Is it time to reconsider how the federal civil service is managed? FAA individuation example?

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Federal workers on edge over Trump call for firing power

Good Management = pluses and minuses on real time basis

OPM = forms, rules and delays



HILL logoThe Hill headline emphasized the negative aspect of the SOTUS delivered by POTUS. In fact, the speech writer got it right—the need to positively reward civil servants was, in fact, the first part of the relevant sentence:

“All Americans deserve accountability and respect — and that is what we are giving them.  
So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority 
to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust 
or fail the American people.”


Sadly, so much is tweeted by the President, that his occasional messages are lost in his own noise.


To build the base for the need for reform should begin with the origins of the Civil Service Commission/Office of Personnel Management. Presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Arthur all battled Congress over the historical practice of hiring political hacks to fill multiple levels of the federal government. President Roosevelt is accredited with being the 1st Executive to consider reform of the federal government as a primary goal of his Administration. During his term in the White House the number of “civil servants” was 235,000.


According to Robert Moffit, Donald Devine and George Nesterczuk in Taking Charge of Federal Personnel, the goal of the CSC/OPM form of hiring/retaining and firing was perfected under President Wilson:


“The public administration model has dominated discussions of government reform since the rise of the modern 
administrative state. Professor Woodrow Wilson brought the new administrative theory, learned from studies 
in Germany and Great Britain, to Princeton University, where it provided a vision for how the new welfare 
state could be managed. Wilson believed the separation of powers was "manifestly a radical defect in our 
federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility." He sought instead a system that 
centralized power in the national government, particularly in the hands of the President, with an 
Administration staffed by the nation's top experts who would determine the proper "scientific" answer 
to the nation's problems.”

While much of this article debates whether the political or career employee should control policy issues, as applied to the context of the management of the dedicated public servants, whoOPM headquarters largely undeservedly are much maligned by those who live outside of the infamous Beltway.

Today’s OPM is an independent agency of over 6,000 employees who articulate and manage (more accurately said “attempt to manage”) almost 3 million members of the Executive Branch (the largest single department is the VA with almost 400,000 on the roles) with salaries ranging from $18,000 to $180,000. That is as difficult a task as any assigned to a government agency; since its founding the people within its scope have multiplied more than 10 times over. More significantly, the breadth of its substantive jurisdiction has expanded exponentially. Here is a list of subject areas for which OPM must establish and regulate:

Assessment & Selection

Classification & Qualifications

Data, Analysis & Documentation

Disability Employment

Diversity & Inclusion

Employee Relations

Hiring Information

Human Capital Management

Labor-Management Relations

Oversight Activities

Pandemic Information

Pay & Leave

Performance Management

Senior Executive Service

Settlement Guidelines

Snow & Dismissal Procedures

Training & Development

Veterans Services


Workforce Restructuring


Classification & Job Design

Workforce Restructuring

Workforce & Succession Planning

Recruiting & Staffing Solutions

Assessment & Evaluation

Federal Leadership Programs

Center For Leadership Development

Performance Management

Telework Solutions

Technology Systems

Human Capital Consultants

Human Resources Line of Business

Administrative Law Judges

Federal Executive Boards


The mathematical equation mandates that when 6,000 OPM subject matter experts must create rules for a workforce 3,000,000 people around the globe with job descriptions from grounds maintenance staff to PHD economists = ONE SIZE FITS ALL standards.

one size fits all

The objective of the civil service policy is to delete the ability of political appointments from abusing their employees is to create objective standards for hiring, promoting and firing decisions. That philosophy translates into “for each management action (good and bad), there is an OPM form.” The job of many supervisors has been increasingly devoted to filling out all of the boxes on the records needed for the personnel; there is less time for the persons responsible for leading an organization to do the actual work.

Because the normal tools for the care and feeding of the humans under the managers’ care are “process” oriented, immediate reward/punishment is deferred, accountability is transferred to the “process” (“I tried but my request for your bonus was denied by [some faceless person]”) and productivity is less in the hands of the line supervisors.  Here are listing of some of the OPM forms and of their awards:


forms and awards

There is a separate three page memorandum which provides guidance (12 more links to other reference materials) for incentives and rewards. Statutes and Regulations [linked cites are examples of the degree of precision of standards] set the very specific parameters for these programs, further reducing the ability of OPM and the federal work force from responding to good and bad behavior.

Good managers need to hone their skills to observe the performance of their charges, to understand the motivation(s) of each individual on her/his team, devise and implement tactics to achieve the desired performance, to communicate the personal goals on an ongoing basis and to react on a real time basis. Filling in forms does not support the supervisor in the improvement of performance.

Further, each level of manager ascending up the organization chart must follow the above rubric to each successive stage of people reporting. Everyone on a team is accountable and the real measure is the productivity of the work group. Ambiguity in the specific targets is minimized by the constant communication among all involved; yes, that means that the employees should seek clarity through this dialogue.


Most effective management organizations are quickly identified as cultures of trust. Constant feedback, frequent review of progress, clear communication of individual tactics and team strategies, collegial decision-making and real teamwork are measures of a well-functioning unit. The goal is to establish an individuated set of HR performance (there is a lot of academic writing on the subject). Accountability is brought to a manger-employee relationship cascading at all levels of a department or agency. It is the antithesis of the “one size fits all” approach which is the only way that OPM could try to cover the massive US government workforce.

Oddly enough this concept relates to the FAA’s current regulatory regime—SMS, collaboration, compliance, cooperation, proactive and individuation of the certificate holder’s safety agenda. The product of this radically different approach is increased safety and clear accountability; the recent years of reduced risks make a strong case that individuation at that complex and dynamic level can produce results.

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