The Dysfunctional Federal Workforce
The Survey on the Future of Government Service, released last week by Vanderbilt University's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, reveals significant problems with the federal workforce. According to the data, collected from 3,551 federal executives, the civil service is struggling to recruit and retain America's best and brightest — and agencies are plagued by underperforming employees who are difficult to fire.
We have seen the by-products of this malfunctioning personnel system for years. The Department of Veterans Affairs has lurched from one crisis to another. Government-wide improper payments reached a new height of $124.7 billion in 2014, fueled by mistakes made by the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Treasury. The General Services Administration, for its part, is unable to provide a correct inventory of the number of federal properties, let alone unload the unneeded ones.
The true insight of this survey is that these crises are predictable; our current civil-service system is not structured to be highly productive. Politicians have ladened the system with other objectives, such as job security.
Here are four more notable findings from the study.
1. The federal workforce is inadequately skilled and likely to stay that way.
Recruitment is a problem for the public sector — 42 percent of federal executives believe their agency is unable to recruit the best employees. Troublingly, 39 percent of respondents think inadequately skilled federal workers represent a significant obstacle for agency mission fulfillment.
Recruitment is hindered by a lack of opportunity (cited by 54 percent of respondents), "rigid civil service rules" (54 percent), and salary (53 percent). However, only 32 percent of federal executives report lacking a qualified applicant pool. So not all is lost; high performers are still interested in public-sector jobs despite these negatives. But there are barriers (like the cumbersome USAjobs site and baroque agency hiring practices) that keep employers from effectively landing them.
2. Underperforming federal managers and employees are seldom fired.
Even if agencies streamlined recruitment, they still would be stuck with low-performing employees who are nearly impossible to dismiss. Some 64 percent of respondents said subpar managers are rarely (if ever) dismissed, and 70 percent said the same for non-managers. Private companies face far fewer obstacles, with 52 percent of private-sector executives surveyed saying non-managers could be reassigned or dismissed within six months. Only 4 percent of public-sector executives said the same.)
3. Federal executives do not feel that they have been properly trained.
Not only do the executives feel their workforce is inadequate, but many also don't feel up to the task of managing those employees. Fewer than three-quarters of career executives and just 45 percent of appointees felt they had received "sufficient training and guidance on how to manage" federal employees.
The appointee/career split is stark, but unsurprising. Political appointees often come to their positions with little background in the civil service and its maddeningly complex thicket of statutes and rules.
Though career executives felt more confident in their abilities than appointees, the percentages are still distressingly low. It prompts the question, How are people getting to such high levels without sufficient training?
4. Agencies are poaching leaders from one another.
Some agencies are lucky enough to hire the best and brightest. But once they do, the battle to keep them begins. Of the executives polled, 42 percent of appointees and 39 percent of career executives said they've been approached about other positions within the last year. Who was top poacher? Other federal agencies.
Having executives with experience at multiple agencies is a good thing, so long as there are enough of them to go around. As agencies struggle to pull in new talent, they are turning to beggar-they-neighbor hiring to get their workforce up to par.
This behavior is unsurprising. Since the 1960s, federal spending has quadrupled while federal-employee counts have remained steady. Congress and the federal courts have created a complicated system of hiring and firing that prevent agencies from acquiring and maintaining a skilled workforce.
The new survey reveals a high degree of variability among agencies, demonstrating that the situation is not hopeless. When asked about employee retention, 66 percent of the executives from one agency said they were able to retain top employees, while only 30 percent of executives at another agency reported the same. Some agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission, are doing a particularly good job. In the Best Places to Work Index of 2014, the FTC scored highly, and the survey confirmed the agency's executives felt it could recruit top performers.
This variability was also found in a recent GAO survey that gauged federal employees' level of engagement. The agency breakdowns are similar to those in the new study, with the VA and Department of Defense scoring low while the FTC maintains high engagement.
As the Vanderbilt survey points out, we can easily examine which agencies are succeeding to determine best practices to implement at others. We have the data for this type of reform; we just need to use it.
Chloe Booth is a research assistant, and Kevin R. Kosar is the director of the Governance Project, at the R Street Institute.