Changing the Civil Service–For Better or Worse

More changes are coming to the civil service system. They won’t happen overnight but the current trend in federal employment is clear.

Most federal employees are anticipating (or dreading) major changes to the human resources system. The changes rapidly approaching for employees in the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security are likely to be more far-reaching than the changes brought about by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

But if you thought the major changes for these two huge federal agencies would be the end of change, that may not be the case. Similar changes may be in store for the rest of the federal workforce as well.

The Office of Personnel Management has drafted a proposal to change the human resources system for the rest of the government as well as for employees in DHS and DoD. The draft is called the "Civil Service Modernization Act of 2005.")

For those who follow the events impacting the civil service system, most of these changes are not big surprises. The legislation would change the federal pay system and put into place a pay banding system that would give agency managers more flexibility to reward those employees they believe are the most productive. In effect, the draft proposal would set up a pay for performance system and move away from the current general schedule and within-grade increase system that essentially gives most federal employees the same basic pay raise.

The legislation would also change some of the provisions for hiring new federal employees and for firing existing employees.

And the rules governing labor-management relations in the federal sector would also change. The range of topics for bargaining between agencies and unions would be more restricted, release of information to unions would be more restricted, the right of a union to attend meetings between a supervisor and employees would be more restricted, and appeals by employees subject to an adverse action would also be changed in some ways.

If all of this scares you, don’t panic yet. The legislation isn’t expected to go into effect right away. Agencies would have to develop a pay for performance plan by 2008 and to eliminate the general schedule pay system by 2010.

Moreover, one can reasonably anticipate a strong reaction by federal employee unions which will start lobbying Congressional representatives and sending out press releases opposing the plan. And the dates for the proposed implementation will make the plan subject to any changes in Congress as a result of the mid-term Congressional election and the 2008 presidential election. Since no one can accurately predict what will happen in these elections, the entire plan could be quashed or changed beyond recognition by the time it gets through Congress and is implemented.

Having said that, the trend of implementing major changes to the federal civil service system is clear. Some changes along the lines of that proposed by the new civil service reform proposals are likely to be enacted. Here’s why:

Those of us who work in and around federal government are like any other industry–we see events and interpret them through our own environment and experience. Large numbers of readers have sent in comments berating the changes in DoD and DHS and many of these readers decry the unfairness of changing a system that in their view has worked well and has been in place for decades.

While that is understandable, even the federal government is not immune to changes in society. The existing system in many ways reflects the slower pace of past decades. Computers have made it possible to install faster and more uniform personnel policies throughout government. Private sector employees have been undergoing the threat of being contracted out of their jobs for years and most of us are aware that most of our manufactured goods are now made overseas and shipped back to our shores because it is cheaper and often more efficient. There is no longer a reason to have different personnel offices in all agencies and in all regions. Centralized hiring of new employees is now possible while it could not have been done 50 years ago.

Many readers have commented in our public forums that pay for performance just won’t work in government and will bring about a rapid return of the "good old boy system" (although it isn’t clear when the "good old boy system" was in place and when it disappeared in the past) and end efficient and effective federal government.

That may be true, but most of the voting public doesn’t see it that way. Many Americans think of federal employees as being coddled, overpaid and that they don’t have to work very hard. Perception is reality and, while most of those reading this article think otherwise, don’t confuse your personal views with those held by most voters. A politician who argues that federal employees should be part of a "pay for performance" system has an easy sell. Very few voters are likely to disagree with that argument outside those who work directly for Uncle Sam.

And, while some readers argue vehemently that unions did not have any choice other than to support Democrats in national elections, the reality is that the federal workforce is now seen as a vocal part of the national political process–and the vocal part almost always supports Democratic candidates.

Several years ago, changes were made to the Hatch Act that loosened restrictions on political activity by federal employees. The argument was that feds were "second class citizens" because they did not have the same freedom to engage in political activity as those in the private sector. I wrote a column at that time noting that many employees of municipal governments would love to be treated as "second class citizens" in this way. Municipal government employees are often expected to campaign for their political boss–or lose their jobs. Federal employees were largely immune from these pressures as they were not part of the political process.

With the unions prevailing in their drive to give federal employees more political freedom, the unions have used the changes to try and expand their political power by campaigning hard for Democrats running for president and Congress. Federal employee unions would be expected to take a position on issues directly impacting federal employees and argue in favor of legislation or proposals that would increase benefits, pay, etc. But union involvement has gone way beyond taking a position on specific federal employees issues.

Instead, federal unions now routinely support Democrats and campaign hard to support specific candidates. And, in the process, they also attack the opposing party and argue long and hard for federal employees to vote for the candidates they support. In other words, federal employees are no longer "second class citizens." They are free to engage in some political activity. While most probably do not do so, the perception of the political class is that federal employees are now part of the political process and their representatives will support the Democrats’ candidate. Our polls from readers show that federal employees don’t vote as a bloc and do not have one political view. But the vocal proponents speaking on their behalf are not reflecting this diversity of the federal workforce.

In effect, federal employees are no longer protected as they once were. There is now a practical, political reason to limit the power of unions, to contract out more federal jobs, to restrict union representation in large segments of the federal workforce, and to alter the pay structure for civil service employees.

That may change in 2008. If the unions continue to strongly support Democrats and the next occupant of the White House has a "warm and fuzzy" feeling toward federal employee unions, events may change. President Clinton certainly gave unions more access and union officials more perks (while continuing to limit the size and pay raises for federal employees). Something similar may happen after the next election.

Or, it is possible a similar scenario will play out again and the Republicans will occupy the White House for another four or eight years. And, if that president believes federal employees or their representatives tried to defeat him (or her), there may again be a political reason to change the nature and structure of the federal workforce.

So, while the final outline is in doubt, change will happen. Enjoy the ride–or retire when you are eligible!

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