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.