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Now is Time for Civil Service Reform

What does the future of government service look like? The responses may differ depending on where you work.

A recent survey of federal executives found that the government is having difficulty recruiting and retaining the best employees, merit is insufficiently incorporated into promotions and dismissals, and that some agencies have done well in fielding a high capacity workforce whereas others struggle to successfully accomplish their core tasks.

Those findings, among others, were released last week with the results of the Survey on the Future of Government Service, produced by researchers with Vanderbilt University, Princeton University, and the Volcker Alliance.

The survey found a federal personnel system under stress, with 39% of executives reporting that an inadequately skilled workforce serves as a significant obstacle to their agency fulfilling its core mission.

42% of federal executive respondents reported they could not recruit the best employees and 33% of respondents said they could not retain the best employees.

Compounding the recruitment and retention issues, 40% of respondents reported that performance and ability were the only factor in promotions of non-managers in their organizations, while 70% of respondents reported under-performing non-managers are “rarely or never” reassigned or dismissed.

Meanwhile, only a slight majority (55%) of eligible respondents were interested in joining the Senior Executive Service (SES) or becoming a Senior Professional (SP), while 24% of executives said they were “likely” or “very likely” to leave their agency within the next year.

“The survey results show that some agency workforces are very skilled and others are really struggling. The federal government needs to spend some time looking at why some federal agencies are doing well and some are doing poorly, and share best practices,” David E. Lewis, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and lead researcher said. “Right now they underinvest in this kind of activity. There is no modern human resources management like you see in the best private sector firms.”

“It’s time to do civil service reform,” said Lewis. “I worry that it will be done in piecemeal fashion in response to a crisis rather than the right way, which is to develop a modern-day human resources system for a modern government.”

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