Reforming the entirety of the civil service system would be incredibly hard to achieve, according to Peter Warren, associate director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget.
“It is, for all sorts of reasons, extremely difficult to do,” Warren said at a Nov. 29 Creating Future Forward Government event hosted by FCW. “We have put forward legislative proposals, we will continue to, but, again, we’re not going to miss the opportunity.”
He explained that the stars would have to perfectly align to allow for the policy and legislative actions necessary to effect complete transformation, and the Trump administration “would be unwise” to act on the expectation of full reform.
But that doesn’t mean that the administration can’t find avenues for reforming and improving the federal workforce for the 21st century within current legislation.
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 established the federal workforce rules and protections that agencies still use today, but the 40-year-old legislation was not designed to accommodate the highly skilled and technically advanced workers of today.
“The workplace in general has changed dramatically,” said Warren, explaining that the original CSRA was designed for a clerk-based workforce, whereas today the small number of clerking duties left at federal agencies are often outsourced.
To adapt, administrations have issued special hiring authorities and workarounds so that agencies can hire for modern needs.
“If you look at how government has adapted over that time, it’s actually pretty impressive,” said Sean Morris, federal human capital leader at Deloitte. “Some aspects of what we have is actually working.”
The problem, according to Morris, is not so much that the workforce needs are changing, but that they are happening at such a fast rate.
“The change is coming at us so quickly, we don’t have the ability in government to be able to pivot,” said Morris.
According to Warren, the best solution in lieu of a total civil service overhaul is to use the “tremendous latitude in this area of the law for administrative discretion” to make government hiring more adaptable.
The Trump administration has already taken advantage of some of this, issuing direct hiring authorities and an alternative pay and classification system for sorely needed positions at federal agencies.
But agencies still need to be given a better grasp of what the regulations and authorities actually allow them to do in hiring new personnel.
“Even amongst the experts in this area and the [chief human capital officers] … there is a very imperfect understanding,” said Warren, explaining that agencies have historically sought out special hiring authorities and then never actually used them, because they didn’t know what was allowed. ”Part of it is an abundance of caution.”
The Trump administration is also looking to change federal retirement benefits practices to better attract personnel that only want to spend a couple of years or so in government work before moving on to something else.
The last time the Office of Personnel Management attempted to change the retirement benefits structure, it was met with strident opposition from federal employee groups.
Those proposals, however, simply sought to eliminate certain benefits without offering alternative systems.
According to Warren, a defined contribution retirement package that an employee can take with them after leaving government service may be a better alternative.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.