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Senate Debates Empowering Federal Managers, Civil Service Reform

Lacking the fireworks that have become a staple of many congressional hearings on federal workforce issues in recent years, last week a bipartisan cadre of Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hosted a conversation between lawmakers and representatives of federal executive, management, and labor-level employees. 

The leaders of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, Chairman James Lankford (R-OK) and Ranking Member Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) led the conversation at the hearing entitled “Empowering Managers: Ideas for a More Effective Federal Workforce.” 

Senators Lankford and Heitkamp, who led the same subcommittee last Congress, previously held hearings identifying challenges facing the workforce.

The hearing last week focused on potential solutions. Witnesses included American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President J. David Cox, Sr. (written testimony), Senior Executives Association (SEA) President Bill Valdez (written testimony), Federal Managers Association (FMA) National President Renee Johnson (written testimony), and Bob Corsi, former Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, U.S. Air Force (written testimony).

Lawmakers and witnesses alike shared the sentiment that two factors undercut the ability of the government to be managed to its maximum possible efficiency – chronic budgetary uncertainty and insufficient support for and respect of the workforce.

The majority of the Senators on the panel spoke in support of biennial budgeting and the need to provide agencies more predictability. Witnesses testified that budget uncertainty made comprehensive workforce talent management very difficult because agencies were not able to plan for filling vacancies or training employees.

Chairman Lankford, Ranking Member Heitkamp, and several other Senators all praised the dedication and hard work of the vast majority of federal workers, as did witnesses.

Witnesses representing management and executive-level federal employees advocated for comprehensive civil service reform. Their testimony focused on the need for new tools to enable to government to compete in a global competition for talent, including expansion of direct hire authority, improved recruiting including on college campuses, the need for continuous investment in the professional development of employees, modernizing performance management, and reducing the complexity associated with employee accountability for performance and misconduct.

AFGE National President Cox also recognized the need for the government to be able to compete for talent and to fill mission-critical skills gaps, and supported dedicating agency funds for professional development of all employees, including supervisors. However, Cox said that no new laws were needed for managers to address workforce accountability issues.

Management witnesses contended that while technically true that ample authorities exist, the reality is that the complexity of rules and regulations in Title 5, coupled with agency culture and lack of top-level support, created disincentives for managers to address issues they know to exist. Holding a copy of Title 5 and OPM regulations for Senators to see, SEA President Valdez said that it was impractical for every federal manager or executive to know every word by heart, and that the decimation of HR offices left less able support at agencies to help managers address issues. Valdez also testified that “forum shopping” was sometimes abused by employees of any level to slow down management action, and suggested that Congress explore a single dispute resolution forum.

Concluding the hearing, Chairman Lankford offered praise to the witnesses for engaging in a productive conversation. He commented that Congress played critical a role in addressing challenges facing federal employees, that Congress has known about many of the issues discussed at the hearing for some time, and that inaction would cede prerogative to the President. Senator Lankford pledged the committee would continue to seek bipartisan accord on reforms – legislative or otherwise – that could improve the management and operation of the federal government, and that more hearings on related topics should be expected.    

Posted in From the Hill

Tags: Senior Executive Service, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Senior Executives Association (SEA)

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