Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Next Wave of Civil Service Reform

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Next Wave of Civil Service Reform

Article excerpt

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 included new authority for civil service demonstration projects. The Carter Administration wanted a mechanism for experimenting with innovative ways of applying the merit principles. Congress wanted proof that highly touted concepts really worked before authorizing sweeping civil service reforms affecting 2 million civilian employees. Everyone agreed that the civil service needed change, but the solutions put forward by one group to "save" the civil service were often attacked by other groups as bad ideas, likely to destroy it. Who was right?

Demonstration projects enabled each subsequent Administration to build a stronger case for reform by proving that specific concepts did, in fact, work better--that the intended outcomes became reality and that unintended outcomes were acceptable. The presumption was that Congress would act within five years to incorporate successful concepts into government-wide reform.

Certain controls were built in from the beginning:

* The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has to approve civil service demonstration projects. Even when Congress directed a project at a particular agency, it required OPM's approval of the implementing details.

* Demonstration projects can cover no more than 5,000 employees. This arbitrary limit presents problems but encourages the establishment of experimental and control groups--a fundamental of evaluation.

* Demonstration projects are limited to five years, but OPM can extend a project for up to an additional three years for further evaluation. Congress has extended or approved the indefinite continuation of successful demonstration projects in the host agencies.

* Certain aspects of the civil service are off-limits altogether--merit principles, benefits, due process, the Senior Executive Service and any other matter outside of title 5 USC, e.g., equal employment opportunity. Veterans preference, while a permissible subject for a demonstration project, requires consultation with Congressional committees.

Successful demonstration projects have led to legislative reform. However, Congressional action to expand proven concepts government-wide can vary from two to 20 years.

Today, federal agencies are cautiously introducing civil service reforms that were first tested 20 years ago.

* Recruitment bonuses, relocation incentives and retention allowances are just now emerging as human capital strategies. Recruitment bonuses were first tested in 1986 at two Navy laboratories and a few years later in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Agricultural Research Service. The Federal Aviation Administration tested relocation incentives. The three "Rs" have been authorized for government-wide use since 1989.

* Categorical rating and ranking of candidates for federal employment is slowly replacing the traditional practice of ranking candidates based on adjusted numerical scores. This alternative to the Rule of Three was tested in USDA's Forest Service and Agricultural Research Service beginning in 1989. It later spread to other demonstration projects in the Defense Department and to the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Aviation Administration under special legislation. It was authorized for government-wide use in 2002.

* Pay banding and pay-for-performance are authorized by law on an agency-by-agency basis, including select Defense laboratories and acquisition activities, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (and additional components of the Department of Commerce), the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, and, now most recently, the Department of Homeland Security. These concepts were first tested beginning in 1987 at two Navy research laboratories. Congress authorized and then repealed a pay-for-performance system for federal managers in the 1980s. The Administration is proposing a modified pay-for-performance fund, again limited to managers. …

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