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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration – Towards New Benchmarks and Best Practices

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

Column 2: Towards New Job Classification Systems

By Siegrun Fox Freyss

For more than a hundred years, public administration reformers adapted government operations to the requirements of the modern age. The industrial economy needed a solid infrastructure for factories to function and for moving workers, raw material and finished goods expeditiously to their intended targets. Federal, state and local governments were more or less able to provide needed services by adopting the merit system and building a reliable bureaucracy.

The merit system, or civil service, was founded on three principles and best practices:

  1. A competent workforce through meritorious hiring and promotions.
  2. Job security to protect government employees from political pressure.
  3. Political neutrality to ensure public employees were not using government resources and connections for partisan political purposes. 

For many years, to protect these standards, neutral civil service commissions managed human resources (HR) policies. Starting in the 1960s, however, governments put human resources management (HRM) more closely under the control of the chief executive to hold the workforce more accountable and in line with managerial directives.

jobTo cope with the increased complexity of the industrial economy and diversity of the population, modern governments promoted standardization with rules and regulations. The bureaucracy became an example of this trend. It was based on an array of organizational principles, such as division of work, hierarchy and unity of command. Written rules and regulations were supposed to bring stability, continuity and expertise to public services despite seemingly chaotic conditions in the political system and economic environment.

An important set of these principles is enshrined in uniform classification systems. The systems hold descriptions for all classes of jobs, including essential job functions and duties, prior work experience, educational requirements and pay range. A problem with these records is their size. Over the decades, more and more job classes were added and few deleted.

An extreme way of simplifying classification systems was suggested by the National Academy of Public Administration in a 1991 study entitled Modernizing Federal Classification: An Opportunity for Excellence. The thousands of federal jobs were reduced to seven classes and three ranks. While this extreme form of broadbanding was not adopted, and probably never will be, it signaled the need for simplification at a very appropriate time — when the high-tech revolution was adding new classes of jobs and transforming the essential duties and required knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of existing ones. We are in the middle of this shift from modern job requirements to postmodern ones.

The importance of broadbanding is demonstrated by the fact that the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR) has made broadbanding a trend to watch under its benchmarking and best practices program. The Association has conducted surveys on adoption issues and invited jurisdictions to share their policies. An important finding is that broadbanding can simplify the creation of work teams and make the determination of pay levels more flexible. Of course, such flexibility also invites corruption and favoritism.

With the paradigmatic changes, job analysis has become important again. It is supposed to ensure that job announcements and the testing of applicants capture the latest technology and job knowledge. But there is a problem. Job analysis can only identify present and foreseeable KSAs, not totally unknown ones. Even the best HR experts cannot foresee high-tech developments, and job descriptions cannot include unknown future job duties and required skills.

But employers are not totally helpless. They can nurture an organizational culture that encourages learning and accepts some level of experimentation. Promoting a vibrant organizational culture is especially important in the public sector since job security can lead to complacency. Also, employers need to assess applicants for their willingness to learn and be open to change. (The next column will cover recruitment and selection processes under postmodern conditions in greater detail.)

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has done exemplary work in identifying executive core qualifications. For senior executive positions, OPM lists twenty-two leadership competencies, grouped together under five categories as displayed in Table 1.


Table 1:  U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Senior Executive Service                 Executive Core Qualifications
        I.            Leading Change
  1. Creativity and innovation
  2. External awareness
  3. Flexibility
  4. Resilience
  5. Strategic thinking
  6. Vision
      II.            Leading People
  1. Conflict management
  2. Leveraging diversity
  3. Developing others
  4. Team building
    III.            Results Driven
  1. Accountability
  2. Customer service
  3. Decisiveness
  4. Entrepreneurship
  5. Problem solving
  6. Technical credibility
    IV.            Business Acumen
  1. Financial management
  2. Human capital management
  3. Technical management
      V.            Building Coalitions
  1. Partnering
  2. Political savvy
  3. Influencing/negotiation
Source: http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/senior-executive-service/executive-core-qualifications/

The list offers a starting point for a discourse on executive KSAs under postmodern conditions. Change is an inevitable aspect of the paradigm shift. Executives are expected to assume leadership roles and steer the changes in line with core values of public administration. I would add life-long learning; it should be an attribute of executives and encouraged in their subordinates. One can also argue that the twenty-two qualifications be nurtured at all levels of the bureaucracy.

The job classification system is a good example of the modern age. It established elaborate standards for non-exempt public positions. But this conformity caused problems over time. States that abolished the merit system also made changes in classification systems. The objective of the changes was increasing flexibility for individual departments. (For details, see the 2002 report Life after Civil Service Reform: The Texas, Georgia, and Florida Experience, authored by Jonathan Walters and published by the IBM Endowment of the Business of Government). But what some observers call flexibility, others may call favoritism.

In the end, I would like to suggest retaining job classification systems, but in simplified form. The various experiments with broadbanding seem to move public administration toward better practices than the traditional, extensive format. The revisions seem to preserve some stability, while also adapting public service to the needs of the high-tech economy and a diverse population.

Author: Siegrun Fox Freyss is professor emerita at California State University, Los Angeles. She taught, and still teaches part-time, graduate and undergraduate courses in public administration. She is the co-author and editor of two books on public sector HRM. Other publications appeared as journal articles and book chapters. Fox Freyss received her Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate University and a Master’s Degree in applied geography from the Technical University, Munich, Germany. She can be reached at [email protected].

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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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