The Washington Post today has a rather tepid Federal Diary by Stephen Barr raising more questions about the proposed civil service reforms. It quotes extensively from the rationales for the new regulations issued by DOD and DHS, which rely heavily on vague gestures at the post-9/11 world and the need to respond quickly and flexibly to threats. This is a topic we have covered here and here.
Yes, there is a need to respond quickly and flexibly, and so some call to lend agency managers a greater hand through such things as performance rewards. However, as Barr points out the rhetoric has not been linked directly to the kinds of department-wide changes DOD and DHS are moving toward. While such flexibility might be justified for some positions, it is hard to imagine that it is universally justified regardless of the proximity of its connection to anti-terrorism and security.
More troubling, which Barr does not address, is that these same justifications evaporate when transporting the reform proposals to Labor, Education, and Veterans' Affairs. A case can certainly be made for civil service reform, but the Bush Administration has not done so. Intead it appears more like an opportunity to exert greater political control over the federal bureaucracy using -- no surprise -- vague and winking nods to the needs of the post-9/11 world. Now where have we heard that before?
A Senate hearing late last week showed that some in Congress, including the GOP chair of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the civil service, are skeptical of the need and design of the plan. Government Executive reports that Voinovich, together with the ranking Democrat Akaka, both expressed great skepticism at OMB's enthusiasm to roll out the reforms government-wide without seeing how they play in the two departments for which they were initially intended. Since it requires congressional approval, and federal employee unions are poised to mobilize, there will be a fight. Whereas the unions lost in the rush to create DHS the first time around, they have a much better shot to slow the rush to reform this time.