Issue Briefs

Following are excerpts from a recent MSPB publication looking back on the Civil Service Reform Act on its 40th anniversary and looking ahead to issues for possible further action.

Forty years ago, President Carter signed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) into law. This legislation was the most significant reform of the Federal personnel system since the Pendleton Act, almost 100 years earlier. The CSRA’s purpose was to improve efficiency, accountability, and performance in Government during a time when the public was dissatisfied with and did not trust Government. President Carter felt it would be one of the most important laws enacted in its time.


The CSRA consisted of two parts. The first was a reorganization plan that restructured the institutions responsible for administering Federal personnel programs. Prior to 1978, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) played multiple, often conflicting, roles in administering the personnel system and protecting employees’ rights in that system. The CSRA sought to divide those responsibilities among four agencies. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for developing and administering personnel policies and programs.

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) protects merit through adjudicating individual employee appeals, conducting studies of merit systems, and reviewing OPM’s significant actions. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC, originally housed in MSPB and is now a separate agency) investigates and prosecutes cases involving prohibited personnel practices. Finally, the Federal Labor Relations Authority oversees Federal labor management relations.

The second part of the CSRA, taken from the President’s Personnel Management Project, consisted of procedural reforms that sought to change personnel policies and procedures deemed at the time to be barriers to an efficient and responsive civil service.

These proposals were developed on a very short timeframe, using wide input from stakeholders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The CSRA set forth what was considered to be bold and comprehensive change that would free Government managers from red tape, make them more responsive and accountable to political leaders and the public, and improve Government’s performance.

The CSRA included actions such as the following:

• Codifying the merit system principles and prohibited personnel practices to help leaders and employees avoid conduct that undermines merit;

• Establishing the Senior Executive Service (SES)—an elite, mobile corps of Government leaders with wide impact on public policy, greater financial incentives to motivate performance, and more opportunities for continuous development;

• Initiating pay for performance to reward top performers;

• Introducing a more comprehensive performance management structure, including new procedures for addressing poor performance;

• Authorizing OPM to delegate hiring to improve timeliness and quality; and

• Enhancing protections of whistleblowers against reprisal.

MSPB’s research demonstrates mixed results in how well the CSRA achieved its goals. Today, we hear many of the same complaints heard then: it is too hard to fire Federal employees; it takes too long to hire; Government cannot attract the best people; employees are paid for longevity rather than performance; managers do not effectively manage the workforce; whistleblowers are punished for reporting waste, fraud, and abuse; and so forth.

In President Carter’s written statement about the CSRA signing, he stated, “By itself, the law will not ensure improvement in the system. It provides the tools; the will and determination must come from those who manage the Government.” As we reflect on the CSRA’s accomplishments and failures 40 years later, and as we look toward future reform efforts, we should keep that quote in mind. Rules can be changed. Laws can be passed. Policies can be written. But the key to true reform is the resolve of the people who administer the change.

We close with some thoughts for current and future reformers.

Positive change is possible. Even if the CSRA did not achieve all that its framers hoped, much has been accomplished. For example, the merit system principles have provided useful, values-based guidance to policymakers and practitioners for 40 years. Leadership competencies, as embodied in the ECQs, are now central to the SES selection and development.

Values matter. Public service requires more than competence; it also requires, as noted in the fourth merit system principle, “high standards of conduct and concern for the public interest.” Values are similarly important to civil service policy and practice. Reform is more than copying a set of HR “best practices” culled from a management textbook. The public interest is best served when policies for the Federal workforce are governed by broader values and administered by leaders who respect those values.

Implementation is key. If a recurring theme in this issue is that outcomes fell short of visions for the CSRA, a recurring cause is that practice fell short of policy. Pay for performance initiatives were discontinued, in part, because agencies failed to create clear standards and measures for employee performance. Decentralized hiring disappointed because Federal agencies could not make the necessary investments in hiring processes or applicant assessments.

Future reformers should strive to make good policy—but they also should give thought to how individual agencies and managers can translate that policy into practice.