Civil-service reform needs more than 'Band-Aid approach,' experts argue

Wednesday - 4/2/2014, 5:13pm EDT

A legislative attempt to reform the aging federal personnel system will face a difficult path in Congress even if it's able to muster the support of key stakeholders, including the White House and federal-employee unions.

"I think it's a very difficult time in the Congress to do anything," said former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) during a panel discussion hosted by the Partnership for Public Service. "I think in this area if you started with the most friendly Congress in the world, it's a long process."

Panelists discussed proposed reforms to the civil-service system outlined in a new report published Tuesday by the Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton.

The proposed plan calls for tossing out the "archaic" General Schedule system, comprised of 15 separate grade levels, and replacing it with five broad work levels that better fit a more educated and high-skilled federal workforce. In addition, the report calls for overhauling the pay-setting system by tying federal salaries more closely to their specific occupations and instituting performance-based pay raises to replace those currently based on tenure.

Aside from the ambitious policy proposals, looming large during the discussion was how to institute such a massive overhaul of the system.

"Implementation is the game," said Bob Tobias, former long-time president of the National Treasury Employees Union and now director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. "This is a town filled with great policy suggestions, many of which fail."

Kaufman, now a visiting professor at Duke Law School, agreed that civil-service reform poses a "gigantic challenge." But compared to the 2010 Affordable Care Act health care overhaul, he said, "this is a walk in the park."

Comprehensive legislation or piecemeal approach?

Kaufmann said he thinks enacting the entire package of proposed reforms in a single piece of comprehensive legislation — as opposed to a piecemeal approach — is the best way to go.

"To try to deal — like we have for the last 40 years — with the civil service in a Band-Aid approach is just not going to work," Kaufman said.

Small-bore approaches are often only temporary fixes and can have unintended consequences, he said.

"It looks like you're solving this problem, but you're creating three problems over here," Kaufman said.

Tobias agreed that it would be difficult to pick individual pieces out of the overall framework, "not because of the substance but because of the momentum," he said.

"It's so hard to get momentum for this kind of reform going," he added. "So, if momentum develops and then only one piece gets split off and enacted, you run the risk that the other 80 percent falls by the wayside for another generation."

However, Tony Miller, chief operating officer of the Vistria Group and former deputy Education secretary, said he believes the most effective path forward may very well be carving out specific pieces.

"There's probably 60, 70 percent of this that has be framed holistically," he said. "But it's not clear that it's 100 percent. It's not clear that there aren't some things that are good on their own independent of everything else."

For example, the plan proposes the Senior Executive Service be expanded into a four-tiered system, including a top layer that would allow certain SESers to parachute into agencies to tackle thorny governmentwide priorities.

"I think that's good government," Miller said. "I think outside of holistic reform ... you could get some stakeholder support and you could move that forward."

Are unions on-board with proposals?

In addition to hammering out a legislative strategy, there's still a ways to go in gathering support for the framework's specific policy proposals.

The comprehensive reform envisioned by the report can only occur if the White House, Congress and outside stakeholder groups — including federal-employee groups — "agree on a way forward," Tobias said, likening such an arrangement to a three-legged stool.

That's not only about getting a substantive agreement going forward, but also about the need to build trust among the stakeholders, he said.

"This kind of legislation results in winners and losers," Tobias said. "If one of the legs of supporters ... thinks the overall result will be a loss, they'll pull out," he said. "And you can't make it happen, unless all three are supportive."

The proposed overhaul has already drawn criticism from the largest federal-employee union, the American Federation of Government Employees.

AFGE attacked the pay-for-performance proposals as a "retread" of the Defense Department's failed National Security Personnel System repealed by Congress in 2009.