How the Government Can Compete With Google for Top Talent

The federal government can’t attract the best and brightest with pay freezes and stripped-down benefits.

Park ranger Lee Wilson passes out park information to visitors at the entrance to Zion National Park on October 12, 2013 in Springdale, Utah. The Obama administration said it would allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks after a handful of governors made the request. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he reached an agreement to pay $166,572 a day to the Interior Department to open eight national sites in Utah. 
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
April 2, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

The ill-fated shut­down of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment last year had one mod­estly pos­it­ive side ef­fect: It re­minded many Amer­ic­ans about the im­port­ant things gov­ern­ment does. To choose just a couple of ex­amples, the clos­ure of na­tion­al parks not only blocked ac­cess to na­tion­al treas­ures from vis­it­ors, but it also caused deep dam­age to a wide range of loc­al and state eco­nom­ies, be­cause the busi­nesses that de­pend on the parks — ho­tels, res­taur­ants, out­fit­ters, guides, souven­ir shops, and so on — were dev­ast­ated. The shut­down of the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health re­minded many Amer­ic­ans about the key role fed­er­ally driv­en and sponsored med­ic­al re­search plays in our health and well-be­ing and in our eco­nom­ic and sci­entif­ic prom­in­ence.

The shut­down moved at least some of the dis­cus­sion and per­cep­tion away from the deep hos­til­ity Amer­ic­ans have for bur­eau­crats and bur­eau­cracy, and the an­ti­pathy huge ma­jor­it­ies in the coun­try feel to­ward Wash­ing­ton, and made the stor­ies per­son­al and the im­age con­crete. Park rangers, re­search sci­ent­ists, Bor­der Patrol agents, first re­spon­ders, dis­aster-re­lief per­son­nel, FBI agents, fire­fight­ers, air-traffic con­trol­lers, For­eign Ser­vice of­ficers, and many more people who make Amer­ic­ans’ lives safer and easi­er, and pro­tect our well-be­ing and se­cur­ity, are all, in the par­lance, “bur­eau­crats.” But their jobs are vi­tal, and the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of fed­er­al em­ploy­ees are con­scien­tious people who take their jobs ser­i­ously and work very hard at them.

For dec­ades, most mem­bers of Con­gress — lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives alike — un­der­stood that real­ity. Con­ser­vat­ives, to be sure, had a deep­er skep­ti­cism about gov­ern­ment as a prob­lem solv­er and be­lieved in a smal­ler gov­ern­ment. But they also be­lieved that the gov­ern­ment we should have — in­clud­ing pro­tect­ing against en­emies at home and abroad, se­cur­ing the bor­ders, con­duct­ing ba­sic re­search, build­ing and op­er­at­ing high­ways and oth­er forms of in­ter­state trans­port­a­tion and com­merce, run­ning na­tion­al parks — should be run well and ef­fi­ciently, by com­pet­ent and qual­i­fied people.

The kinds of sound man­age­ment prin­ciples that busi­ness uses res­on­ated with busi­ness-ori­ented con­ser­vat­ives.

Of course, there were spasms of par­tis­an para­noia over the un­der­ly­ing polit­ic­al lean­ings of ca­reer em­ploy­ees, and par­tis­an tugs of war over how much con­trol ad­min­is­tra­tions would have over ca­reer people, and oc­ca­sion­al scan­dals over ex­cess­ive polit­ic­al in­flu­ence or pres­sure. But bi­par­tis­an ef­forts to stream­line gov­ern­ment ser­vice, pro­tect at least mod­est pay in­creases, and re­form man­age­ment pro­ced­ures were the norm, not the ex­cep­tion, in­clud­ing the land­mark civil-ser­vice re­form en­acted dur­ing the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion that cre­ated the Seni­or Ex­ec­ut­ive Ser­vice to en­cour­age top ca­reer pro­fes­sion­al man­agers at the seni­or levels, and to cre­ate a pay and be­ne­fit struc­ture that could at­tract top people.

