Of “Workarounds” and Bureaucrats

From: The Regulatory Review

Civil service reformers should consider changes to lengthy, single-agency employee tenures.


Verkuil might also have noted another, related problem, this one arising in part from long careers in a single agency. Many civil servants work in cloistered and self-referential interpretative communities. A common result is that they stand resolutely on entrenched agency interpretations of rules—not all of them even reasonable, let alone compelled—that can deprive the system (often other affected agencies) of the flexibility to respond to new circumstances and embrace suggestions for better ways of doing things. There is seldom effective recourse to outside interpreters—federal judges, lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, officials at OMB—to tell an agency that its own interpretation of the law may not be the only, the best, or even a reasonable one.


Among them: Hiring top employees can be near impossible. One problem Verkuil highlights is that OPM officials think they know better than hiring managers what skills a job requires and who among applicants possess them, and they cabin hiring discretion accordingly. Terminating underperforming employees is still harder, in part the result of excessive and miscalibrated just-cause protections that serve the interests of employees rather than the public. And the compensation system is a mess. Some employees are overcompensated, many more undercompensated. Salary compression may be yet a more serious problem. Congress’s promise of merit pay in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 remains to be delivered.

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