Public Service Reform: Modernize Government, Increase Accountability, Reduce Expenses

The Public Service Reform Act has been introduced to modernize government, increase accountability and reduce expenses.

How Large is the Federal Government’s Workforce?

The Public Service Reform Act (S. 1496), introduced by Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), would dramatically change the federal government’s human resources system. Proposals to change the federal government like this typically reflect dissatisfaction with how fast and reliably it can resolve problems.

Without a doubt, the government is a large bureaucracy staffed by roughly two million federal employees. The number of contractor employees is roughly double the number of civil service employees.

According to this report, the number of contractors working for the US government rose from about three million in 1996 to 4.1 million in 2017. The Project on Government Oversight estimates that more than 40 percent of the federal government’s workforce—about 3.7 million peopleare contract workers. 

Many of the complaints and frustration with the federal government, as articulated by Senator Scott, are not new. Previous efforts have not been successful in creating an efficient system rewarding the highest-performing employees.

Reforming the Federal Civil Service System—1978 Version

Some of the most significant changes to the federal government’s system resulted from the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA). The CSRA was a result of efforts by President Jimmy Carter and AFGE’s National President at the time, Kenneth Blaylock. The two men worked together to convince the public, and federal employees, that the changes were good for the country.

Underlying the law’s rationale was a conviction that too many federal employees continued to be employed even if they were incompetent or had engaged in misconduct. The existing disciplinary system was considered too complex and outdated. 

There was also a common belief that the federal government was inefficient and that political control over the federal bureaucracy by the president was lacking.

The CSRA was touted as a more efficient system. It emphasized performance standards for rewarding and retaining employees. It also created a Senior Executive Service with the ability of agencies to easily move senior people into positions and locations where they were most needed. The new law was also trying to eliminate manipulation of the older civil service system.

As today’s readers can well imagine, union members often did not appreciate the efforts of AFGE’s national president. A system that rewarded the highest performing employees, created a method to make it easier to fire employees, and theoretically gave the president more control over the bureaucracy is not a good campaign ad for a person who is or wants to remain as the president of a federal employee union—and it put the position of Ken Blaylock in a precarious position with AFGE members. Perhaps the persuasive powers of President Carter were a major factor in how this event played out.

While the CSRA passed and was implemented with great fanfare, much of what its supporters were championing did not provide the expected results. The new, improved system ended up looking much like the one it replaced but with different agencies and procedures.

What The Public Service Reform Act Would Change

The Public Service Reform Act (S. 1496) would revolutionize the federal government’s human resources system.

The reason for the proposal, according to Scott, is “that the bureaucracy of the federal government is both a waste of taxpayer dollars and inefficient. Red tape and bloated federal agencies constantly slow down progress and hamper American innovation.”

This complaint about how the government works would sound familiar to those who listened to the reforms to be enacted by the CSRA.

An identical bill has also been introduced in the House by Congressman Chip Roy (R-TX) and 14 co-sponsors.

Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced the Public Service Reform Act in the Senate. Here is the rationale behind this bill, according to a press release from Senator Scott:

The Public Service Reform Act ensures that poor-performing employees can’t hide behind bureaucracy and continue to slow down the federal government’s work to serve American taxpayers. It is a disservice to hardworking public servants when their efforts are undermined by a few bad actors entrenched in the federal workforce.

The most crucial part of the bill is that it would make all executive branch employees at-will employees. Any federal employee “may be subject to any adverse personnel action (up to and including removal) for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all; and may not challenge or otherwise appeal an action described in subparagraph (B)….” according to the text of the legislation as currently written.

Here are the main changes the Public Service Reform bill would introduce to the federal government’s human resources system:

  • Replacing the General Schedule (GS) pay system with a performance-based pay system to allow managers to reward high-performing employees and remove low-performing ones.
  • Eliminating automatic step increases and cost-of-living adjustments for federal employees and instead tying pay raises to performance evaluations and market rates.
  • Reducing the number of paid leave days for federal employees and requiring them to use their accrued leave before retiring or resigning.
  • Streamlining the disciplinary and appeals process and limiting the role of unions in representing them.
  • Creating a new category of at-will employees who could be hired and fired without cause or due process.

The Senate bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

It is unlikely this bill will pass in the current Congress. The Democrats are the majority in the Senate, and President Biden—a strong ally of federal unions—would be likely to veto this bill if it reached his desk. However, Senator Scott has said he will continue to push for his bill as a way to reform the federal government.

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