Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Some Thoughts On The Future Of The Civil Service


When you change jobs they ask you to share your parting thoughts. After about three and a half years, I'll soon be transferring to another position in the government. I thought it might be helpful to share these thoughts more broadly, as they concern my impressions over a period of many years.

I. Support These Positive Characteristics (While Addressing Their Limits)

  • Consensus-Building: Feds are all about consensus. They are good at following defined processes to move a decision forward, through meetings and document drafting and development. (The problem with this is that most projects fail, demonstrating that inclusivity and relationship capital are not a substitute for productive conflict.)
  • Technical Mastery: Civil servants are hired and evaluated based on demonstrated excellence of specific criteria. As such, they are ideal subject matter experts to consult regarding technical mastery. (The problem with this, of course, can be an inability to see the forest for the trees.)
  • Institutional Knowledge: I have had the good fortune to learn about Federal employees who dedicated their entire lives to their work, leading to a level of institutional knowledge and commitment that is rare and desirable. (The problem is that Feds in general have a tendency to think they "know better," and it is not uncommon to hear a civil servant saying they will "wait it out" rather than follow a particular Administration direction.)

II. Reverse These Three Toxic Trends

These insights reflect my experiences in multiple, highly diverse agencies across the civil service over the past decade and multiple Administrations, and all opinions are always my own. 

  • Trend #1 – Gradual Erosion Of The Hatch Act: When I joined the civil service, partisanship was unheard of. By 2011, slightly less than a decade after I joined the civil service, things had changed, and there was a not-so-subtle "cheerleading" dynamic between the Administration and the civil service, even as the Feds were left out of key decisions in favor of political appointees (see below). Just a few short years later, with the change of Administration, this was (inevitably) followed by a swing in the other direction. All of this is completely destructive to productivity. The civil service was designed to be neutral for a reason; if people can't do the job they're being paid to do, regardless of who's in charge, they really need to leave the civil service rather than try to throw sand in the engine. 
  • Trend #2 – Appointee-Contractor Alliance Erodes "Inherently Governmental" Work: When I joined the Federal government in 2003, there were clearly defined lines between civil servant and contractor. Yet over time, particularly beginning around 2010, the lines between civil servant and contractor seemed to blur, as contractors' technical expertise was highly sought after and political appointees preferred to task them directly rather than deal with Feds. There was also a worrying tendency to try to "include" contractors in the workforce, in a type of employee engagement activity. This is overall detrimental to the integrity of the civil service as a body of unbiased, dedicated institutional knowledge and commitment, not to mention that it encourages waste, fraud and abuse through "workarounds."
  • Trend #3 – Data-Driven But Soulless: As technology grows more and more powerful, it is possible to make ever-more-informed decisions based on robust business intelligence software. Moreover, it is tempting for the highly paid executive to rely nearly exclusively on quantitative analysis to justify their decisions in the event of an audit. Yet only an experienced, empowered, well-trained leader can truly take the pulse of the environment sufficiently to make an informed decision based on data PLUS the intangible factors that a computer cannot capture. 

III. Encourage These Three Positive Developments

  • Development #1 – The Empowered Employee: Whereas in the past Federal employees were encouraged to "go along and get along," the current atmosphere and mindset encourages them to speak out where they fraud, waste and abuse. This empowerment is a vital counterbalance to the inevitable problems that will occur in any large organization regardless of who is staffing it; a formal audit by the agency Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office are not a sufficient "first line of defense."
  • Development #2 – Interagency Consulting: Federal employees have a wealth of skills that can be applied to environments outside their immediate jobs. The Federal government is making use of those skills through everything from inter-agency IT consulting to micro-tasking. These programs not only save the government money, they also enable a continuous leveraging of employees' time at work, and build up their skills to meet future challenges as they arise.
  • Development #3 – Emphasis on High-Value Work: One doesn't need to be especially well-informed to see that artificial intelligence is already having, and will continue to have, a transformative impact on the work environment, and this certainly holds true for the civil service. Going forward, empowered employees need to be not only trained, but evaluated based on their capacity to add both tangible and intangible value to customer interactions, for example by making decisions that save money and/or time and by increasing customer engagement and satisfaction. 

IV. The Bottom Line: Engagement Is What Matters Most

Spending a few minutes reflecting about my experience in government was a productive exercise. From a content perspective, it left me realizing that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." As such, organizational improvement efforts — regardless of the organization — need to go beyond short-term prescriptions and limited environmental realities. Ideally, they are rooted in a scientific, almost a-historical understanding of the deeper dynamics that animate large groups of people attempting to get things done together. 

Yet something else occurred to me as I did this. In a world where we are constantly being bombarded with stimuli — emails, instant messages, phone calls, texts, banner ads, television programs and advertisements, movies, music, newspapers, magazines, and even the sides of buses — the actual act of thinking offers a crucial benefit in itself.

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By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. Public domain. Photo credit: Big Heart via Pixabay.