As Americans, we have only one institution with the resources and the public mandate to address our nation’s most vexing problems: the federal government. It is, however, ill-equipped for the task today, operating with a badly broken personnel system that is rapidly reaching a crisis point.
The facts are stark. There is a generation gap in government with only 6 percent of full-time federal career employees under the age of 30. The hiring process is slow and arcane: It takes twice as long to hire a government worker (106 days) than a private-sector employee. In addition, the pay structure is out of sync with the private sector for critical jobs, good work is infrequently recognized and poor employee performance often goes unaddressed.
These conditions have festered through multiple presidencies, and one Congress after another has turned a blind eye to the problems. That already bad situation has been exacerbated by President Trump’s attacks on certain agencies, turnover in Cabinet posts and the delay in appointments to numerous critical positions. The Trump administration also has proposed weakening civil service protections, freezing salaries for federal workers and slashing retirement programs — all while devaluing experienced civil servants to such a degree that there’s been an exodus of career professionals.
The government compensation system, which dates back to 1949, remains disconnected from the broader labor market, failing to distinguish between the skills required and market demand for different occupations. On average, the most skilled — those with a professional degree or doctorate — earn far less than their private-sector counterparts. For example, the federal system caps salaries for chief information officers at $189,000; they can earn many multiples of that in the private sector.
Such disparities make it extremely difficult to attract or retain people for crucial federal jobs. In a 2017 government-wide survey, barely 4 in 10 employees said their work unit could recruit people with the right skills. In information technology — those who make sure computer networks function and are protected from hackers — there are five times as many people over 60 as those under 30.
The leadership ranks of civil service — those who figure out how to implement nearly all of the government’s policies and programs — are in urgent need of help. There is inadequate training and development for managers, and little accountability for employee performance and outcomes. There is also a profound gap in trust between employees and their supervisors. The 2017 survey of federal employees found that only about 60 percent believe they can speak up about a violation of law or ethics without fear of retaliation; in the private sector that number is over 75 percent.
Despite many obstacles to good performance, most federal employees are dedicated and do extraordinary work on behalf of the public. But the current personnel system is an unacceptable impediment. The president, agency leaders and Congress must work to reform it. This will require building a bipartisan consensus in support of high-performing government, instead of fostering division or treating the workforce as the adversary.
A starting point should be the overhaul of the hiring process to better identify the most qualified candidates and allow for quicker decisions. Current hiring standards emphasize experience over potential, which is a disaster when it comes to recruiting young people out of college. The government should follow the lead of top private-sector organizations: Use internships to test young talent and make job offers to those who excel.
Rather than pursuing rule changes to fire federal employees faster, the president and Congress should be doing more so federal workers get better management. Separate promotion tracks should be created for those with technical expertise and those with potential to be great managers.
A “passport” system should be created to make it easier for skilled individuals who leave federal service to return at a higher-level job they qualify for because of private-sector experience. Implementing public-private talent exchanges would bring expertise and fresh ideas to government too. The pay structure also must become more market-sensitive for critical occupations.
These mundane “good management” fixes don’t often draw headlines, but they are fundamental to whether we will have a government ready to address our nation’s challenges. Whether one favors a bigger or smaller government, it is in everyone’s interest that it does whatever it is doing well.
Max Stier is the president and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.