How to Keep Good People Working in Government

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An employee of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management departs the building during the lunch hour in Washington June 5, 2015. Gary Cameron/Reuters

The federal government has a people problem.

Any large organization is only as good as its people, and every week it seems there is another government failure in the news. The most recent is the hacking (assumed to be Chinese) of the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) sensitive personnel records. Before that it was the Department of Veterans Affairs health care debacle and the Obamacare website.

The ConversationOn July 16, my Survey on the Future of Government Service (conducted with Vanderbilt Researcher Mark Richardson) was released at the National Press Club, and it helps explain why.

Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, in cooperation with Princeton University and the nonprofit Volcker Alliance, surveyed 3,551 federal executives across more than 200 federal agencies about the skill of their workforces and the workforces of other agencies with which they work.

The findings are illuminating.

Problems With Recruitment and Retention

Survey results show clearly that the federal workforce is under stress.

Thirty-nine percent of executives report that the skill of their workforce is a significant obstacle to their agency fulfilling its core mission.

Executives identified a number of issues related to recruitment, retention, promotion and dismissal as sources of workforce problems. Indeed, any organization that wants to thrive needs to bring in good people, train and promote them and then keep them. They also need to deal with underperformers.

Concerns about federal recruitment are well known.

One of our survey respondents called the USAjobs website “a nightmare” and OPM is well aware of their own difficulties bringing millennials into government.

Forty-two percent of executives agreed with the statement, “My agency is unable to recruit the best employees” (compared with 37 percent who disagreed).

And it is not just young people who lack enthusiasm: just 55 percent of eligible career executives want to join the federal government’s leadership corps as a member of the Senior Executive Service or as a senior professional.

If the federal government cannot hire either nonmanagers or managers, it cannot perform.

It turns out that agencies that have difficulty recruiting also have difficulty keeping their best employees. One-third of executives indicate that they cannot keep their best employees.

Twenty-four percent of the career executives we surveyed and 36 percent of politically appointed executives expressed intent to leave within one calendar year, either to retirement or to another job.

To fully grasp this finding, consider for a moment whether you would invest in Apple Inc. if you knew one-quarter of their top executives were leaving in the next year. How might this influence the development of new and innovative products? The departure rate of federal executives is more than twice the rate of private sector CEOs. according to a study by the consulting firm Strategy&.

Promoting and Firing Difficult too

When asked whether promotions were based upon performance and ability or other factors like tenure or personal connections, the most common response from federal managers was “partly performance and ability and partly other factors.”

In some agencies, performance and ability seem to dominate, but in others, it is apparently tenure and connections that matter most.

Federal executives were also asked when an underperforming nonmanager or manager was reassigned or removed: within six months, after six months, or rarely or never.

Seventy percent of executives reported that underperforming nonmanagers were “rarely or never” reassigned or dismissed. When the U.S. Census Bureau asked private sector executives the same question, the overwhelming majority said either within six months or after six months.

An Outdated System

So, why is there a people problem?

Then–Vice President Al Gore notably said that the federal government has “good people […] trapped […] inside a bad system.”

The problem is that the United States has a personnel system that has its roots in the 19th century. It was created in an effort to prevent the abuses of the spoils system, the old personnel structure in which jobs were given out in exchange for work for a given political party. It never lost this cop-like mentality. It is a structure designed to stop abuses rather than empower federal agencies to fulfill democratically given responsibilities.

A bad system not only traps good people, it prevents government from getting (and keeping) good people. If it persists, all of the good people will leave or not come at all.

How, then, do we solve the people problem?

We upgrade to a system that reflects the best practices from other large public and private sector organizations. Existing models such as that proposed recently by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service are a good place to start.

Their model emphasizes measures to simplify the process of hiring, promoting and keeping the best employees. It also focuses on a shift toward people rather than programs and designing a more flexible compensation system that is occupation-specific and market-sensitive. Their proposal describes ways to create career paths and mobility and pay high-performing employees for performance.

It is with such changes that we can give our federal government a workforce equal to the challenges of protecting the sensitive data of federal employees and providing world-class health care to those who have served in our armed forces.

Both branches could begin working on such a system now.

In the short run, elected officials can facilitate the sharing of best practices among high- and low-performing federal agencies, direct these agencies to begin implementing proactive recruiting strategies (many do not have them) and help their executives (especially those that are political appointees) know what legal authority they have already to bring in the best people, reward high flyers, and remove or reassign underperformers.

In the longer term, politicians on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue could and should begin discussions about serious civil service reform.

Republicans and Democrats disagree about what government should do or how big it should be, but there is surprising agreement among many that what government does it should do well and that change is necessary.

This may be one area in which government can do something big together.

David E. Lewis is William R. Kenan Jr. professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. He receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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