Of late, the old co­ali­tions have dis­ap­peared, and new schisms have de­veloped. One of the most sig­ni­fic­ant is the sharp rise of rad­ic­al, an­ti­gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment on the right. This is not “lean­er and mean­er” gov­ern­ment con­ser­vat­ism, but a more vis­cer­al at­ti­tude of hos­til­ity to all gov­ern­ment — gov­ern­ment as an over­ween­ing evil. It is an at­ti­tude that re­joiced in the shut­down, that shut out any evid­ence that clos­ing any part of gov­ern­ment could ac­tu­ally hurt people or dam­age the eco­nomy. And it is deep-seated enough among act­iv­ists that harsh­er an­ti­gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic, and policies de­signed to make the lives of gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees more dif­fi­cult, have emerged in full force. Pay freezes, cuts in be­ne­fits, at­tempts to take away any small perks or re­wards, fueled in many cases by hyped out­rage over real and ex­ag­ger­ated scan­dals, have taken their toll. It also fuels a push to­ward more privat­iz­a­tion, even where such a move is more costly and more prone to cor­rup­tion.

But this ap­proach is not the only chal­lenge fa­cing gov­ernance in the 21st cen­tury; the struc­ture of the ca­reer civil-ser­vice sys­tem is not up to the tasks fa­cing the coun­try in a glob­al eco­nomy and in a tech­no­logy-driv­en age, with its at­tend­ant chal­lenges at home and abroad. The ex­cel­lent core of pro­fes­sion­al man­agers cre­ated by the 1978 re­forms is near­ing a ma­jor gap: By 2017, nearly two-thirds of the Seni­or Ex­ec­ut­ive Ser­vice will be eli­gible for re­tire­ment, and it is not clear that an­oth­er gen­er­a­tion of tal­en­ted man­agers is wait­ing in the wings to re­place them.

More broadly, the re­cruit­ment pro­cess for fed­er­al pro­fes­sion­als and man­agers is out of sync with the broad­er labor mar­ket, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to provide the in­cent­ives to re­cruit from among the best and bright­est. As I wrote in an earli­er column, how can a gov­ern­ment fight­ing the danger of cy­ber­war­fare and cy­berter­ror­ism com­pete with In­tel, Google, Face­book, and Mi­crosoft for top­f­light elec­tric­al en­gin­eers and com­puter sci­ent­ists when it of­fers pay freezes and stripped-down be­ne­fits pack­ages?

What to do? A pen­et­rat­ing new re­port by the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice of­fers a pas­sel of ideas as it calls for sweep­ing re­forms. They in­clude build­ing a more mar­ket-sens­it­ive labor sys­tem; mer­ging many dis­par­ate per­son­nel sys­tems in­to one to level the play­ing field across gov­ern­ment in the com­pet­i­tion for tal­ent; cre­at­ing more flex­ib­il­ity for agen­cies to hire the best qual­i­fied people; cre­at­ing pay-raise-for-per­form­ance in­cent­ives (and no raises for slack­ers) to im­prove per­form­ance man­age­ment; cre­at­ing a four-tier seni­or ex­ec­ut­ive ser­vice to train man­agers bet­ter for the com­plex jobs they will have; and re­du­cing the num­ber of polit­ic­al-ap­point­ment po­s­i­tions to en­able tal­en­ted ca­reer man­agers to have more op­por­tun­it­ies to ad­vance.

The re­port makes a com­pel­ling case, one that ac­tu­ally re­in­forces many pre­vi­ous ef­forts at re­form, for com­mon­sense changes in an an­ti­quated and un­wieldy sys­tem. They have no par­tis­an or ideo­lo­gic­al col­or­a­tion — just sound man­age­ment prin­ciples. It has been more than 35 years since the last ma­jor re­form of the sys­tem. I wish I could be even mod­estly op­tim­ist­ic that the re­port will gen­er­ate enough in­terest to get hear­ings and the start of a de­lib­er­at­ive pro­cess, one that in the past might have been en­cour­aged by re­spec­ted law­makers like Tom Dav­is and Frank Wolf. But with Dav­is re­tired and Wolf about to join him, and with the harsh an­ti­gov­ern­ment at­ti­tude as­cend­ant, I can’t.

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