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Is Something Happening Here?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
June 18, 2018

Discussion about comprehensive civil service reform has been prominent lately. Such discussion always comes with a new presidential administration because new administrations bring in new policymakers open to major change. The current administration is no different.

As a Federal manager, discussions about civil service reform always left me unsettled. I wondered whether proposed changes would become law. I questioned how the changes would affect my ability to manage. This concern about change eventually motivated my doctoral research. In this column, I want to examine the likelihood of current comprehensive civil service legislative change in the context of that research.

To understand current civil service change, it is helpful to review the recent civil service change dialogue. The first area of discussion about civil service reform during the current presidential administration occurred in April 2017 when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report on Federal compensation issues. In June 2017, Congress enacted the Veterans Affairs (VA) Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act and some prognosticators still think the VA Act is a template for future reform. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) followed quickly with a report in July 2017 which outlined a comprehensive repair of the civil service system. The new Office of Personnel Management director Jeff Pon committed to major civil service reform upon his confirmation in March 2018. He then announced a fast track for civil service overhaul in April 2018. While this reform announcement focused essentially on reduced salary and benefits, Pons made a subsequent announcement in May 2018 that civil service reform would go beyond compensation. He added that proposal specifics would be forthcoming before the midterm elections.

To put the above dialogue in context, historically, the federal civil service system has experienced only two comprehensive legislative overhauls in almost 250 years: the 1883 Pendleton Act and the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA). While other significant legislative changes have occurred throughout U.S civil service history, all have been piecemeal focusing on one or a few system changes. There have been some major administrative overhauls of the operation of the civil service system, e.g., Franklin’s Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts and Clinton’s National Performance Review; however, none of these have resulted in comprehensive legislation and without legislation these system changes disappeared as new administrations took over.

The above context suggests that comprehensive legislation does not occur frequently. From a political science perspective, certain elements must be present before change occurs. Two of these elements are a policy entrepreneur and a focusing event and both are missing from the current situation. While civil service change is being articulated by a number of organizations and administration individuals (e.g. NAPA, Pons, Mulvaney), there is no one consistent voice that functions as a policy entrepreneur. Further, the only recent civil service focusing event involves scandals at the VA. However, these problems have already been addressed through the VA legislation.

In contrast, the policy entrepreneur in the Pendleton legislation was George Pendleton, a Democratic Ohio representative who sponsored civil service reform in several Congressional sessions. When the Republicans lost the House and the Senate in November 1883 after the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker, the Republicans expected to lose the presidency in 1884. To maintain control of government, the Republicans attempted to grandfather appointees into a civil service system by passing Pendleton’s legislation in January 1883. Pendleton was the policy entrepreneur and losing the Congress was the focusing event.

The CSRA was preceded by the Watergate scandal which included revelations of civil service system manipulation promoted by the Malek Manual, a document outlining ways to deal with civil service employees perceived to be disloyal to the Nixon administration. In this case, Alan Campbell was the policy entrepreneur. Campbell, as Chair of the Civil Service Commission, former dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and past president of NAPA, had a strong civil service background making him function as the policy entrepreneur. Nixon administration manipulation of the civil service system served as the focusing event.

Legislation timing is an additional problem. Without a complete change proposal and with only six months before the midterm elections, there is insufficient time to pass comprehensive legislation. Waiting until after the midterms is impractical. The political science literature, supported by recent history, notes the first two years of a presidency is optimum for successful legislation. The president’s party typically loses seats in the midterms. The president’s focus then turns to reelection during the next two years. If reelected, the president becomes a lame duck, often ignored by an opposition led Congress.

While comprehensive civil service reform during the current presidency is unlikely, individual agency system changes and tinkering around the edges of the civil service system can happen. For example, the pay and retirement changes suggested by Pon are possible and worth watching.

In the words of Stephen Stills:

“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear”

The something happening is likely to be fragmentary not comprehensive. Consequently, public managers need focus only on those changes uniquely affecting them or their agencies.


Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last Federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. The research she refers to in this article is contained in her book: Timing Successful Policy Change: Lessons from the Civil Service.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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