The federal government needs to modernize its personnel practices in a way that “provides agencies with the flexibility to effectively manage the missions that Congress has set for them” while reflecting traditional merit principles and promoting accountability for both those aims, according to a study by the National Academy of Public Administration.

It said the government’s changing responsibilities “require a more highly skilled and agile workforce. Among its many problems, the current civil service system is no longer a system. It is mired in often-arcane processes established after World War II, in the days before the Internet, interstate highways, or an interconnected global economy. Pursuit of those processes, many now largely obsolete, has become an end in itself, and compliance with them has tended to come at the expense of the missions they were supposed to support.”

It said those issues underlie many of the government’s most serious personnel-related management problems, including difficulty in staffing cybersecurity, medical and law enforcement positions, among others.

One reaction, for some agencies to break away into their own systems, “can risk undermining the merit principles” while “agencies unable to maneuver a breakout find themselves trapped in processes that fail to serve their missions.”

It said that within overall merit principles, agencies should have freedom to design their own personnel systems, with flexibilities for staffing, pay, promotion, employee engagement, employee assessment, career paths and motivation for high performers, and dealing with poor performers. While managers express frustrations with the merit system, it said, the principles are not at fault but rather “their elaborate implementing regulations” and agencies “should be able to tailor these principles to their missions.” Further, while accountability “has become a euphemism for making it easier to fire public employees” its focus should be on whether missions are being accomplished and the merit principles are being followed, it said.