Skip to main content
Op-Ed

The Jurassic Park of Reform

If Ohio Sen. George Voinovich has his way, Congress soon will enter the Jurassic
Park of civil service reform. It is a strange and foreboding place filled with the
denizens of past reforms and a fear of most things new or radical. All the dinosaurs
are there—a monstrous classification system bred for a workforce that hasn’t existed
for 50 years, a performance appraisal process that rewards survival over all else,
and a hiring system that moves at subglacial speed. It truly is the land that time
forgot.

The question is why the Republican senator would ask Congress to take the
journey. It cannot be because his home-state federal employees are clamoring for
reform. Subtract Wright-Patterson Air Force base and the Lewis Space Flight
Center from his state totals and Voinovich barely represents enough federal
employees to fill a minor-league baseball stadium. Nor can it be because Ohio
voters are pressing for action on the human capital crisis in faraway Washington.
Most of Voinovich’s constituents probably cheer whenever he warns that half the
federal workforce is about to retire.

It most certainly is not because anyone else in the Senate or House wants to sign up
for the dinosaur tour. It has been almost 25 years since Congress last passed a
major civil service reform bill, and most members would be just as happy to wait
another 25 before acting again. As former Rep. Patricia Shroeder once complained
to her Civil Service Committee colleagues, “the civil service is a very difficult
concept for most people to know about, and once you get beyond this committee, if
you did a test on the House floor about the difference between RIFs and freezes
and buyouts and everything, their eyes glaze over, and they stare at you like a deer
in the headlights.”

Voinovich seems to be genuinely motivated by the desire to do good. He talks
incessantly about the looming retirement wave and never fails to promise not to give
up. He has commissioned dozens of studies of the problem and held more than his
fair share of hearings, including a couple in which yours truly droned on about the
need for action. He now promises to draft the first comprehensive civil service
reform bill since 1978. Having spent his career running public agencies as county
auditor and commissioner, big-city mayor (Cleveland) and governor, he believes
that people matter to performance. Voinovich’s greatest challenge is to pick the right
path to reform. Take a radical departure, and he is likely to be stomped by the
stegosaurus of the status quo; tinker with the status quo, and he will be gobbled up
by the raptors of hiring and pay freezes that always seem to attack even the
best-intentioned reforms.

The senator faces three paths as he moves ahead with legislation. The first takes the
well-worn course of incremental reform. It is the same path that the Clinton
administration took two years ago with no success, but it could give Voinovich and
other reform advocates a handful of easy victories and the confidence to tackle
more radical reform. The government desperately needs to improve its entry-level
hiring. In an era of high-velocity turnover and hiring through Web-based search
engines, talented recruits shouldn’t need advanced training to read a federal job
posting or have to apply for jobs in person.

Voinovich faces a much more difficult choice beyond the entry level. He must
decide whether the answer to the government’s human capital crisis lies in keeping
employees or stirring up competition in the workforce.

The federal government historically has viewed recruitment and retention as two
sides of the same challenge. Because the federal government rarely hires from the
outside above the entry level, the quality of the workforce depends almost entirely
on initial hiring decisions. The essence of the old, single-entry point, 30-year federal
career involves a clear chain of promotion that reserves most mid-level slots for
current employees.

Author

P

Paul C. Light

Former Brookings Expert

The Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, Robert Wagner School of Public Service - New York University

But that career has been obliterated by the new labor shortage. The new public
service is composed of a much more flexible, high-turnover workforce that sees little
value in a 30-year commitment. Talented recruits might spend a few years in the
federal government, move to the private sector to make some money, spend some
time in the nonprofit sector helping people one-on-one, and then come back to the
federal government for another tour. The only problem is that most federal agencies
don’t like outsiders.

The question is whether Voinovich should try to revitalize the 30-year career or take
the path toward a more porous system that allows greater movement in and out of
the government. Although the two paths are not always mutually exclusive,
Voinovich clearly understands that the retirement crisis cannot be solved solely at
the entry level or by begging retiring workers to stay longer. That Tyrannosaurus
Rex staring down at Voinovich and the rest of government is the 30-year federal
career fighting to survive as the asteroid of a prolonged labor shortage hurtles
toward government. Voinovich would do well to run as fast as possible in the other
direction, and lead his colleagues out of the misty past and into a more competitive
future.

Get daily updates from Brookings