An open letter to Barack Obama
What a presidential election campaign and historic moment for the United States! This is truly an amazing time for America. The theme of change resonated from the candidates of both political parties. With each new president, there is an effort to change the nature and direction of the Civil Service. Every administration since World War II has in some fashion or form felt it had the answer to eliminating waste and increasing the efficiency of the Civil Service. I urge you, Mr. President-elect, to take your time and get a real feel for the people that serve this country as public servants.
Fortunately, in the examination of the challenges facing you on the international and economic fronts, you might find that reform of the Civil Service is low on your list. Civil Service does have challenges facing it, like the impending retirement of thousands of dedicated, experienced individuals. It has a cumbersome system with which to attract and recruit the best and the brightest. The changes needed require time for reflection.
When you do get the time to pay attention to the foundation that keeps this democracy going on a daily basis, there are several steps I would encourage you to take.
First, I would suggest a serious discussion about what services are inherently governmental. While there has been conversation on this topic, a discussion with solid results has been lacking. It is clear that the defense of the nation, transportation, veterans’ benefits and services, Social Security, education, and some regulation (banking, food, medical) should be examined to determine how many civil servants are needed in those areas.
Second, it would be helpful for the government to take a consolidated approach in the area of pay-for-performance. At the present time there are a variety of pay systems in place. Some have well-received features and some get criticized. There is no doubt that most workers and managers would embrace a system that reliably rewards those that contribute to the success of an agency in attaining its goals and mission. It is apparent that Congress is in favor of pay-for-performance systems, but it must be understood that they have to be properly funded if they are expected to work. A pay-for-performance system that lacks sufficient funding is no more than a modified quota or forced distribution system that lacks transparency and fairness.
As a third topic, I would encourage your administration to discuss seriously whether we want government to be more business-like or not. In this era where continuing resolutions for appropriations is the norm, becoming more like the private sector is impossible. Perhaps a more realistic approach is for us to become mission centric, where we provide agencies with clear missions and the dollars to achieve them. In return for continuous improvement initiatives and dollars saved by an agency, it would be allowed to invest some of these savings to become more efficient and streamlined.
Finally, Mr. President-elect, I urge you to minimize politically motivated appointments for agency positions and empower the senior leadership of the agencies to carry out their missions. This system would better serve everyone, and would hold senior civil servants more accountable. Too many times in recent history, we have witnessed an agency or department negatively impacted, in the process of serving our public, by becoming political pawns.
Again, congratulations on being elected president! Only time will tell if the changes we undertake together will make the United States of America greater than it already is. On behalf of civil servants, I assure you we look forward to the challenges ahead.
News media regularly brings forth stories that reflect poor performance and execution on the part of the “bureaucrats.” Congress, on numerous occasions, hauls agency leaders before it to explain why their agencies have failed the American people.
Yet daily, many government activities move forward without much difficulty and are even quite successful in serving the nation despite the many hindrances placed on federal workers. In this article, I would like to focus on the severe technological limitations that confront most agencies every day.
Thanks to budgetary constraints or lengthy acquisition processes, many agencies lag one or two generations behind the latest office technology. While in our homes, feds probably have the latest and greatest software and hardware, in the federal workplace, many of us cope with out-of-date computers. In some cases, Windows XP is the next upgrade federal employees can expect. This product is so old Microsoft has already announced that it will soon discontinue Windows XP support.
The technology lag greatly hinders the government’s ability to offer the American public services produced in an efficient manner. It also frustrates the civil servants trying to accomplish their jobs.
Perhaps we should establish an organization that delivers the information technology needs of the entire federal community. After all, criticism has been repeatedly leveled that the various agencies too often pursue their own IT plans to the detriment of a cohesive whole.
One project began rolling out several years ago in the Department of Defense to establish the Navy Marine Corps Internet, or NMCI. This program has its vocal supporters and an equal number of detractors as to how well it has performed. In many ways it did standardize the software and hardware portfolios of the agencies involved, but several weaknesses were revealed in the limitations of the approved products. The overall NMCI effort is tilting toward below average—just as the Navy looks to a new enterprise system to replace NMCI.
As the 21st century unfolds, the government’s strength will be determined partly by the service capabilities it deploys to meet the needs of the public. Quick response is an expectation that is severely hampered by a weak information technology infrastructure.
For years the Federal Aviation Administration has struggled with maintenance of an air traffic control system that always seems to be challenged to the point of major breakdowns. Recent stories on widespread delays in flights caused by computer failures highlight the fact that key elements of inherently governmental services are in need of attention.
I am sure each agency could tell its own story of information technology woes. That’s why I believe Congress and the president must establish an office that directs a consistent and well-planned program to upgrade computers to meet the needs of our government.
As the government transitions to a new administration in January, there are several issues the elected officials and the workforce must address. First, we need a serious discussion about what services performed by civil servants are inherently governmental. Once those services are determined, a commitment must follow to equip them with an IT infrastructure to bring service quality up to 21st century standards.
Second, Congress must invest in the agencies to ensure the functions determined to be essential are delivered efficiently to the public.
I’d like to hear from you regarding what services you believe are “inherently governmental.” If you work as a civil servant, what technology do you feel would enhance your ability to serve the public?
