First Steps in Changing Federal HR

With a new guidance memo from OMB, federal workers can start to see what new human resources policies will emerge impacting the federal workforce.

The new guidance memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) outlines actions agencies should take to improve performance management systems in the federal government. There is an emphasis in the memo on taking action against federal employees who are not performing adequately.

Here are two of the main items in this area in the OMB document. Agencies are to submit their reports by June 30th.

1. Review and update formal agency policy

Agency timelines must include a process for reviewing and updating (or creating, if one does not already exist) the agency’s policy, procedures, and guidance on how to address poor performance and conduct.

2. Provide transparency around the Performance Improvement Plan process

Agency submissions must include a timeline for providing all supervisors a copy of the rules and guidance regarding performance improvement plans as well as guidance on how unacceptable performance can be addressed pursuant to 5 U.S.C. Chapter 75.

In a meeting, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney responded to a question about harming the morale of the federal workforce. The assumption of the person asking the question was that federal employees are going to be depressed. Mulvaney, however, focused on rewarding the government’s best performers with a higher salary.

“They shouldn’t be,” said Mulvaney. “And here’s one of frustrations that government workers have, is that we don’t reward those who do a really good job, and we don’t punish those who do a lousy job.

Mulvaney stressed the administration’s preference of focusing on those who do a good job rather than on firing people.

“That is one of the things we’ve asked the agencies to look at: How do you restructure your personnel policies in order to point out people who are doing a great job and figuring out a way to get folks who are not delivering money for the taxpayer, get them on board with whatever it is — whatever policy you’re trying to achieve. So that is a big part of what we’re doing because we recognize exactly what you said.”

The Heritage Foundation has previously proposed changes to the federal human resources system. The items in the OMB document broadly address these topics. The steps taken by OMB are not insignificant as this process makes change t0 the mindset in some agencies that taking a performance based action or adverse action are not worth the time or effort and the biggest loser in the process is often the manager trying to remove an employee.

We are likely to see changes made that will provide federal managers with greater authority to award bonuses or other forms of increased compensation to employees who receive a higher performance rating. There will also be an emphasis on making it easier to remove a federal employee. The OMB memo is the first significant step in that direction.

That reality is that making significant changes to the existing system will require legislative approval.

Here are related human resources changes proposed by Heritage which are likely to be very influential in making changes in this area of federal Human Resources under the Trump administration.

Proposed Changes to Procedures for Firing Federal Workers

The federal government rarely fires employees, and a removal action takes about 1.5 years to implement. Here are the proposed changes from Heritage to make this system faster and easier.

First, the probationary period should be extended from one year to three years. It is easier to remove a federal employee during a probationary period.

Second, allow employees to appeal their dismissal through one forum instead of up to three different forums.

Third, lower the standard on the burden of proof necessary to fire a federal employee and change the requirement of proving that dismissing an employee will improve an agency’s performance to showing it is reasonable to assume firing the employee will improve an agency’s performance.

Fourth, eliminate the automatic awarding of within-grade increases. Instead, provide federal managers with larger performance bonus budgets so that they can reward and retain their highest-performing employees.

Pending Legislation to Make it Easier to Remove a Federal Employee

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to make it easier to fire a federal employee for misconduct or poor performance. So far, there has been little movement on most of these bills and some, probably most, will end up never advancing beyond the committee phase.

For example, the Merit Act of 2017 (HR 559) was referred to the House Committee on Government Reform on January 13th.  This bill would provide to enable faster removal of a federal employee for misconduct or poor performance. (See Removal of Federal Employees for Misconduct or Performance). The bill is currently given a 7% chance of being enacted.

There is also a bill entitled the “Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2017” (HR 1643). This bill would also speed up the process for removing a federal employee from federal service. It is also given a 7% chance of being enacted.

There is also the chance of these two bills or others being considered by the House in lieu of or in parallel to action on this bill.


It is still early in the Trump administration. While we are beginning to see the outlines of action that may be taken to alter the federal human resources system, we do not know how many of these initiatives, if any, will be successful.

Legislation will be necessary to implement significant, long-lasting changes. That is what happened with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. That law made significant changes to the federal system, but getting the legislation enacted took a significant effort by President Carter. Without that effort, the changes would be unlikely to have occurred.

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