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Modernizing Merit

Maximizing Flexibility

Change will be a constant in the 21st Century civil service; to meet this challenge, we must develop and deploy a civil service system that is flexible, agile and responsive enough to adapt to any circumstance. This is our second principle of modernization: provide agencies (and those who lead them) with maximum flexibility…but within the bounds set by the core values that define our civil service system. Thus, while those core values serve as our system’s indivisible nucleus, the way they are operationalized may vary from agency to agency without necessarily threatening or eroding them. For example, while merit principles ensure that employees receive “equal pay for work of equal value,” the means to that end may manifest itself in dozens of different compensation systems…indeed, that is the case today for a significant portion of the Federal civil service, and OPM’s vision of the future portends even more of the same.

The nostalgia for a unitary, uniform civil service system notwithstanding, that past is long gone. Our system’s standardized rules, once its strength, have become a weakness; intended to insure fairness and equal treatment, they have begun to have the opposite effect, fostering rigidity and sameness and mediocrity…to the point that few distinctions are made between top performers and those that are merely doing their time. Designed when bureaucracy was king, its “one size fits all” paradigm has become dysfunctional, an impediment to agencies whose missions and workforces have become increasingly diverse and complex. And its emphasis on process and procedure (as the principal means of assuring merit) increasingly comes at the expense of accountability and results.

In contrast, our future is a system that is flexible and elastic, one that can be molded and shaped to fit the unique missions, functions, and work forces of the agencies and departments that comprise the Federal Government…but without abandoning the core values that have so successfully served as our anchor. The establishment of our new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides a model for this delicate balancing act. Proposed by President Bush to guard against the threat of terrorism, the Department’s success depends on its ability to field a skilled, agile, high-performing workforce, and as a result, its enabling legislation gives the Department, in partnership with OPM, the authority to design a completely new human resources (HR) system for most of its 180,000 employees…unprecedented flexibility to literally rewrite the civil service laws and procedural regulations that would otherwise govern how it classifies, evaluates, compensates, and terminates its employees.

However, by law, that flexibility remains firmly and unequivocally bounded by our system’s core values – merit, due process, protection from reprisal and discrimination, etc. These values cannot be touched by the Department’s flexibility. Moreover, the authority to exercise those flexibilities is shared by the Department’s Secretary and the Director of OPM, the former accountable for the security of our homeland, the latter for preserving the ideals of the merit system. This same framework is replicated in the Defense Department’s (DoD) new National Security Personnel System (NSPS). Covering up to 750,000 DoD employees, NSPS provides for similar personnel flexibility, but like DHS, it is balanced and bounded by similar safeguards…including the participation of OPM.

These “designer systems” represent the future of our civil service, flexible enough to fit an agency’s unique mission and culture, yet inextricably connected to one another by the civil service values that serve to bond all Federal employers and employees to the public interest. It is a future where flexibility and high performance need not (and shall not) come at the expense of such core principles as merit, veterans’ preference, and equal employment opportunity; indeed, those values and the high standards of performance and integrity they enable are interdependent and inextricable.

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