Management

The battle for the future of the federal workforce

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the federal government’s workforce management practices as they currently stand aren’t good enough to meet the needs of the American people. But as demonstrated at a Feb. 23 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing, they have radically different ideas of how to fix things.

Those two stances are well-exemplified in the policies advocated for by the most recent presidents from each party.

During his four years in office, President Donald Trump placed his focus on making it easier to get rid of poor-performing federal employees and restructuring pay to better match private sector competition and performance metrics.

Those policies took shape through executive orders that sought to streamline the employee removal process, restrict collective bargaining and move some employees into a new job category that would eliminate certain civil service protections.

President Joe Biden, on the other hand, reversed those executive orders during his first days in office and said that he wants to be a president that supports collective bargaining and federal employee protections.

Democratic legislators have advocated for increased pay and more widespread telework as levers to improve federal job performance and attract new talent to an aging federal workforce.

James Shirk, former domestic policy assistant to the Trump administration, said that results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey — which showed increasing overall job satisfaction and continued dissatisfaction with performance recognition — demonstrated that the federal workforce approved of Trump’s management approach.

Meanwhile, he pointed to federal unions as the driving force behind policy that made feds hard to fire for poor performance.

“Their sales pitch is ‘we will make sure they won’t hold you accountable,’” said Shirk.

“We believe the problem is not the system, the problem is the management,” American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said in response, adding that if managers took the time to document poor performance, it wouldn’t be hard to fire those employees when the need arose.

Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer noted that 24 federal employees are fired on average every day, refuting the notion that such employees are impossible to get rid of.

And though Shirk said that Trump’s creation of a Schedule F for employees performing policy-oriented work was intended to increase accountability and would only impact up to 3 percent of all federal workers, other witnesses took issue with such a characterization.

“How this can be one to 3 percent is questionable in my mind,” said Janice R. Lachance, executive vice president for Strategic Leadership and Global Outreach at the American Geophysical Union and former OPM Director. She noted that the Office of Management and Budget was expected to convert 80 percent of its workforce to the new schedule before the new administration took over.

“I think Schedule F was largely disingenuous. If you’re concerned about the difficulty of getting bad employees removed, then you want a fully staffed Merit Systems Protection Board to help process those deserved firings quicker,” said Anne Joseph O’Connell, Adelbert H. Sweet professor of law at Stanford University.

“To go to a system of all of these protections to no protections seems like the wrong answer to various concerns. The head of the Federal Salary Council resigned because of the Schedule F executive order and said that he could not be part of an administration that seeks to replace apolitical expertise with political obeisance.”

O’Connell also pointed to several agency relocations enacted under the Trump administration, which drove significant percentages of those offices to leave federal work and tanked FEVS scores for those agencies.

The hearing also highlighted disagreements in the federal employee pay debate, with Democrats relying on data released by the Federal Salary Council, which found that feds are paid less than their private sector counterparts by more than 20 percent, while Republicans said that feds were generally overpaid, based on findings from a 2017 Congressional Budget Office study.

That data discrepancy is based largely on the fact that the Federal Salary Council compares pay based on the closest private sector job equivalent, whereas the CBO compared pay based on education level.

With Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, federal employee policy will more definitively swing toward workforce and organized labor protection measures.

Some members of Congress have also moved to legislatively restrict how much a future president could change the workforce on their own, such as Rep. Gerry Connolly’s, D-Va., Preventing a Patronage System Act, which would prohibit the president from creating new workforce categories outside the Civil Service without explicit congressional approval.

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