A group of governance experts have put together a proposal to strengthen the federal civil service for President-elect Biden to consider, which includes rescinding a number of directives signed by President Trump and elevating the Office of Personnel Management to a Cabinet-level agency.
Fellows at the National Academy of Public Administration working on presidential transition issues have drafted a proposed executive order entitled “Modernizing and Reinvigorating the Public Workforce and Restoring Honor in Public Service” that its eight architects said could be signed on the first day of a Biden administration.
The directive would cancel Trump’s three anti-union executive orders, an order that could convert large segments of the workforce into at-will employees, and a directive prohibiting agencies and federal contractors from conducting many forms of diversity and inclusion training. It also would reinstate the Clinton and Obama administrations’ policy establishing labor-management forums at federal agencies.
The proposal also elevates the OPM director to be a member of the president’s Cabinet and directs the federal government’s HR agency to put more of its resources toward policymaking. Jeff Neal, who led the effort and is a former chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, said the idea is intended to empower the agency to focus more on solutions to human capital challenges, rather than compliance with “one-size-fits-all” rules.
“OPM needs to be focused on helping agencies get results, not on rote compliance,” Neal said. “OPM has gotten to the point over the years where they define ‘merit’ as complying with their rules, rather than the merit system principles themselves. So in some cases, what you end up with are processes and procedures that in fact inhibit merit and push people toward compliance with arbitrary rules.”
The order also calls for a large-scale revamp of the federal hiring and compensation system. By the end of 2021, the OPM director would be required to reduce the number of job classifications in the General Schedule by at least 50%. The proposal would expand the use of recruitment, relocation and retention payments, as well as streamlined hiring authorities throughout the government.
Neal stressed that the order would not throw out all of the Trump administration’s work on federal personnel policy. Another provision would instruct the OPM director to eliminate current applicant questionnaires “that are not valid assessment instruments” and develop “modern assessment processes” to more easily and quickly find high-quality job candidates, a proposal that mirrors multiple successful pilot programs undertaken during Trump’s tenure to improve the hiring process.
“Not everything the Trump administration has done on civil service issues has been bad, and this is one example where they’ve done some good work,” Neal said. “[Chief human capital officers] have been saying for years that they need better assessments, but they haven’t necessarily been implementing them . . . These questionnaires just don’t work. They should produce some predictor that job candidates will be able to do the work, but they don’t work and they’re so easily gamed that sometimes they screen out the good candidates and screen in those willing to lie about everything.”
It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will take this approach as it attempts to rebuild a federal bureaucracy that has been decimated by a Trump administration. But at a briefing with reporters Friday, Biden transition adviser Jen Psaki indicated the president-elect would send a signal that he intends to value federal employees’ public service.
“As a principle, rebuilding the institutions of government that have been hollowed by this administration, finding ways to engage with the civil servants, the career officials who are frankly the heart and soul of government . . . those agencies wouldn’t function without the thousands of people who have served for decades, is a priority for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris,” Psaki said.