For Federal Employees, the Best Can’t Be Hired and the Worst Can’t Be Fired

© J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo U.S. Capitol Building in Washington in 2011
© J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo U.S. Capitol Building in Washington in 2011

A powerful new survey of thousands of management-level federal employees found that the U.S. government is a massive bureaucracy that is under terrific stress, in part because managers feel they can’t get rid of underperforming employees, and often say their workers don’t have the skills they need to do their jobs.

Conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the survey polled 3,551 government officials, both career civil servants and political appointees. While some agencies received higher marks than others and most respondents said that believe they are equipped to perform at least their core functions, nearly one in five did not.

“The federal workforce is under stress and there are concerns emerging among federal executives about whether the workforce has the capacity and skills necessary to implement effectively the core tasks that they’ve been given by the president,” said David E. Lewis, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt and the lead researcher on the study.

“It’s time to do civil service reform,” he said. I worry that it will be done in piecemeal fashion in response to a crisis rather than the right way, which is to develop a modern-day human resources system for a modern government.”

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, was at the downtown Washington venue where the report was released.

Stier, a longtime advocate of overhauling the federal personnel system said, “We unfortunately have all-too-little information about what is happening inside the federal government.” He described the data in the study as “really very valuable.”

Among the key insights from the study is what it reveals about the skills of the federal workforce. Asked if an “inadequately skilled workforce is a significant obstacle to [my agency] fulfilling its core mission, 39 percent of respondents agreed that it was. Only 45 percent of respondents disagreed with that statement.

To make matters worse, a plurality of respondents said that their agencies are unable to bring in the kind of talent they need. Asked to react to the statement “[My agency] is unable to recruit the best employees,” 42 percent agreed, while only 38 percent disagreed.

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Source: Fiscal Times | Rob Garver

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