Battle of the Bureaus

March 11, 1999

It may have been the only thing Bill Clinton did not mention in his State of the Union laundry list, and most certainly it will not earn Al Gore another booking on “Late Night With David Letterman,” as his ashtray-breaking campaign did in 1993. But Gore’s recent promise to take on civil service reform this year may turn out to be the most important decision of his reinventing career. Reform cannot come soon enough.

The problem is not just that the system was designed for a work force that has not existed for a good 60 years. Nor is it just that agencies are constantly gaming the system to get what they want through overgrading of positions, inflated performance reviews, or outright deception.

Rather, the problem is that the current system is weakening the public service it was designed to protect. It underwhelms at almost every task it undertakes. It is slow in the hiring, almost useless in the firing, overly permissive in the promoting, out of touch with actual performance in the rewarding, penurious in the training, and utterly absent in the managing of a vast and hidden work force of contractors and consultants who work side by side, desk by desk with the civil service.

Gore is quite right to sound the call for more aggressive recruiting strategies and a tighter link between performance and pay. Sad to say, when young Americans are asked to picture themselves in public service careers, they picture themselves in dead-end jobs where seniority, not performance, rules. He is also quite right to keep pushing for greater flexibility. If that means abolishing the current system and its 450 job classifications, all the better. This is one case where nothing is truly better than something.

But Gore and his experts at the Office of Personnel Management can and should go further. Even as the federal government invites more of its best and brightest to serve, it must also make that service much more inviting:

First, the presidential appointments process needs to be fixed. There are too many positions to be filled, too many forms to be filed and too many delays at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to be surmounted. The result has been a steady lengthening of time between nomination and confirmation, and a rising tide of vacancies. A sharp cut in the number of presidential appointees, say from 3,000 to 1,500, could be just the bargaining chip needed to win a streamlined Senate confirmation process.

Second, Congress and the president should stop worrying about how to keep the number of civil servants small and start protecting the core competencies needed to run high-performing programs. Beset by head-count ceilings and hiring freezes for the better part of a half-century, the full-time civil service is no doubt smaller than ever. But in shrinking the civil service without shrinking the federal mission, Congress and the president have encouraged agencies to create a shadow work force composed of contractors and consultants who do many of the jobs once done in-house.

Although much of this shadow casting is perfectly appropriate, no one knows for sure whether the right jobs have gone and how many should return. The only way to know is to develop a work force planning system that asks what jobs need to be done, then who should do them. Right now, it is exactly the other way around.

Third, departments and agencies should get much more aggressive about flattening their hierarchies. Although Gore’s streamlining campaign has reduced the girth of middle management by roughly a quarter, the available evidence suggests that the number of layers between the top and bottom has not declined appreciably. At the top of government, for example, the number of layers open for occupancy has actually exploded. In the five years from 1993 to 1998, the federal government added the same number of new job titles at the top (16) as were added in the 23 years before, including an assortment of “deputy deputies” whose sole job is to play the alter ego to their principals.

Fourth, government’s human resource profession must be strengthened. Forced to administer a failing system and targeted for special criticism during the recent downsizing, federal personnel officers hardly have any incentive to come to work at all. Most want to do better. The question is whether the Office of Personnel Management, which is undergoing its own renaissance, can find the resources to rebuild the profession it leads.

In the end, civil service reform cannot succeed without a strong champion. Knowing that Gore cares about reform is an essential first step toward calling America’s best and brightest back into public service. Congress should take up his challenge, and Clinton should add civil service reform to the top of his laundry list.