For Years, the Federal Workforce Languished. Congress is Planning to Revive It

February 26, 2021 | 4:28 pm
Phil Roeder / CC BY 2.0 (Creative Commons)
Taryn MacKinney
Former Contributor

During a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, congressional leaders and a panel of experts examined the state of the federal workforce—and talked through plans to bolster and protect civil servants in the coming years.

The last administration tried to undermine the federal workforce

To kick off the discussion, Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) highlighted the previous administration’s efforts to undermine civil servants. Three of Trump’s executive orders undermined federal workers’ collective bargaining rights, he noted, and the introduction of a new federal job classification, Schedule F, would have made it easier to fire career civil servants. The administration also tried to chip away at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) by re-housing parts of it in the General Services Administration and the Executive Office of the President, “an illegal attempt to abolish the very agency that serves as our nation’s human resources hub.” Congress staved off these attempts on a bipartisan basis, but “damage remains,” said Chairman Connolly—and Congress and the president must act to reverse it.

The panelists agreed. Janice R. Lachance, former OPM director, noted that the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), tasked with protecting federal employees from agency abuses, has been without quorum for four years, the longest time in its history. Anne Joseph O’Connell, a law professor and former federal employee, pointed to a slew of damaging outcomes of the last four years, including attacks on employee pay, hiring freezes, unfilled leadership positions, and government shutdowns, the last of which slashed $3 billion from the nation’s GDP and furloughed 380,000 federal workers.

Our data show that these impacts extended to science

The panelists took a broad view of the federal workforce, comprised of millions of people. But their concerns are especially urgent for federal scientists, who have been ignored, defunded, and pushed out of their roles. We’ve tracked nearly 190 attacks on science since 2017, and our analysis of government staffing data reveals that federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Fish and Wildlife Service have lost hundreds of scientists since then. The EPA saw a net loss of 672 scientific staff, a nearly 6% decline.

Small offices saw big losses, too: we found that the Institute of Education Sciences, the Department of Education’s research branch, lost 33 scientific staff (a 19% decline).

Some offices—abruptly relocated across the country—hemorrhaged majorities of their staff. Ms. O’Connell noted that when the Bureau of Land Management moved to Colorado, 90% of affected employees quit or found other jobs. When the USDA’s Economic Research Service was relocated to Kansas City, the office’s productivity, measured by the output of research reports, dropped by half.

We at UCS have a lot of recommendations to counter these attacks and strengthen federal science, and we’re thrilled to see many of them already in the Biden administration’s latest memorandum on scientific integrity. We also encourage the administration to bolster fellowship programs, expand recruitment to underrepresented communities, and strengthen mentorship of early-career scientists.

But while these proposals may strengthen scientific integrity and the scientific workforce, they will not remedy many of the attacks we’ve seen on the broader civil service. What else must be done?

Steps to revitalize the federal workforce

Fortunately, many of the last administration’s more insidious efforts to wound the federal workforce, like the proposed Schedule F and assaults on OPM, were tamped down by Congress or rescinded by President Biden. But, as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) noted, a system that allows a president to “unilaterally” politicize the civil service needs repair.

To kickstart this repair, Ms. Lachance urged the immediate nomination and confirmation of leaders at MSPB and OPM. She also argued that OPM would be most effective as a strategic “whole-government” resource, overseeing all government agencies instead of only some.

Panelists and congressional leaders alike underscored the urgency of speeding up the hiring process. It takes “98.3 days […] on average to hire an employee for the federal government,” noted Chairman Connelly—far too long. The federal workforce is also aging: only 6.8% of federal employees are under the age of 30, compared to 23% of private-sector workers. Ms. Lachance noted that investing in would be crucial to bolstering the workforce, as would building relationships with historically black colleges and universities and tribal communities to ensure a continuous, diverse talent pipeline.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) asked the panelists about telework, a crucial tool during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everett Kelley, who heads the American Federation of Government Employees, pointed out that many managers reported greater productivity with remote work, and Ms. Lachance called telework a “critical component” of attracting and keeping federal employees in the future.

The panelists also discussed the previous administration’s attempt to create a new job classification, Schedule F. The schedule would have made it easier for managers to fire employees and would have made many civil service positions non-competitive, instead of competitive and merit-based. James Sherk, former advisor for President Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, defended Schedule F, arguing that it would only affect 1-3% of federal employees. But Ms. Lachance pushed back. Because Schedule F would have targeted those with policymaking authority, she noted, it would have disproportionately impacted agencies like the Office of Management and Budget, which would have had to reclassify 88% of its staff. Chairman Connolly discussed a bill he introduced that would prevent future administrations from reclassifying career civil service jobs.

Looking ahead

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) described two visions of government. In the first, government and its civil service belongs to the highest leader, the president. In the second, the government belongs to no single leader; rather, it “must be an instrument of the public good.” As Congress begins the monumental task of rebuilding and revitalizing the federal workforce, we urge all our elected leaders to remember this, and to ensure that the federal civil service remains strong, well-protected, and dedicated to the public good.