Can We Ever Get Off The Pay Carousel – Or Just Keep Going Around?

It seems like every few months the pay debate comes up again – or more accurately, it comes up every election cycle. Pay is a constant source of tension, but if we’re really going to solve the debate once and for all, there needs to be serious reforms to the civil service -- not just compensation. 

The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton have come up with a road map to improve the civil service, and along with it, the pay debate. Their report is “Building the Enterprise: A New Civil Service Framework.

Robert Tobias is the Director of the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. He is also the former president of the NTEU, the largest federal union. Tobias told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that it’s really important to take a holistic view of all the pieces of the puzzle.

In order to make substantial reforms to the civil service, you can’t simply talk about pay -- you have to talk about hiring reforms too.

“If you talk about hiring but you don’t talk about pay, you are wasting time. Why go to the trouble of doing hiring, if you can’t pay people an appropriate amount once they get on board?” asked Tobias. “If you’re gonna talk about pay, you have to talk about evaluation. If you’re going to talk about evaluation, you have to talk about poor performers. Real reform is really really about integrating all the pieces together.”

The current civil service system was enacted in 1978 under the Civil Service Reform Act. Since then, there hasn’t been enough momentum or concensus to create any major or lasting reforms.

“In order to get legislation enacted, it needs to be supported very aggressively by the administration,” said Tobias. “There needs to be a bipartisan coalition of people in the House and Senate that would be supportive, and there needs to be support from unions. We haven’t had that.”

Another key to creating lasting reforms is to empower and energize agency leaders.

“Creating leadership development for the existing workforce would be necessary to implement any civil service reforms,” said Tobias. “Right now the government is not focused on leadership development.”

Leaders also take their cue from the administration -- and so far the administration hasn’t really weighed in much on civil service reforms, either. The president’s management agenda is still being crafted.

“When pay for performance was implemented and failed at the DOD (NSPS) during the Bush administration, it was an attempt to reform the civil service,” explained Tobias. “It was done unilaterally, it was done hostilely, and it has left a lot a scars. So the administration is hesitant to go down that road again.”

One of the biggest complaints about the government’s HR system? The seeming inability to fire poor performers.

“The failure to meet one performance standard can lead to a discharge based on substantial evidence, provided the employee has received a 60 day notice of poor performance. Now the statutory standard is very easily met. Furthermore, only about 4% of the appeals get overturned by the Merit Systems Protection Board,” said Tobias.

“However, the system of dealing with poor performers is filled with great myths about how hard firing is to do. Supervisors who initiate disciplinary action are often not supported by their bosses; the lawyers don’t support them. In reality, even though the statutory standard is easy, the system itself makes it difficult to discharge federal employees.”

The negative environment is having an impact on attracting and hiring the best new talent to government. A PPS poll shows fewer than 10% of public policy grads are actively looking for employment in the government.

“I work at American University. Students come to American University because they want to be in D.C. and they want to go into government. But I know that does not hold true across the country,” said Tobias. “I have seen those numbers about people who wouldn’t even consider public service or the federal government, and that discourages me greatly.” 

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