Is it Finally Time to Overhaul the Federal Personnel System?


Designed more than 60 years ago for a mostly clerical workforce, it doesn't address today's specialized skills.

Would the federal government be better off with a more flexible, market-driven pay system that allows it to more effectively compete with other sectors for highly-skilled talent in science, technology, engineering and math fields?

Yes, says a new report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, which called for a complete overhaul of the entire civil service system, including pay, performance management, hiring and job classification.

The report outlines how the nature of work performed by federal employees has evolved over time, as professional and administrative occupations have risen while clerical jobs have fallen over the past 15 years. Of the top 10 groups of professional occupations, IT workers make up 6.7 percent, or 80,101 jobs, while engineering makes up 8.4 percent, or 100,792 federal jobs, according to the report.

Yet while the nature of federal work has changed dramatically, the personnel system for managing workers has not. The system, designed more than 60 years ago for a mostly clerical workforce, does not recognize the range of specialized skills required for federal jobs today.

“Our nation’s civil service system is a relic of a bygone era,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership. “Our nation’s leadership must make it a priority to create a civil service system that our public servants deserve and that will produce the results our country needs.”

Some federal agencies have received special exemptions from Congress that enable greater flexibility in setting pay, classifying jobs, and hiring and rewarding top employees. This means that agencies end up competing among themselves for that top talent, and those agencies with added personnel flexibilities often have a distinct advantage, the report states.

The report offered a number of recommendations for overhauling the civil service system, including building a market-sensitive pay system based on specific professional occupations, creating a unified personnel system, improving the performance management system and ensuring managers and supervisors have the necessary skills to manage it, establishing a streamlined job classification system, creating greater flexibility in hiring and establishing a four-tier Senior Executive Service structure that would better prepare career employees for high-level agency positions.

Still, I’ve been covering these issues for more than seven years at Government Executive, from the National Security Personnel System at the Defense Department to MaxHR at Homeland Security to a number of other personnel systems at various agencies, and the conversation around reforming the federal personnel system has changed little. In fact, this new report by the Partnership likely would have similar recommendations if written 10 to 15 years ago.

What are your thoughts on the recommendations as they relate to IT and STEM jobs? Does the federal personnel system need an overhaul, and can it be done following agency missteps like NSPS and MaxHR?   

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