Your voice is essential to ensuring that government provides services that meet people’s expectations. Any improvement we make to the IT supporting government will make this great democracy even stronger.
The stage is set for an historic event this fall. A new administration will begin transitioning into power. As we've heard from earlier presidential candidates, when discussing government they continue to advocate reduction and reorganization. In short, they ridicule the government itself.
The candidates seeking the prestigious office of the presidency tend to highlight stories of incompetence and mismanagement. While I agree that such cases do indeed exist, and the system of handling problems needs reform, I contend the real inherent cause of inefficiency is being overlooked - and purposely so.
Candidates from both of the major political parties hold positions in one of the esteemed bodies that fosters governmental ineffectiveness -the United States Senate. Both the Senate and House of Representatives control the budgetary process that funds the agencies that members claim are ineffective and wasteful.
Yet how many private companies could survive a budgetary process that withholds final funding until six or nine months into their fiscal year? For the past 20 years the congressional budget process has been used as a forum for political fights and a demonstration of power-play politics. Neither political party should be proud of the performance that has become the norm in the appropriations process for the United States government.
While the hot topic of the day is Congressional use of pork barrel add-ons to critical legislation, the debate should really focus on the failed policy of using the dreaded continuing resolution, or CR.
Many state governments have processes in place for producing budgets that guide spending for a two-year period. This is often accomplished in states that have part-time legislatures. At the federal level, it might be easy to place the blame on the recipients of this haphazard approach to funding, but a serious discussion should ensue that prohibits the use of CRs.
Since the government performs many important functions in support of our public on a daily basis, federal managers are expected to plan for this work without the benefit of actually having budgeted funds with which to do it. Having budgets in place and ready to execute on October 1 of each fiscal year would be awesome! We in the government would accomplish many of our key tasks in an orderly and highly efficient manner. We would produce tremendous improvement if, at the beginning of the fiscal year, we could establish a systematic plan of hiring, training, recognition, and purchasing. Ninety percent of those coming to work for the federal government each day are looking to accomplish their assignments as efficiently and effectively as possible. The use of CRs creates high stress and requires constant adjustments as monies are held to previous year levels. The costs of contracts and purchased goods increase as cancellations and delays occur when funds are not available at the beginning of the fiscal year.
The solution to CRs does not require investigation or independent study and review. The solution is to legislate and adhere to a timeline that ensures sensible passage of appropriations legislation. In its very first discussion, each Congress should be focused on ensuring that appropriations are complete prior to the beginning of the next fiscal year.
Look at the state governments, where the process works. Congress needs to take a look at itself and realize that it, Congress, is the root cause of the inefficiency it projects onto the mostly diligent civil servants.
Reach out to your representative today and ask him or her to commit to getting the most important job done. Continuing resolutions should be a thing of the past, never to be seen again. When the U.S. government has a sensible budget to work within, everyone wins. Responsible, timely budgets allow for more efficient planning which in turn strengthens the democracy we all cherish.
We've all heard and read about the impending loss of civil servants who are approaching retirement age after a life of serving the American public. Our democracy, in large part, has been sustained by the millions of civil servants that report to work daily. Despite the upheavals and policy shifts that occur on regular intervals from political outcomes, the citizens of this nation are positively impacted in many ways by the hard work of civil servants.
There is a growing concern in our agencies about the future of the government and the services it provides to serve, protect, and defend these United States of America.
Concern comes in part from the increased strain that deficit spending is causing on the political landscape.
As we are witnessing in political debates and discussions today, the supposed cure is some form of lowered taxes or the irresponsible elimination of programs that are viewed as unnecessary by the politician giving his or her speech of the day.
The reality is that tightened budgets already contribute to problems in areas where civil servants are truly needed. Recent negative stories about food inspections, infrastructure oversight, airline delays and paperwork backlogs are in large part the result of a shortage of government workers to carry out these necessary tasks. In order for Congress to correct those deficiencies, it must adequately fund agencies to carry out services deemed essential to protect and serve the American public.
Another major concern for the future of government service lies in the lack of appeal civil service seems to have in attracting and retaining the best and brightest. The appeal of public service as a career has waned thanks to the constant negative remarks heard and seen in the media. The general perception of the dull (or worse) bureaucrat and the seemingly boring nature of government jobs have made serving the public a distant thought for the graduates of our schools today. Additionally, it needs to be said that government has not made it easy for this generation to find employment as a civil servant. A complex and difficult application system with poor response times contributes to the problems.
These problems need to be addressed now to avoid a critical breakdown of services as a result of the retirement tsunami that will hit us over the next decade. There must be a serious discussion about what jobs are inherently governmental and need to be properly funded to best serve the American public.
Just as importantly, government needs to find a way to modernize its employment practices and ease the application process.
The public servant shortage must be confronted by the next Administration and Congress. The discussion must not be drowned in the acidic political rhetoric that has occurred in the past.
This country has been a great and successful experiment. Many have sought to emulate our culture and system of government. It would be a shame if we allowed our ignorance and inattention to this problem to be the fatal blow that destroys our government services and the resulting improved quality of life they provide to each and every American.