Dan G. Blair is President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Previously, Dan served as Chair and Commissioner of the Postal Regulatory Commission and OPM Deputy Director and Acting Director. ()
The unfolding scandal involving secret waiting lists for veterans treated by the VA hospitals tears at the heart of the ideals of public service. We expect government to help, not hurt, those who protect and serve us. And reports that some VA employees’ action placed people’s lives at risks lead to an increasing public cynicism about the value of public service.
In response to this growing scandal, the House of Representatives recently approved legislation by a bipartisan majority of 390-33 to make it easier for the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire and demote senior executives. The Senate will likely follow suit and more legislation is expected. However, does making it easier to fire some VA employees cure the problem? Or do the root causes that led to these tragic incidents remain untreated by this action?
Congress has a history of taking action to address, after the fact, issues of misfeasance and malfeasance on the part of civil servants. But shouldn’t we have a system in place that prevents these incidents in the first place? The legislation in question is aimed at VA senior executives, a group representing just one small component of a vastly larger government workforce. Rather than addressing these issues in a piecemeal or one-off fashion in response to each government failure that arises, can Congress find a way to address the systemic issues facing our civil service to prevent these problems from arising?
Champions of public service must acknowledge the serious damage caused, but we also can learn from the experience. Our current civil service system - grounded in 1940s management thinking - is long overdue for reform. Reform is hard to enact and implementing it right even harder. Yet the need to create a 21st Century federal civil service that is grounded in merit, rewards good performance and offers managers tools to deal swiftly and effectively with poor performers is more apparent today than ever before. A piecemeal approach to reform may address specific agency needs or misdeeds, but also balkanizes the civil service into multiple systems with inconsistent core practices and hampers effective oversight. Change must happen if public trust in not just one department but across government is to be restored.
Regaining public trust is not easy and we shouldn’t have to endure more “disgraceful,” in the words of the President, government failures. We need leadership and action by Congress and the Administration to restore trust and create a civil service system that is fair, honors our Merit Systems principles, respects due process and grants managers needed flexibility to reward and hold accountable public servants across government. Good government groups like NAPA are prime starting points in providing that neutral space for good ideas to grow. Let’s get started now.