Federal employment is not what it once was, thanks to societal shifts as well as regulatory ones. As we begin to wrap up our 50th anniversary campaign that honors government transformation past and future, Federal Times takes a look at five trends that did just that – redefining what it means to be in public service.
As societal change was afoot in the 1960s as a result of the civil rights movement, the federal government addressed it with a slate of new legislation to stop hiring discrimination and provide opportunities to those who had been previously left out of the workforce.
Beginning with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the federal government forbade discrimination in hiring and firing on the basis of race and sex. The law also set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a regulatory body to police discrimination in the workplace. Later legislation gave the EEOC power to prevent prejudicial treatment on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability, age and other factors.
Affirmative action also developed over the course of the decade and came to prominence when the Nixon administration set goals for including more underrepresented groups in the workforce.
These efforts affected the makeup of the government workforce as much as any, with agencies serving as the touchstone in the U.S. for more inclusive workplaces.
"The federal government, as an entity, probably mirrors society better than any institution in American life," said Donald Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and a a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "We still have a long way to go. We have challenges in hiring and retaining Hispanic workers, for example. We have the further challenge of helping women break through glass ceilings in some agencies to get to some higher levels of leadership. Those are real problems and challenges, but we've made a lot of progress."
Recent statistics support that claim. In 2005, 31.8 percent of federal employees were minorities, as compared to 27.4 percent of civilian workers nationwide. Today, minorities represent 35.3 percent of the federal workforce, as compared to 32.5 percent of the civilian labor force.
Beyond its own workforce, federal government has significant influence over the contracting community, and has long used that influence to extend opportunities to segments of the population that face more challenges. The Small Business Administration offers various business development programs, instructing agencies to set aside portions of contract dollars to small disadvantaged businesses, including those owned by women, veterans and minorities. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies, programs that receive federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. The AbilityOne was also created as the largest source of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities in the United States. More than 550 nonprofit organizations employ these individuals and provide products and services to the federal government via a prioritized contracting program. Furthermore, in 2013, the Labor Department set a hiring goal for federal contractors that 7 percent of each job group in their workforces should be made up of qualified people with disabilities.
As Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability noted: "Preventing discrimination and affirmative hiring are not one and the same."
The federal employee strikes
The postal worker strike of 1970 and the air traffic controller strike of 1981 served as the definitive moments in the history of collective bargaining in the federal government.
Reverberations from the two strikes—which were illegal under federal law as federal workers are not allowed to strike—continue to define the government's relationship with its workforce and organized labor.
The postal strike originated in New York in March 1970 and spread across the nation, eventually impacting more than 200,000 USPS workers and affecting the stock market. President Richard Nixon tried to break the strike by sending in the National Guard to operate mail services, but following continued negotiations, the strike ended after eight days.
The result was the Postal Reorganization Act, which made the USPS operate more like a corporation than a government office, and guaranteed collective bargaining rights to four postal unions.
While 1970 was a victory for federal unions, the 1981 air traffic controllers strike served as their biggest defeat.
The strike began in August, when 13,000 air traffic controllers from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked off the job, seeking better work conditions. After ordering the controllers back to working, citing the illegality of the strike under civil service statutes, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 of the strikers on Aug. 5, banning them from federal service for life.
The result was the complete collapse of PATCO, after the Federal Labor Relations Authority took away its right to represent federal workers.
Clinton lifted the ban in 1993, but only a sliver of the strikers returned to air traffic control jobs.
"The shadow of the air traffic controller strike is still very strong over not only the reality of the federal workforce, but also the underlying politics," Kettl said. "There really is an underlying piece of this that is extraordinarily important in the relationship of government and its employees and, in particular, between government and public employee unions."
Outsourcing of government
Bill Clinton's 1994 Federal Workforce Restructuring Act sought to bring more efficiency to the federal workforce and lower the deficit by eliminating 273,000 positions by 1999. The law seemed to encapsulate a movement that began in the 1980s toward a leaner government more dependent on contractors to provide service and support.
It also capped agency budgets and authorized buyouts to spread the reductions across age and experience levels.
