Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the US civil service system - which dates from 1883 - is beyond repair. Its rules for hiring, firing, and promoting federal employees give little flexibility to government managers interested in improving services to the public.
The Bush administration won a big victory during the creation of a Department of Homeland Security last year when Congress finally agreed to let this terrorism-fighting department work under a more up-to-date personnel system. Now the Defense Department seeks similar rules for its 750,000-strong civilian workforce, hoping it can be as agile as its fighting forces.
Last week, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill (similar legislation already passed in the House) that gives Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission needed leeway on personnel rules. The legislation establishes a pay-for-performance system that eliminates guaranteed raises based on length of service. It also creates a $500 million "performance fund" - to give merit increases to high-performing workers.
Emphasizing performance should lead to significant improvement. The current ineffective system rewards longevity instead of a job well done. Federal workers unions, of course, want guarantees that workers can appeal management decisions they deem unfair. And legislators wisely wrote in rules against nepotism and discrimination, and created an independent review board to oversee workers' appeals.
Government agencies should be allowed to tailor the rules to meet their specific needs, while also protecting civil servants from political patronage by appointed managers. Building such a federal workforce will help to boost morale and to save money.