US federal civil service is “broken”, says NAPA

By on 09/08/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Teresa Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration Image courtesy: US Department of Labor).

The US federal civil service system is “fundamentally broken” and reforms are urgently needed, a prestigious Washington think-tank has warned in a new report.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) said that the civil service personnel system, which dates back to the 1940s, is undermining the federal government’s ability to meet the needs of American citizens.

The think-tank’s report,  No Time to Wait: Building a 21st Century Public Service, calls for personnel management to be devolved to individual agencies and departments, giving them power over hiring, firing, motivating and assessing staff.

Crisis of human capital

A renewed commitment to core civil service principles of merit – such as competitive entry exams – and a new governance and accountability structure based on data analytics are also required at agency or departmental level to address the federal government’s “crisis of human capital”, the report states.

Launching the report last month, NAPA president and chief executive Terry Gerton said the proposed reforms would profoundly transform the personnel systems and processes of the federal civil service, making government more efficient and effective.

“The ideas in this report, if implemented, will help to ensure that the federal government has the talent – a highly skilled, agile and responsive workforce – needed to meet the enormous responsibilities of the 21st century,” she said.

Detailed plan needed

Examples of the “profound problems” facing government given in the report include recruitment and retention issues that have contributed to a backlog of 1.3 million disability reviews at the Social Security Administration, and a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The proposed reforms are characterised in the report as a “sturdy three-legged stool” that will provide the foundation that the federal government “badly needs to serve citizens in these challenging times”.

Creating and leading such a system, it states, requires government to:

  • recommit to – but modernise –a merit-based system at a time when “some so-called reformers seek to undo some of its protections;”
  • shift from a process-based system to one focused on results;
  • give up a familiar approach for a new one; and
  • redefine leadership roles in relation to personnel issues within agencies and departments of the federal government.

“We recognise that this vision of human capital reform will require a detailed operational game plan and stand ready, as a next step, to assist congress and the administration in its development,” the report states.

NAPA is an independent, non-profit organisation that was chartered by the US Congress in 1967 to provide non-partisan advice and help government leaders built more effective, efficient, accountable and transparent organisations.

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See also:

Ukraine launches civil service reform programme

Myanmar reform plan launched to strengthen civil service

US agency forges ahead with reforms to criminal record checks

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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