A New Civil Service

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

When the United States created its current civil service system, which is effectively a human capital system, was created after World War II, the workforce it employed was very different from today. The government had fewer agencies, worked less frequently with contractors, hired more clerical and blue-collar workers than administrative and professional ones, and expected to retain the people it hired for the entirety of their careers.  

But today, that system’s usefulness may have run its course. 

Considering how government occupations and much of the nature of government work have changed, the government’s human capital system needs to be more flexible and adaptable, all while remaining true to the principles that it was originally built on. This is all according to No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century, a July 2017 white paper from the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that provides expert advice to government leaders in building better organizations.  

The report suggests that if the government fails to reform its civil service, it will continue to see its missions hampered by an inability to effectively hire, develop, pay, and retain employees. Without the ability to modify and moderate roles and responsibilities in cyber security, incidents such as data breaches that occurred at the Office of Personnel Management’s in 2015 and at the IRS in 2016 will become more frequent. Without a process that makes working at the Veteran’s Administrative competitive with working in the private sector, the agency will have a difficult time fulfilling its health service obligation to our nation’s veterans.  

Of course, problems such as these are far from intractable. And that’s why No Time to Wait proposes that the government adopt a new human capital strategy using the bets of its past to redefine its future. 

At the core of the whitepaper’s proposal are three concepts that form a “three-legged stool” of federal human capital strategy. It describes them as “mission first, principles always, and accountability for both.” Let’s take a brief look at each one. 

Mission First 


With the current civil service system holding all agencies, with some exceptions, to a one-size-fits-all people strategy, No Time to Wait characterizes it as “a bad suit of clothes that everyone has to wear, but which fits no one well.” For example, agencies focused on direct service, which are limited in number but employ the largest number of federal workers (think of the TSA) might not be successful with strategies designed for research-driven agencies (such as the CDC), which are numerous but tend to have smaller workforces. Instead, the paper suggests creating a human capital system that lets agencies customize their strategies and policies according to their needs. 

A few of the whitepaper’s suggestions include: 

  • establishing mission-specific employee performance expectations and assessment methods 
  • rewarding experimentation and risk-taking in support of reaching mission objectives 
  • allowing for more fluid career mobility between an agency and the industries and organizations that help it accomplish its mission. 

Principles Always 

According to No Time to Wait, a federal human capital strategy that’s customizable between agencies and missions “does not mean an every-agency-for-itself arrangement.” Instead, the whitepaper encourages the government to recommit to the merit principles of today’s civil service, and apply them in a way that works for the modern era. To do this, the whitepaper proposes that “agencies should be allowed to apply these principles differently according to their needs.” 

Accountability Always 

The last pillar centers on a different type of accountability than is often discussed by lawmakers (the ability to fire federal employees). What it refers to is a focus on holding agencies responsible for the results of their human capital strategies rather than the processes behind them, using data to measure how well each agency’s approach contributes to its mission.  

To this end, the whitepaper suggests creating a central structure of some kind, although not an overbearing one, to oversee the new civil service system. This body would be responsible for balancing the tensions between the customized practices and unified principles the whitepaper argues for. It would also house and provide all the data for agencies to evaluate themselves on, which would help different bodies of government learn from one another in an ideal world. For example, if numbers suggest that a strategy being used at the EPA might work well for another agency, this central structure could find ways to connect the two bodies.  

Wrapping Up 

With a federal reorganization looming, now is a good time to evaluate your agency’s human capital strategy, including what it does well and what it doesn’t. No Time to Wait is an ambitious piece of writing, and well worth the time of anyone who wants to see the U.S. government improve the way it handles its most important asset: its people.

About the Author
Alex Moore is a former writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development. Prior to that role, he served as the research coordinator for ATD, writing content for the research department, managing its Twitter account, and assisting with data collection and analysis. Alex graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in English.
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