The recent Nobel Prize gives us hope that managers, employees, and
political leaders who work in the United States federal civil
service can work together peacefully, productively, effectively,
and efficiently. Im referring, of course, not to the Nobel Peace
Prize that President Obama won, but to the Nobel Prize for
Economics won by Elinor Ostrom for her work refuting the tragedy of
Economics has long held that when there is a common shared resource
that none of the parties own, competing parties will pursue their
own short-term interests at the expense of long-term outcomes and
will thereby over time destroy the systems on which they rely.
Professor Ostrom demonstrated that effective governance and
community engagement can and often do lead to better outcomes than
generally accepted theory would predict. For this to happen,
however, the parties must begin to see themselves as
interdependent, and they must work to jointly protect the resources
that support them.
Politicians and federal employees are bound together in a common
civil service system that they all want to change and improve. But
they each have very different visions of how to do this. Professor
Ostroms work reminds us that peace, prosperity, and progressin this
area as in many others where interests competewill only be achieved
by joint governance and cooperation. Past history need not lead to
a future stalemate. We do not have to have winners and losers to
Strategies and Priorities
In my Spring 2008 TPM article, Looking Ahead: A Human Resource
Strategy, I outlined three broad strategies and three priorities
for the incoming administration:
- attack one problem at a time and pursue civil service reform
over time with a lower profile
- abandon old fights that pit managers and politicians against
- challenge outdated assumptions.
In terms of these broad strategies, the new administration seems to
be on the right road. The president has focused on health reform as
his major priority and has stuck to this as it has waxed and waned
not only in controversy, but in the publics attention.
Civil service reform ideas and initiatives that the administration
has proposed have been meaningful but incremental and subordinate
to policy goals. They have in no way taken the limelight from or
reduced the focus on important national policy discussions.
Additionally, the administration has not run any sort of campaign
against existing public employees or public service and has sounded
a continued message of support for those responsible for doing the
day-to-day work of government. Policies of the prior administration
have been criticized, but the criticisms have not focused on the
institutions of government or the employees who work in them. In
these respects, the right tenor has been set and credibility is
being established between the political and career civil service.
The administration also has taken a relatively middle ground when
faced with Congressional action related to the Department of
Defense National Security Personnel System reforms. The reforms
have not been abandoned in a flurry to return to the status quo.
Instead, there seems to be a reasoned approach to looking at the
lessons learned and trying to move forward with changes that
improve performance and relationships, while backing away from
changes that were seen as non-productive and confrontational.
Its too early to tell whether the administration is seriously
questioning and challenging the outdated assumptions that underpin
the pay and performance principles of the civil service. It will be
interesting to see how broadly it solicits and explores new and
innovative approaches to dealing with its public service management
In my earlier article, I also proposed three broad innovations:
- moving to an occupational market-based pay system
- creating fair rating systems
- emphasizing long-term career development for managers over a
current GS (General Schedule) versus SES (Senior Executive Service)
In most cases, we are no closer to these objectives than we were
last year, but events over the last six to eight months have
highlighted some of the challenges.
Moving to an Occupational Market-Based Pay System
Little or no progress has been made on this objective. The new OPM
director has suggested that he would like to make the federal
government a cool place to work; and enthusiasm among youth for the
new administration has made more people interested in public
service as a career.
Nonetheless, the civil service has fundamentally changed over the
last several decades, and it is now one employer among many
competing for talent. As such, it needs to accept the fact that
people are entering and leaving organizationsthe government
includedthroughout all stages and levels of their careers.
Although civil service has unique attractions, including the
opportunity to work for the good of the nation and to achieve
policy goals as well as stability of employment in times of
economic upheaval, it also has unique frustrations, with internal
and external checks and balances and intense and extensive
The new competition for talent requires a new pay system that looks
much more like the competitive pay systems in private industry.
Occupation salaries in the private sector are driven by supply and
demand, and pay ranges are regularly adjusted to account for
The federal government also needs to regularly adjust its salaries
in this way to continue to attract top talent over a broad spectrum
of skills and experience. Rigid grade classification structures and
positions classified on scope of work and supervisory roles without
an eye to the market will never accurately reflect supply and
demand. More importantly, there are more opportunities to overpay
for certain skills and get inadequate talent into other skill
areas. Little apparent progress or discussion of these issues has
been accomplished to date.
Creating Fair Rating Systems
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 seems to spell the
end of the National Security Personnel System (NSPS). The
administration has not resisted the Congressional action, although
the Pentagon did challenge some of the earlier proposals. The
phase-out now looks likely.
The Obama Administration needs to do a comprehensive analysis of
what NSPS created. It needs to view it as a large scale
demonstration project and clearly assess the pros and cons. A joint
union and management group would be a useful way to impartially
look at what can be learned from this experience.
One of the underlying messages in the revocation of NSPS is that
unions, management, and politicians have a stake in how the
government is managed. A cooperative and collaborative evolutionary
change is more likely to have lasting support than an action that
is viewed as having been arbitrary and noncooperative.
Emphasizing Long-Term Career Development for
OPM announced the creation of a new Senior Executive Service Office
on August 19, 2009. Its not clear how this office will change the
policies and processes related to management and executive
development or whether it merely centralizes and formalizes
existing responsibilities. There is a lot of work to do to improve
top federal government leadership at all management levels.
Booz Allen Hamilton, together with the Partnership for Public
Service, released a report in August 2009 entitled, Unrealized
Vision: Reimagining the Senior Executive Service. The report looks
at a service that was built on the concept that a highly mobile
corps of excellent managers would move from agency to agency and
would use their management skills and experience to improve the
performance of government. The report found that mobility has been
negligible: Over a four-year period, only between 1.8 and 2.3
percent of SESers left their jobs for a job at another agency. The
program has not produced a mobile workforce.
Of more concern, however, were the reports findings about skill
sets, managerial capability, and development opportunities. It
found weaknesses in all of these areas. Shortcomings in management
skills in senior leaders have critical ramifications.
In its analysis of the best places to work in the federal
government, the partnership found that leadership has the highest
correlation of any factor it looked at to the perceived quality of
an organization by its employees. Also, contrary to conventional
thinking that the direct supervisor is most important to each
employee, the review found that the quality of senior leadership
was more important to employees than the skills of their own
These results suggest that leadership and management skills need to
be weighted much more highly from the time one enters supervisory
ranksit cant be left to cap off a career. It must be a cornerstone
upon which a career is built. Unifying SES programs in an OPM
office will prove less important than defining and unifying a
management-skills strategy that stretches from the first-line
manager to the senior executive. OPM needs to take a longer view of
these skills and their critical role in improving government
The Obama Administrations strategy of incremental changes and
low-key initiatives is appropriate for laying the groundwork for
reform. Positive statements about government institutions and the
government workforce are setting a new tone that creates an
opportunity for cooperation and collaboration by politicians and
government employees and managers.
However, to leave the government in a better position and a more
sustainable position for the future, the administration will need
to take action in the critical areas of pay reform and performance
reform, while creating a strategy for improved management
performance by senior leadership.