’s work are doing their best every day. I plan to address the major components of civil service reform in a series of posts over the next few weeks. I will address compensation, retention, hiring, training, job classification and more.

Sign up for the online chat with Air Force Deputy CIO Bill Marion II on May 9, at 10 a.m. (EDT).

What I will not do is weigh in on how large or small the federal workforce should be. I am going to leave that one to our political leaders. What I will recommend applies regardless of the size of the workforce. But, before I can get into what a reformed civil service looks like, I need to start with some underlying principles that I believe should apply to any attempt at civil service reform. These principles provide a foundation upon which we can build a 21st-century civil service.

Foundational Principles

Federal employment should be based on merit. This one may seem obvious, but there are folks who believe government managers should be able to hire and fire anyone they want. Doing that would mean we have no guarantee that the people who work for the government are hired, paid, rewarded and retained because they are qualified for their jobs.

I have seen what happens when managers hire unqualified people because they are friends, cronies, political associates, etc. It isn’t pretty. If our tax dollars are going to pay someone’s salary, we need to know they were hired based on merit rather than cronyism.

I started crafting some guiding principles for reform, but kept coming back to the existing Merit System Principles found in Title 5 of the U.S. Code. They are remarkably thorough and already provide the underpinnings of civil service reform. In fact, where the civil service has weaknesses, they are generally the result of NOT adhering to the intent of the merit system principles. For example, failing to take action when an employee engages in misconduct or fails to perform violates principles four and six. Overpaying or underpaying a federal worker violates principle three. The ineffective and user-hostile hiring process violates principles one and two. Duplication of functions in agencies and retention of failing programs violates principle five. Here are the merit systems principles:

  • 1) Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a workforce from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.
  • 2) All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age or handicapping condition, and with proper regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.
  • 3) Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with appropriate consideration of both national and local rates paid by employers in the private sector, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.
  • 4) All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest.
  • 5) The federal workforce should be used efficiently and effectively.
  • 6) Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.
  • 7) Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.
  • 8) Employees should be protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism or coercion for partisan political purposes, and prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.
  • 9) Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences a violation of any law, rule or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

I do not see any reason that the merit system principles should be changed, rather it is the implementation of the merit principles that should change. These principles are neither conservative nor progressive. They are neither Republican nor Democrat. For example, it is hard to argue that federal employees should be selected for any reason other than merit, subject to dismissal for no cause or for political reasons, paid unfairly, be the victim of reprisal for disclosing misconduct, or fail to maintain high standards of conduct and integrity. The merit system principles are not the source of problems in the civil service and they will serve as the basis for all of my recommendations for reform.

It is clear that the merit system principles are still sound. A reformed civil service system that truly adheres to them would be something that anyone interested in good government (Republican, Democrat, Independent or anything else) could support.

In my next post, I will start laying out ways we can build on these principles to produce the type of reform that delivers on the promise of the merit system principles. My proposals recognize that conservative members of Congress will most likely drive the process, but also recognize that both conservatives and progressives have good ideas that should be incorporated into civil service reform.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe there is actually common ground where our political parties can come together and agree on common-sense proposals, rooted in merit system principles and proved in industry and government, that will produce a more effective civil service.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.