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President Donald Trump’s plan to make it easier to reward top-performing federal employees and fire poor performers is eliciting contrary responses from federal executives and front-line federal workers.
The president also is proposing a new workforce fund that would be used to recruit and retain high performers in critical fields such as information technology. That’s according to a preview of the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request offered by officials with the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“If this is accurate, the Senior Executives Association will be very supportive,” SEA President Bill Valdez told Bloomberg Law Feb. 9. “We’ve been arguing for many of these reforms. The workforce fund is a step in the right direction.”
Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, has a different take.
The Trump administration is seeking to create “an at-will workforce” in the federal government, he told Bloomberg Law.
Employment protections for federal employees benefit the public, Lenkart said. Federal employees need to be able “to speak up and report corruption” if necessary. This is why a civil service system with employment protections for federal workers was established in the first place, he said.
Indications that the administration will seek changes to the federal civil service system have been building for some time.
Trump in his State of the Union address said he wanted to make it easier to fire federal employees “who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” And the president in June signed the VA Accountability Act, which made it easier to fire workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The proposed changes likely will kick off a full-scale battle between the administration and federal unions, who have long defended the government’s existing personnel system.
The president is set to release his FY 2019 budget request Feb. 12. Officials with the OMB, speaking on background Feb. 8, outlined the plan to create what they described as a federal “workforce for the 21st century.”
The administration will seek to scale back the current tenure-based promotion system for federal workers, the officials said. Savings from the change would be used for performance-based awards, such as bonuses or merit-based increases, they said.
There are many jobs in government for which compensation is significantly below market value or total compensation including benefits is above market, the officials said.
“So we want to move towards a more targeted, less across-the-board type of approach to compensation,” one of the officials said.
Agencies need flexibility to align federal workers to new jobs through “re-skilling” and redeployment, the officials said. Areas in government where it is difficult to find appropriate skills include IT and law enforcement, they said.
Changes to the current grade and step system that determines federal compensation are overdue, Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 9. The proposal to make the government’s pay system more market-based will serve federal agencies well, she said.
Incentives for high performers and changes to the federal hiring system also are worth pursuing, Greszler said.
“It can take months in the federal government” to hire a new employee, compared with weeks for many private-sector employers, she said.
The administration will work to make these plans a reality over the next three years, the OMB officials said.
Congress will need to approve legislation for some of the changes to take effect, they said.
“There is a commitment to making this change happen in a way that’s right, not only for the workers, but also for the American people and the taxpayers, and that’s the journey we’re starting on,” one of the officials said.
How the administration approaches selling the federal workforce plan to Congress will say a lot about its long-term prospects, Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 9.
“Congress is a necessary partner” in making permanent changes, Simmons said. “In an election year, that will be quite challenging,” she said.
—With assistance from Cheryl Bolen.
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