The government workforce is living in the time of World War II. The current general schedule classification and pay system was designed when Harry Truman was president. The last major reform to the civil service was in 1979. It’s been more than 35 years since there were any adjustments. 35 years is a long time. Consider that 35 years ago there was no Internet, no smartphones and no way to apply for a job online. Now you can’t apply for a federal job expect through an online portal, but the laws and regulations have not kept up.
So what can be done? Jeff Neal, Senior Vice President with ICF International and formerly the Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security and Chief Human Resources Officer for the Defense Logistics Agency, told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the current civil service was designed for a workforce we no longer have.
In 1950 the Classification Act produced the current general schedule, was drafted when more than half of the federal workforce was a GS 5 for below. “It very heavily clerical workforce, lots a people were typists and voucher examiners. These were people who pushed paper for a living, but that process has become automated and the jobs have changed.”
The GS system currently has 15 pay grades, each with 10 steps. The grade of the job is determined by various factors including the scope, complexity and difficulty of the work performed in that job. You qualify for a particular grade based on how your experience, education and skills meet the qualifications required by the job. Neal believes at a minimum he general schedule needs to be either replaced or substantially updated.
When Congress created the general schedule there were 18 grades. The top three grades were called super grades, during the Civil Service Reform Act of 1979. Those super grades were converted into what’s now called the Senior Executive Service. Now the General Schedule has 15 grades. “It used to be that more than half the employees were a 5 and below. Now, more than half the employees are 12 and above. What we’ve got is a system that’s gradually squeezing all of the people into the high end of the grade structure. We’ve ended up with a pay system that isn’t a 15 level pay system. It’s a 4 level pay system.”
It may seem obvious that reforms are necessary, but Neal said reforms may be far off because one reform is never enough, the situation becomes a bit like Pandora’s box. “I’m sure you’ve known somebody who was not well, but afraid to go to the doctor because they didn’t want to be told something serious was wrong with them. They can’t get treatment unless they go to the doctor and get results. The Civil Service is a lot like that now,” said Neal. “People don’t want to talk about all the problems because they’re really hard to fix.”
However, reforms are essential because soon the government will be in a position where it can’t hire the talent it needs to accomplish the mission. “I think there are two things that are really critical right now. One is the classification and pay system, and the other is the hiring process. The administration did have a hiring reform initiative about 4 years ago, and as a result, they made some changes that I think did make a lot things better. For example, they got rid of the long narrative knowledge, skill and ability responses (KSA).”
However, switching from KSA’s to resumes although a good first step, is only that a fire step. “There haven’t been a lot of substantive changes in the regulations that govern hiring. There is an overreliance on technology. To apply for a government job you have to go online, submit a resume and answer a few questions. Those questions are digitally scored and the system spits out the answers to a manager. Over the years is folks have gotten so dependent on that technology, that in many cases they’re not even looking at, at the list, they just take whatever comes out of the computer.”
There was a perfect storm that came together to create the situation we have right now, it was the right mix of technology and budgeting. The Clinton Administration’s national performance review recommended downsizing HR and procurement. They promised to fix the regulations to make things simpler, and downsized the control organizations, the HR and procurement organizations. “They got half of that done,” said Neal. “They got rid of the federal personnel manual, but they really didn’t dramatically simplify the rules. So these HR offices that were downsized by 50% or more, didn’t have the people to handle all of the paper, and so they started relying on these systems, and they started relying on them too much.”