Water Flowing Uphill: National Implications of State Civil Service Movements

Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
190 Public Administration Review • March | April 2015
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 190–191. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12349.
Donald F. Kettl
University of Maryland
Water Flowing Uphill: National Implications of State Civil
Service Movements
C ommentators in Washington are used to
looking at the city as the center of the politi-
cal universe, and it is hard not to argue that
government, business, and media decisions ripple
out across the globe. To a degree often recognized,
however, a host of important ideas are bubbling up
from state and local governments and are fundamen-
tally reshaping Washington politics. High on the list
of improbable impacts is the pressure of state ideas
building on the federal civil service. In his fascinating
analysis, Paul R. Verkuil points out that 28 states have
now embraced at least some form of at-will employ-
ment, which gives government supervisors far greater
power to terminate public employees without having
to go through the extensive employee-protection
process that makes it difficult to fire public employees.
This movement poses fundamental but unexamined
puzzles about how best to align government s human
capital for the challenges it must tackle.
Twenty-five years ago, the Volcker Commission
powerfully made the case for fundamental reform.
It concluded that the “erosion in the attractiveness
of public service at all levels—most specifically in
the federal civil service—undermines the ability of
government to respond effectively to the needs and
aspirations of the American people, and ultimately
damages the democratic process itself” ( 1989 , ix). But
in the years since, its champions have struggled to get
traction. Meanwhile, government human capital has
struggled to keep up with the challenges it faces, the
federal hiring process has broken down, and attacks
on civil servants have escalated.
The 2014 Department of Veterans Affairs scandal,
in which data on wait times for appointments had
been falsified, triggered congressional pressures to
make it easier to fire the elite employees in the federal
Senior Executive Service (SES), one of the hallmark
programs of the most important civil service legisla-
tion of the last half-century. At a July 2014 hearing
questioning “The Viability of the Senior Executive
Service,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) argued,
“the committee s oversight work has shown that the
government continues to lack the quality executive
leadership necessary to administer key governmental
services and programs,” a not-so-thinly-veiled assault
on the SES itself. He pointed out that the House of
Representatives had agreed on changes that would
make “senior executives at the VA at-will employees”
(U.S. House of Representatives 2014 , 2).
That federal proposal builds on the at-will movement
flowing uphill from the states. State-inspired move-
ments are nothing new. After all, much of the progres-
sive government reform movement of the late 1800s,
from changes reining in corruption to strategies increas-
ing the efficiency of government operations, bubbled
up from state and local governments to Washington
(Mosher 1968 ; Waldo 1948 ). In the 2000s, the local
Tea Party movement generated enormous government-
cutting energy—as well as candidates carrying its ideas
to Washington. To a degree many Washington insiders
do not recognize, the “flowing uphill” movement is
generating a strong push toward ideas like transforming
the SES into an at-will employment system.
There is little doubt that the government s person-
nel systems have become ossified, trapped in mid-
twentieth thinking at a time when government
needs twenty-first century entrepreneurial energy.
Government performance surely suffers if govern-
ment employment becomes a barrier to flexibility,
innovation, and energy, and there is an overwhelming
consensus that the civil service system needs funda-
mental reform (Partnership for Public Service 2014 ).
But at-will employment in the government reminds us
of Wallace Sayre s famous—and perceptive—observa-
tion that “business and public administration are alike
only in all unimportant respects” ( 1958 , 245). It raises
enormous questions about how to balance the often-
competing goals of accountability, flexibility, innova-
tion, and expertise that lie at the core of the public
service. The at-will movement deserves—indeed,
requires—careful examination before its untested
assumptions subtly reshape governmental practice.
Donald F. Kettl is professor of public
policy at the University of Maryland. He
is also a nonresident senior fellow in The
Volcker Alliance and in Governance Studies
at the Brookings Institution. Among other
books, Kettl is author of
The Politics of the
Administrative Process
System Under
, both published by SAGE/CQ Press.
E-mail : kettl@umd.edu

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT