Even as we move to radically reshape the American civil service system, we must take great care to ensure that its modernization does not come at the expense of its foundational values. The enduring legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, these foundational values are set forth in the merit principles that ground our nation’s civil service laws, regulations, procedures, and practices…literally every aspect of the relationship between our Federal Government and its career employees. Codified in statute and regulated by OPM, these principles represent the core of our system, and they guarantee a civil service that is free from any partisan political activity or influence – without diminishing the responsiveness and accountability of our civil servants to the public interest.
These core values cannot and will not be compromised. If there is a “prime directive” that drives OPM in its modernization of the civil service, this is it – our first principle of reform. Among other things, those values, and the laws and rules that give them life, assure that Federal employees are hired, promoted, paid, and discharged solely on the basis of merit and conduct…their ability to do their job. They provide special protections for veterans, victims of discrimination, and those who expose Government waste or fraud. They also guarantee our public employees due process in any action that threatens their employment, as well as the right to join unions and bargain collectively. With these enabling principles, our civil service system ensures that politics and political party, as well as other non-merit factors, have no bearing on the tenure of our civil servants, from the entry level clerk to the career members of our Senior Executive Service who lead them. These values were the genesis of the Federal civil service and have stood the test of time. They must remain intact and sacrosanct as we move forward.
In so doing, we must also assure the efficacy of those who make those core values and principles real, those who lead…and in so doing, are called upon to live those values by example; they too are an essential element of our civil service. Leadership matters; members of the Senior Executive Service and its equivalents, as well as those in its developmental “pipeline” (such as Presidential Management Fellows and new Senior Fellows), are as vital to preserving the ideal as the values that define it. If those values are our center of gravity, leaders serve as their binding force, connecting increasingly divergent agencies with a common, corporate culture of excellence and integrity, and they too must be an essential component of the modernization process.
However, OPM is ultimately the steward of these ideals. It establishes the policies that govern how Federal agencies manage their civil service employees, and along with other central agencies that adjudicate employee appeals, labor disputes, and discrimination complaints, it holds those agencies accountable for complying with them. The successor to Theodore Roosevelt’s Civil Service Commission, OPM celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and it is unique among Federal agencies – at once, accountable to the President, our highest elected official, and to assuring the bedrock principles of political neutrality and merit that ground our civil service. Without OPM’s institutional stewardship, those values would be nothing more than noble abstractions, and thus, it is perhaps the most critical to our first principle: preserving the ideal.