The federal workforce, 2.1 million strong, has been the subject of growing criticism as of late. Much of the criticism is unfair. There are many dedicated people working in the federal government; though there are certainly some clinging to the status quo. In any case, in a terrible economy, public calls for federal workforce accountability are entirely reasonable.
One reform measure would be to change what has become tantamount to an indefinite tenure system for the federal workforce. Renewable, four-year term appointments for new employees entering government would increase the accountability of federal positions without causing major disruption. This would begin to counter the criticism.
Such a change is not without precedent. The civil service benefits package has been overhauled in the past. In 1987, federal employees switched from the generous defined-benefit Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) plan to the minimal Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and defined-contribution Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which is a 401(k)-like plan. Once again, new employees are the best way to transition the system toward a better model.
In addition to the economic hard times, there are other reasons now is the right time for civil service reform.”
The current U.S. federal workforce or civil service, authorized under Title 5 of the U.S. Code, enjoys a high degree of job security. After serving a one-year probationary period terminations and involuntary separations are very rare. A process exists for removing underperforming employees but it is not widely used. A 2011 USA Today study found a federal employee has a higher chance of dying than losing their job. A basic question is why federal employees are entitled, practically speaking, to their salary indefinitely.
When the economy is strong, a persuasive argument can be made for the current system. It offers the incentive of job security when the General Schedule (GS) pay system cannot compete for top talent. Now, with 46 million people in poverty, unemployment still hovering around 9%, and a shrinking number of jobs paying livable salaries, it is more difficult to defend the unusually high job security of federal workers.
In addition to the economic hard times, there are other reasons now is the right time for civil service reform. The Office of Personnel Management estimates hundreds of thousands of employees will be retirement-eligible in coming years. Even with slower hiring from reduced budgets, replacing retiring employees would mean timely reforms could affect the wave of new hires. This is the opportunity to move away from indefinite tenure.
New employees, with the same pay and benefits as today, could receive four-year term appointments. The first year could be a probationary year. Every fourth year, the annual performance evaluation could include a decision for the federal agency to renew an employee’s appointment. A category of federal employees, including the author, already work under a system in the Department of Defense with three-year terms under Title 10 of the U.S. Code. This is not a far reach.
Term appointments strengthen the civil service in a number of ways:
First, every year a cohort of employees would be in a renewal year; the renewal is a strong motivation to improve productivity and is a catalyst for productivity throughout the organization.
Second, it provides a mechanism for an influx of new talent into the federal government that is notoriously difficult enter.
Finally, as mentioned, the reform would build public trust by exposing the civil service positions to a higher degree of accountability with performance evaluations of consequence.
In an era of budget reductions, the federal workforce is at a crossroads. Resisting changes only reinforces the perception of an entitled public sector disconnected from the people it serves. A transition to term appointments will not dissuade hungry, fresh talent from applying for federal jobs and will start to reverse negative perceptions of the federal workforce.
James Windle is a federal employee who has worked for executive branch agencies, the Executive Office of the President, and Congress. The views and opinions of the writer are his solely and independent from the United States Government.