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Executive Summary #1404es

January 10, 2001

January 10, 2001 | Executive Summary on

Executive Summary: Taking Charge of Federal Personnel

Any serious effort by President George W. Bush to improve management of the federal bureaucracy and to continue downsizing the federal government will be difficult. The President can expect opposition from official Washington's "permanent government," a network that includes the career civil service and its allies in Congress, the leaders of federal unions, and the chiefs of managerial and professional associations representing civil servants.

The new President must therefore base his management approach on clear policy objectives and sound management principles, reinforcing political leadership and accountability from the White House and Cabinet. He must call attention to the weaknesses of the current system and to the importance of basing personnel management decisions on performance in carrying out his mission. He must demonstrate a desire to eliminate duplication across the bureaucracy and create a leaner workforce to manage the remaining functions. He will need to gain public support for transferring functions to the states, communities, and the private sector. And to make significant but necessary changes in pay and benefits, including more portable private-sector-style benefits, he will need to gain the support of rank-and-file federal employees.

Taking Charge
Because of the closeness of the 2000 election and subsequent legal challenges, President Bush faces unprecedented pressure in getting his team in place. Under the intensity of these unique pressures--and as political appointees of the previous Administration use civil service law to secure permanent civil service protection--he and his advisers may be tempted to name fewer political appointees and rely instead on senior career civil servants to carry out the responsibilities that would otherwise belong to his appointees.

This would be a profound mistake. In formulating and executing the details of an agenda for major policy change, the President needs a full cadre of personnel committed to him and his agenda in the federal agencies that execute the details of national policy.

Lessons from the Past
Improving the way the federal bureaucracy operates will require vision and the willingness to fight the status quo. The experiences of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and other Presidents who established strong cabinet governments provide ample lessons for the new Administration. Specifically:

  • Make liberal use of the power of appointment, get a loyal team in place, and insist on accountability while maintaining a clear distinction between career and non-career employees.

  • Make political appointments to key policymaking positions in a timely fashion.

  • Put political appointees in charge of implementing policy and have them readily available to speak for the Administration.

  • Let political appointees make key management decisions.

  • Provide a clear rationale for well-planned, systematically implemented reductions in the size of the federal workforce and for management changes.

  • Use the Civil Service Reform Act to improve accountability and improve management.

  • Use good management and contracting-out of services to save billions of dollars.

  • Reform federal employee benefit programs by making fundamental changes through the congressional budget process.

Strategies for the New Administration
President Clinton's effort to "reinvent government" resulted in significant changes, but the net effect has been to undermine strong political management and cabinet government. In order to make promised reductions in staffing, he formed an alliance with federal unions. He issued Executive Order 12871, which established "labor-management partnerships" that elevated federal unions to equality with agency management.

The new President will need to revoke this executive order and demonstrate from the outset that his approach to reform emphasizes political responsibility and accountability to the taxpayers. To be successful, the new Administration should:

  • Eliminate duplicative federal programs and functions;

  • Build public support for a more flexible and modern federal personnel system;

  • Advance a core-spoke-rim model as the ideal federal workforce structure;

  • Move to merit-based pay and benefit systems;

  • Reform federal retirement benefits to make them fully portable and fully funded;

  • Restore merit principles to federal hiring procedures;

  • Reassert managerial control of government; and

  • Consolidate the central management agencies of government.

George Nesterczuk is Vice President of Global USA Inc., a Washington, D.C., government relations firm, and a former Staff Director for the Civil Service Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform. Donald J. Devine is an Adjunct Scholar at The Heritage Foundation and served President Ronald Reagan as Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981 to 1985. Robert E. Moffit is Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation and a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan Administration.

About the Author

Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D. Senior Fellow
Center for Health Policy Studies