Revitalizing the Federal Government for the 21st Century: Presenting Differing Perspectives on the Report of the National Commission on the Public Service (Volcker II). (Opinion Roundtable: Volcker II)

Article excerpt

In January 2003, the National Commission on the Public Service (popularly referred to as "The Second Volcker Commission" in honor of its chairman, Paul A Volcker) issued its eagerly anticipated report on the public service. Titled, "Urgent Business for America: Revitalizing the Federal Government for the 21st Century," the report, a product of over a year's worth of data gathering, deliberation, and analysis, contains some expected conclusions but also some surprises.

Among those who were already concerned about the decline in the capacity the federal workforce to carry out the many missions of government, the commission's report confirms that what was once called a "quiet crisis" is still an extremely urgent problem. In fact, the crisis is no longer so quiet. The commission report helps to raise the volume on this increasingly loud debate by noting that:

Those who enter the civil service often find themselves trapped in a maze of rules and regulations that thwart their personal development and stifle their creativity. The best are underpaid, the worst, overpaid. Too many of the most talented leave the public service too early; too many of the least talented stay too long.

Sweeping Scope

What will be surprising to some, however, is the sweeping scope of the commission's recommendations to the president and Congress. Rather than focusing primarily on changes to the federal civil service system, per se, the commission takes a much broader view and starts with a call for a fundamental reorganization of the executive branch of government. Moreover, it also calls upon the House of Representatives and the Senate to realign their committee oversight to match-no small task given the historic intransigence of Congress in this regard. Nor does the commission s report shy away from other worthwhile but still quite controversial recommendations in suggesting, for example, that Congress and the president should work together to significantly reduce the number of executive branch political positions.

In calling for an "immediate and significant" increase in judicial, executive, and legislative salaries, the commission also recognizes the long-standing reluctance of members of Congress to vote for a pay increase for themselves. The report calls upon Congress to break the statutory link between their salaries and those of judges and senior political appointees.

Recommendations for Change

To be sure, the commission's report does contain a number of recommendations for changes in federal personnel management systems, policies, and practices to help reshape the workforce. The report ends with a nod to the issue of "competitive outsourcing," and a recommendation that any "contracting out" follow clear standards and goals that do not undermine core competencies of the government.

While federal policy makers may not rush to embrace immediately all of the commission's recommendations, the report already is making a difference by contributing in a positive way to the ongoing debate among individuals and organizations committed to the common goal of effective government and a quality federal workforce, but divided in their opinions on how best to achieve those goals. …