February 24th, 2015
Two generations ago, a youthful, charismatic president challenged young Americans to take up public service as a calling, and made a career in the government something to be admired and even aspired to. During the Kennedy administration and in the years afterward, a stream of young blood entered the federal government, invigorating the civil service and creating a more vibrant federal workforce.
Today, though, the civil service looks much different than it did in the 1960s and ‘70s. Less than 10 percent of the current federal workforce is made up of people under the age of 30, even though that age group comprises nearly one quarter of the country’s total workforce. By 2017, 31 percent of government employees will be eligible for retirement — meaning they can walk out the door practically any time they please.
The situation is even worse among the Senior Executive Service, a cadre of top-level career managers and subject-matter experts who are the backbone of the Executive Branch. Three years from now, nearly two out of three members of the SES will be eligible for retirement, meaning that the government will be on the verge of losing what amounts to thousands of person-years of experience and the massive amount of institutional knowledge that goes with it.
The government remains staffed by hundreds of thousands of employees, but increasingly, those who find their way into the civil service are doing so in spite of, rather than because of, the government’s personnel policies.
The aging of the federal workforce is a solvable problem, but it will require leaders to recognize that the civil service system as it exists today is an antiquated, inefficient mess that needs top-to-bottom reform.
Organizations like the Partnership for Public Service and the Bipartisan Policy Center have studied this problem, and have identified multiple areas where relatively simple changes could increase the flow of qualified candidates into the Civil Service, and make them more likely to remain once they get there. Overhauling the public’s view of government employment won’t be easy, but officials can allow the looming retirement of well over a third of the federal workforce to become a crisis — or, by adopting some of the suggestions below, they can turn it into an opportunity.
Part of the solution, according to the BPC, is just promoting government employment in the right places. “To increase interest in civil service opportunities, executive branch agencies should engage in more extensive advertising at job fairs and on job websites that specialize in connecting entry-level employees to employers,” a BPC panel found in a recent report.
Other, more specific suggestions include:
Allow Targeted Recruiting
A few decades ago, job postings for positions with the federal government might show up in the Federal Register, or perhaps be advertised in a local newspaper near the facility that was hiring. The result was that applications were somewhat limited — only people intensely interested in public service or who lived in a specific area were likely to apply.
Today, by contrast, an online job posting typically generates thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications. The result is that an agency must sort through all of the applications, frequently using algorithms meant to identify likely candidates. Many are missed. Other promising candidates are put off by the length of time the process takes.
The Office of Personnel Management could streamline this system by allowing federal agencies to target their recruiting to specific pools of candidates. For instance, the Partnership for Public Service’s CEO, Max Stier, has suggested that if an agency needs software engineers, it should be allowed to identify the top-tier graduate software engineering schools in the country and focus its recruiting program on them, assuring a highly qualified and much more manageable pool of applicants.
Create Pools of Pre-qualified Candidates
Under existing rules, each federal department is required to do its own screening of potential new hires. For instance, to stick with the software engineers, suppose the Department of Energy needed to hire three of them, and through its recruiting process was able to identify 10 highly qualified candidates.
Today, Energy’s hiring managers would pick the three candidates that best suited the department’s needs, and the remaining seven candidates would be sent on their way.
Of course, DOE isn’t the only arm of the government that needs software engineers. But right now, there is no process that would allow, say, the Department of Health and Human Services, access to the names of the seven highly qualified candidates that the Energy Department couldn’t hire. Even if there were, existing rules would require HHS to make the seven candidates start the hiring process from the beginning.
This roadblock to government service could be removed by making it possible for federal agencies to share information about qualified candidates and to allow the preliminary assessment of candidates by one agency to be transferable to other parts of the government.
Convert More Interns into Full-Timers
Every year, the government hires thousands of young people as interns, bringing them in to work closely with existing federal employees. Right now, though, according to Stier, the federal government does a terrible job of converting interns into full-time staffers, retaining only about 6 percent of them when their internship is complete.
“How do you find someone good? You bring them in as an intern, you get a chance to see what they can actually do, and if they are capable and a right fit for the organization, you turn them into a full-time employee,” said Stier. “It’s the best assessment process you can have, actually working with somebody. Every other professional services organization does the same thing. The federal government doesn’t do that, and that’s not smart.”
Setting up a system under which promising interns are aggressively recruited to become full-time workers would guarantee a flow of new blood into federal agencies. “Executive branch agencies should set aside a certain number or percentage of entry-level positions each year for college recruits,” in order to encourage the hiring of recent graduates, the Bipartisan Policy Center recommends. Such a move would give agencies additional incentive to pursue the hiring of promising interns.
Weed Out the Weak Performers
Once a federal employee is hired, in most cases, he or she spends a year on “probation,” without all the rights of a permanent employee. However, under the current system, when that one-year period is up, they are converted automatically to permanent status.
Managers can learn a lot about employees in the space of a year — specifically, whether they are a good fit with the organization and have the qualities necessary to be successful. The current system of automatic conversion eliminates a key opportunity to weed out employees who aren’t getting the job done.
The system should be changed to require federal managers to make an affirmative judgment, at the one-year mark, as to whether or not an employee should remain in government service.
Shake Up the Senior Executive Service
The SES was created in the 1970s in an effort to create a professional group of managers in the government whose service would not be limited to a single agency. SES members were originally expected to spend their careers moving through various federal departments and agencies, giving them a broader perspective on the government as a whole, and allowing the best practices from one part of the federal government to flow to others.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, the SES has become exactly what it was supposed to prevent –a set of senior executives whose experience is limited to a single area of government, sometimes even a single agency or department, and whose qualifications are less in management and more in specific subject areas.
The Senior Executive Service should be forced to get back to its roots by requiring members to move between agencies and departments with the dual aims of increasing the range of their individual experience and making sure that the good ideas from one arm of the government are given wider exposure.
The Bipartisan Policy Center suggests that the federal government “should allow more flexibility for seamless interagency transfers so that the best civil servants stay interested in government service without having to worry about differing retirement, pay, and benefits systems.”
Eliminate the General Schedule
Nearly three-quarters of the federal workforce is ranked and paid according to the General Schedule, a system put in place in 1949 that establishes 150 levels of seniority within the civil service (15 grades, each made up of 10 “steps”).
The General Schedule was meant to rationalize pay and seniority in an era when the vast majority of government workers were office clerks and other low-level functionaries. It allows for little of the flexibility necessary for recruiting and maintaining a modern workforce, making it difficult to reward achievement and merit.
In recent years, a number of agencies have sought and received permission from Congress to abandon the General Schedule in favor of more modern compensation systems that allow management more flexibility
This movement should be encouraged, and the General Schedule done away with in favor of a less restrictive set of “pay bands” that designate a range of pay for certain functions. But it should allow managers the discretion they need to attract and, more importantly, retain qualified employees.