Kettl said the law signified a kind of end of skill-level services within the federal workforce.
"The blue collar workforce in the federal government has, not completely, but largely been contracted out," he said. "So it's very difficult to a federal security worker, a federal cafeteria worker compared to what was the case back in the late 1970s. So it has transformed the workforce."
Kettl said, as a result, the GS-level jobs have focused more on managing contractors and higher-level positions, fundamentally reshaping the nature of federal work. Further, the law represented an anomaly between the Republican and Democrat administrations of the era, where defense spending by Reagan in 1980s increased the federal workforce, despite calls for a downsizing of government, and restructuring by Clinton in the 1990s pulled the numbers down again.
"The big downsizing happened during the Clinton years as part of reinventing government," Kettl said. "And that ended up reducing the size of government significantly. But during the [George W.] Bush administration there was an increase in employment, especially because of TSA. So there is a paradox there."
Civil service reform
The Senior Executive Service was created during the Carter administration as part of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, to provide the federal workforce with leaders that brought the executive management capabilities needed to transform government over time.
The creation of the SES and merit-based pay led to new pay structures and organizational changes, which occurred alongside the creation of the Office of Personnel Management, and placed executives just below the level of presidential appointees. And as noted by former White House administrator for e-government and IT Karen Evans, it also was a great equalizer. Suddenly there was a a structure that protected job status and promotion opportunities for all employees – even when they needed to be off for extended periods.
"There is a lot of flexibility for those employed by the government," Evans said in a Federal Times story on the changing role of women in government. "In the private sector, could you be off for six months with a pregnancy and come back at the same level and be considered right away for promotions? No. But in the federal government, you can."
Today, the SES still plays a role in the management of the federal government, with the operations of 75 agencies overseen by SES employees.
But the service, like other levels of government, has faced challenges. A recent survey by the Senior Executives Association found difficulties with recruitment to fill the SES ranks. The survey cited compensation as well as the political climate of Washington a turn-off for candidates eligible for the jobs.
"The idea of the SES, as it was created back in the late 1970s, is something that has never worked out in practice, for a whole variety of reasons that are more political than managerial," Kettl said.
Few could have anticipated the population swell of the baby boomer generation. Perhaps that's why government didn't respond terribly early to the inevitability of their aging. But it's now upon us – exemplified by the stark differences between the baby boomers and the Gen Xers and millennials that will dominate the workforce for the next decade or longer.
One of those differences is sheer interest in public service. Beth McGrath, director of federal sector at Deloitte Consulting, called it a shift from "government employees for life" to a more transient workforce, where people move from employer to employer.
Get the full story: See all of our coverage of the past 50 years in government
At the same time, retirement of the last of the government "employees for life" results in a brain drain of government experience. "The upside is refreshed thinking becomes possible," McGrath says. "The downside is a loss of practical experience that stops reinvention of the wheel."
In 2015, OPM estimated that four in every 10 federal employees would be eligible to retire in the next five years. Coupled with estimates that millennials only make up 16 percent of the federal workforce, the government faces the dual problems of attracting new talent and modernizing the way it communicates to potential future hires.
Kettl said the transition from a baby boomer to millennial workforce would likely not come in an exodus of retirees, but in a slow trickle, challenging the federal government to adapt over time. To him, the list of challenges is quite long. Agencies need not only hire new workers, but find ways to motivate them, accommodate their needs, which vary quite dramatically to those of generations before. Agencies will have to make the transformations of both leadership and worker expectations – accommodating new demands for technology and countering the tendency to be far more transitional than was ever the case in the past.
"As the ratio of active workforce contributors to those in benefit status continues to decrease, the burden in all three of these dimensions will strain not only the programs directly involved, but other government agencies, as well, that compete for a shrinking part of the resource pie," said Linda Springer, former OPM director.
“The acceleration of this shift also has the potential to threaten the sustainability of federal employee benefit programs and retention of knowledge from an aging workforce,” she added. Dealing with all these issues is and will continue to be a major focus for federal government leaders."