Challenging times


I had the great pleasure Monday of hosting a public conversation with esteemed federal government expert Dr. Paul Light, NYU professor, former Brookings Institution fellow, author of numerous books, and Washington Post blogger. Our conversation was sponsored by the Coalition for Effective Change and took place at the offices of one of my favorite organizations, the Partnership For Public Service.

The discussion was titled “Changes to the Civil Service: Hollow Government or Necessary Reforms?” and it posed the following questions: Is the federal workforce too large? Should Congress cut agency resources across-the-board? Does the civil service need to be reformed? How?

Light, author of “The True Size of Government” and  “A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It,” made many interesting points and predictions, including these:

1) Don’t expect government reorganization or civil service reform anytime soon.  President Obama’s request for fast-track government reorganization authority is basically dead in the water.  Congress has no actionable appetite to reorganize government or reform the civil service. And it is unclear when Congress might take on some long-needed reforms.  What is needed even more than government reform is congressional reform (e.g. realigning congressional jurisdictions, improving oversight, etc.) and this also is not going to happen anytime soon. Moreover, even if Congress had interest in reforming the federal personnel system or reorganizing government, there would be precious few people in the Executive Branch and in Congress who possess the expertise and wherewithal to do the heavy lifting needed to make that happen. The Senate governmental affairs committee, for example, is too burdened with its other mission of overseeing homeland security programs and policies to handle such a job. And so is the thinly staffed management wing of OMB.

2) When it comes to reforming government, the best thing agencies (and Congress in overseeing them) can do is shed their excessive middle management layers and dedicate more staff to the lower-level positions responsible for carrying out government services that serve the public good, such as overseeing the safety of deep oil wells, ensuring food safety, and processing veteran disability claims.

3) The so-called retirement tsunami is a good thing. It’s time for the baby boomers to start making way for the younger generations, who bring energy, new ideas and a welcome impatience to carrying out the missions of government. There are opportunities that will come with this transition, such as the ability to redesign how agencies staff themselves.

4) A big national debate over the proper roles and responsibilities of government should be welcome. With any luck, it will help settle some decisions that are sorely needed to help re-position government for the future.  Light said Alexander Hamilton argued that the federal government exists to promote the general welfare of the national citizenry. One place to start such a debate is to examine what government functions meet that test and which do not.

5) Federal recruiting is going to be in trouble so long as Americans lack faith in the government’s ability to effectively carry out its missions and enforce laws. In terms of attracting new recruits, the government should strive to replicate the model used by non-profits in which employees are highly mission-driven and enthusiastic and yet they understand and accept that their compensation will lag behind that of their private sector peers. To do this, government must do better at meeting their public service missions.

6) In times of austere budgets, such as these, it is increasingly difficult for agency managers and policy makers to justify spending money on needed management reforms and other “good government” initiatives, such as improving staff training, productivity, oversight, accountability, performance management, career development, streamlining management layers, etc. That is because policy makers and the CBO lack the capability to calculate (“score” in federal parlance) real benefits that stem from such initiatives. CBO must figure out how to do this since many of these types of initiatives are certain to have positive benefits.

Watch this video from his website in which he discusses the question he poses in his recent book of  ‘what is a government ill-executed?”


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