Does the Civil Service System Need to be Changed? Readers Speak Out

Most readers oppose the civil service changes proposed for the Department of Defense. At least some readers oppose the change with an incomplete understanding of these changes. Readers also expressed a strong distrust of managers and political leaders in government.

Changing the civil service system has been the topic of numerous speeches, and Congressional testimony from a variety of interest groups. Creation of the Department of Homeland Security marked a major change in how a federal agency conducts its human resources program. Moreover, the House of Representatives has passed a bill that would make major changes to the civil service system in the Department of Defense (the Senate has not yet voted on these changes).

There is clearly the possibility of major changes in the federal human resources structure for the first time in 25 years. So we asked our readers, most of whom work for federal agencies, how they view the proposed changes.

Those who work with federal employment issues are used to seeing a lot of case filings and complaints from federal employees in a variety of issues starting with pay and benefits and extending to more personal issues including performance ratings and promotions. From the number and variety of complaints that seem to emanate from those working under the current system, one might expect that federal employees would quickly embrace changes to the current system.

But, if you think that, you would be wrong. Readers voting in our latest survey are not seeking major changes. 24% don’t see the need to have the current system changed in any meaningful way. And another 45% see some flaws in the system but don’t think any major changes are required. In short, 69% of those responding don’t want major changes to their employment system.

The concern most often expressed by readers is that they don’t trust supervisors to make decisions that are fair and equitable, especially with regard to pay for performance. An employee of the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming said: “Pay for performance would not and will not be a fair and equitable way of pay due to the quality of some of the supervisors who have control of the promotion, approval and award system. We have many supervisors who award people that do not deserve the award because they in fact get overtime pay for what they do and the position description spells out their requirements. The morale is bad … so why make it even worse?”

A similar comment came from an employee at Ramstein AFB, Germany: “Before [the HR system] is changed, supervisors need to be much better trained in how to be supervisors and also how to make decisions when there is no clear and specific guidance. The culture has to be changed. The key to success is manager training.”

An auditor with the Department of Defense in Salt Lake City said: “We need a fair appraisal system with decent controls. Based on my experience, the supervisory and management corps in the government are too power mad and willing to sacrifice their people for no good reason. It’s time to put some quality in the supervision of federal employees and not just use them as numbers on a sheet of paper.”

In short, the view of most readers is that changing the current system is not a good idea.

A number of comments from readers explained their view that there are problems with the current system, including not dealing with performance problems, but that supervisors do not know how to handle human resources issues such as these. In other words, some readers are not happy with the current system but they do not want to see it changed for fear that it will create more problems than it will solve.

An Army employee in Ft. Eustis, VA wrote: “I feel that changing the system will create a lot of problems. The system is not fair to all. There will be discrimination and sexual harassment for some.”

An employee of the Corps of Engineers working in California wrote: “One major change needs to come in the area of mgmt’s dealing with or NOT dealing with employees who are not efficient workers.”

And an HR specialist with the Department of Defense in Arlington, VA doesn’t like the existing system because “The civil service system is flawed in regard to the compensation, recruitment and appeal systems. The compensation system is too rigid and does not adjust to changes in the labor market.” At the same time, he is against changing much of the system and expressed the apparent belief of a number of readers that the changes will not be beneficial. “As it currently exists, performance management is a very subjective process. The largest performance awards generally are awarded to those in the ‘good-old-boy’ network. Unless the performance appraisal system changes and the quality of managers improves, the new pay-for-performance system will not improve productivity or work product quality.”

But not all readers are against changing the system. 22% of readers agreed with the statement “the system is broken and requires major transformation.” Another 8% think the civil service system “works well in some agencies but need to be changed in others.”

An EPA employee in Chicago wrote: “Pay for performance would help morale in this agency and would possibly get rid of the dead weight.”

An Army employee in Heidelberg, Germany writes: “The civil service system currently rewards longevity and encourages mediocrity as a result. I highly favor pay for performance; however, my fear is lack of supervisory training on implementing such a method.”

An attorney with the Department of Health and Human Services in Baltimore is discouraged with the current system. “There is a need for serious change in the Federal employment culture and manager/employee attitude before the public can get what it deserves and pays for with its taxes.” This same employee dislikes changes made in the past few years and says: “The 8 years of Clinton did much to damage the Federal government’s ability to effectively serve the public’s interest. It became more important to serve the federal employee than to serve the public for which the agency was setup to serve. It was seen as progressive to have programs centered around “partnership with unions,” emphasis on political correctness and ‘affirmative action’ and many other types of agency programs negotiated with a by-product which allowed the employee a way to be away from their jobs more often usual.”

The proposed changes to the existing system are significant changes. A number of comments from readers indicate a strong reaction to the idea of the proposed changes but a lack of information about what the changes that have actually been proposed. This is not surprising considering the extent of the proposed change. It also reflects a strong distrust of authority on the part of many employees. This can best be summed up with the comments of one human resources specialist for Defense in Washington, DC who said simply “Needs fixing but Rumsfeld is an extremist.”

Thanks to all readers who took the time to express your views and to share your opinion with other readers.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47