Bound by constraints of 40-year-old rules, civil service ready for a rebuild

Source: Federal News Radio

Kristine Marcy never intended to make a career in government. But she met some life-changing mentors at a federal internship in 1967. She stayed, graduated law school and rose through the ranks of the General Schedule.

So when President Jimmy Carter signed the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978, which ultimately created the Senior Executive Service, Marcy jumped at the chance to shed her status as a “super grade” executive and join the SES.

“It was an easy transition, and I very much wanted that label of Senior Executive Service,” she said. “I saw myself as somebody who wanted to be stimulated, somebody who wanted to be challenged, somebody who liked change. I never wanted to get bored. I thought that this was an opportunity that I could move around the government [and] do interesting [and] challenging things.”

SES rats on the run

For Marcy, that’s exactly what the SES was. She took her management expertise to a total of 10 different agencies throughout her 34-year-federal career. She helped plan and advise leaders of two brand new agencies: the Department of Education and the Office of Personnel Management.

Marcy is like many of her fellow colleagues who joined the Senior Executive Service in the beginning. In interviews with Federal News Radio, about a half-dozen charter SES members described long and exciting careers filled with travel, high-level responsibility and some reward for their efforts.

But nearly all of them, including Marcy, described a general frustration with a few key hallmarks of the Senior Executive Service. Now the Trump administration says it sees those same frustrations with the SES and the decades-old system that created it.

“I’m not sure that the SES lived up to its potential,” Marcy said. “I think there may have been an initial assumption that the majority of senior executives would enjoy being reassigned or being challenged and asked to take on challenges outside their immediate agency.”

In envisioning the SES, the Carter administration said it wanted to create a mobile corps of executives, who were expected to periodically move and bring their expertise and management skills to a new position, often in another part of the country.

Dave Mader, who began his federal career as a part-time Postal Service employee in college and later climbed the ranks at the IRS, said he initially hesitated over the prospect of executive reassignments before joining the SES as a charter member.

But he ultimately accepted reassignments in different parts of New York, Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, before taking a job at the IRS headquarters in Washington. He retired there, later joining the Obama administration as controller at the Office of Management and Budget.

The moves were tough on his family, he said. His son at one point attended three different high schools in one year.

“In this day and age, it’s one of the biggest challenges with a two-professional career family,” Mader said. “How do you balance that? That’s a continuing, ongoing challenge that the Senior Executive positions present to people. But that mobility is also invaluable as well. I got to experience different offices, different environments, different cultures, and that all contributes to the growth of an executive over time.”

Mader, and several other charter SES members, said they saw their colleagues struggle to weigh the benefits that came with being a career senior executive and the impacts potential reassignments might have on their families.

The SES made sense for Marcy in 1978, she said, because she was young.

Obamas SES Army Found

“Youth makes one more open to change,” she said. “I’m not sure that is true as people get older and they get more responsibilities, for example, for putting their kids through college.”

But today’s Senior Executive Service — and federal workforce — by all accounts isn’t young. Roughly 2 percent of today’s SES is under the age of 40, according to the most recent data from the Office of Personnel Management. At the same time, just more than 6 percent of the federal workforce is under the age of 30, with 1.2 percent of employees between the ages of 20 and 24. That means agencies generally lack a group of young, eager executives-in-training ready to take the reigns from the retirement-eligible baby boomers.

It’s these statistics that, in part, have kept federal managers up at night. They say they’re bound by the constraints of a 40-year-old civil service system that largely hasn’t changed at all since the disco era — despite a federal workforce that has.

As part of our special report, Civil Service Reimagined: 40 Years Later, Federal News Radio examined how past administrations and political appointees have largely passed up the chance to make those continual upgrades to the systems that manage their greatest asset: Their employees.

The original drafters of the Civil Service Reform say they built the foundation, the bedrock for a modern federal workforce, in 1978. It was up to subsequent administrations, cabinet leaders and federal managers to revisit the structure and occasionally touch up the paint to reflect new workforce realities.

“The Civil Service Reform Act has proven particularly resistant to incremental changes to deal with workforce realities,” said Paul Light, the Paulette Goddard professor of public service at New York University. “That’s the nature of big statutory reforms like that. You have to go back in every once in a while and tinker. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where the only way to secure reform is to go back in with a sledge hammer and just rip up the entire thing — or threaten to rip up the entire thing in order to get flexibility.”

That’s what the Trump administration is attempting today. It’s a mammoth task, in search for a plan that will abandon a relic of the long-gone past and upend an entrenched workforce.

After all, the Civil Service Reform Act as the Carter administration said even in 1978, was about managing people.

And people change. The federal workforce certainly has. But the civil service system itself hasn’t yet shed its bell-bottoms and platform shoes for neat button-downs and patterned socks.

 

 

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