Contracting, Civil Service Reform, and the Call to Reprofessionalize Public Service

Contracting, Civil Service Reform, and the Call to Reprofessionalize Public Service Paul Verkuil’s book Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government narrates the changing composition of the federal workforce and calls for the “reprofessionalization” of public service in the United States. He builds on the arguments presented in his 2007 book Outsourcing Sovereignty: Why Privatization of Government Functions Threatens Democracy and What We Can Do About It to make the case that the proliferation of contracting is, in part, to blame for the devaluation of public service. He contends outsourcing contributes to “deprofessionalizing” civil servants and argues for striking the right balance between career public managers and contractors. He describes the flaws in the US civil service system and the need for reform. Verkuil is clearly concerned about the future of government and public service. Verkuil draws from personal experience in the US federal service. He served as President Obama’s appointee as Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), an independent agency with public and private representatives charged with improving regulatory and administrative processes. He is also an administrative law scholar, president emeritus of the College of William and Mary, and former dean of both the Tule University Law School and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. As in Outsourcing Sovereignty, his approach to Valuing Bureaucracy is through a legal lens, yet he couples this with his practical experience at ACUS to define problems and design solutions. The book begins by conceptually connecting contracting to civil service reform. At the outset, Verkuil asserts the rise of contracting is not simply an ideological preference for smaller government, but rather it is also a practical attempt to overcome obstacles in hiring and firing. He also uses salient examples, such as the use of private prisons, to highlight the accountability problems that result from relying on contractors instead of professional civil servants. The second part of Verkuil’s book addresses the need to reform the civil service. Verkuil provides a brief history of the federal civil service in the United States and then identifies problems with the current system. He focuses primarily on the Senior Executive Service and managerial personnel not in collective bargaining units, which centers the discussion on strategic issues related to recruiting, hiring, retaining, and terminating. Verkuil’s experiences with bureaucratic processes while at ACUS inform his description of how strategic managers perform workarounds to avoid onerous processes when staffing agencies. Although the book primarily focuses on dynamics in federal agencies, Verkuil pauses to profile state government failures that contribute to public distrust in government, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to underscore the need for professionalization throughout all levels of government. The book ends with proposed solutions to improve and reprofessionalize government. Verkuil’s tidy prescriptions are primarily adopted from the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), where he is also a fellow. He leverages the NAPA 2016 transition report, which provided 10 administrative proposals for the incoming presidential administration. The report included solutions to modernize the civil service through collaboration, strategic goal-setting, data-driven decision making, transparency, and employee-engagement in performance management. Verkuil builds on the NAPA proposals by specifying priorities to foster innovation, leverage technology, improve coordination, among others. Valuing Bureaucracy is less about providing a full account of issues related to contracting or civil service reform and more about illustrating the breadth of obstacles to effective public service. He addresses tenure, veteran’s preferences, unions, A-76 programs, and in-sourcing inherently governmental functions, among many other topics that influence or are affected by the deprofessionalization of public service. As a result, the book provides an accessible case for civil service reform that is well suited for an introductory course on bureaucracy. Verkuil’s arguments are clear and concise. Valuing Bureaucracy can provide students with an understanding of the relationship between contractors and bureaucrats, the need for professional civil servants, and inform key personnel issues. Although administrative law is Verkuil’s expertise, he acknowledges that research in the fields of public administration and public policy are better positioned to speak to the practice of government, which is the focus of the book. Verkuil relies heavily on accounts from the popular press to substantiate his arguments and seldom utilizes empirical work in public administration to buttress his arguments (e.g., the book has only about a half dozen references from the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Public Administration Review, and Review of Public Personnel Administration). In this regard, the book is more relevant for classroom use than research. For example, Verkuil’s prescriptions for reform speak to motivating and incentivizing civil servants. He could have explored how goal ambiguity and goal misalignment might contribute to motivation and performance challenges (Chun and Rainey 2005). Verkuil also missed an opportunity to explore the research on public service motivation and “new public service” or values-based management, which speak directly to motivation and incentives (Bryson et al. 2014; Perry et al. 2010). Verkuil cites the loss of graduates entering government from Princeton and Harvard, noting more now enter the private sector than the public sector. I also see increasing numbers of students from public affairs programs choosing employment in the private and nonprofit sectors, and there is a growing dialogue on the matter in the Journal of Public Affairs Education. Two important dynamics are in play that are not explored in the book. Public administrators are increasingly contract managers, overseeing service delivery performed by nonprofit and private sector personnel. Thus, students interested in direct service delivery are likely to work on contract, not as public employees. And students of public affairs seldom graduate with the technical training necessary to effectively manage contracts, which exacerbates the problems Verkuil identifies. Overall, Verkuil persuades the reader that the federal workforce infrastructure is in serious need of repair, drawing parallels to the United States’ dilapidated bridges, roads, and physical infrastructure. The metaphor is powerful, illustrating how continued disregard of professionalized public service will further erode public trust in government. References Bryson, J. M., B. C. Crosby, and L. Bloomberg. 2014. Public value governance: Moving beyond traditional public administration and the new public management. Public Administration Review  74: 445– 56. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Chun, Y. H., and H. G. Rainey. 2005. Goal ambiguity and organizational performance in US federal agencies. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory  15: 529– 57. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Perry, J. L., A. Hondeghem, and L. R. Wise. 2010. Revisiting the motivational bases of public service: Twenty years of research and an agenda for the future. Public Administration Review  70: 681– 90. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © The Author(s) 2017, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory Oxford University Press

Contracting, Civil Service Reform, and the Call to Reprofessionalize Public Service

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Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2017, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
1053-1858
eISSN
1477-9803
D.O.I.
10.1093/jopart/mux046
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Abstract

Paul Verkuil’s book Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government narrates the changing composition of the federal workforce and calls for the “reprofessionalization” of public service in the United States. He builds on the arguments presented in his 2007 book Outsourcing Sovereignty: Why Privatization of Government Functions Threatens Democracy and What We Can Do About It to make the case that the proliferation of contracting is, in part, to blame for the devaluation of public service. He contends outsourcing contributes to “deprofessionalizing” civil servants and argues for striking the right balance between career public managers and contractors. He describes the flaws in the US civil service system and the need for reform. Verkuil is clearly concerned about the future of government and public service. Verkuil draws from personal experience in the US federal service. He served as President Obama’s appointee as Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS), an independent agency with public and private representatives charged with improving regulatory and administrative processes. He is also an administrative law scholar, president emeritus of the College of William and Mary, and former dean of both the Tule University Law School and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. As in Outsourcing Sovereignty, his approach to Valuing Bureaucracy is through a legal lens, yet he couples this with his practical experience at ACUS to define problems and design solutions. The book begins by conceptually connecting contracting to civil service reform. At the outset, Verkuil asserts the rise of contracting is not simply an ideological preference for smaller government, but rather it is also a practical attempt to overcome obstacles in hiring and firing. He also uses salient examples, such as the use of private prisons, to highlight the accountability problems that result from relying on contractors instead of professional civil servants. The second part of Verkuil’s book addresses the need to reform the civil service. Verkuil provides a brief history of the federal civil service in the United States and then identifies problems with the current system. He focuses primarily on the Senior Executive Service and managerial personnel not in collective bargaining units, which centers the discussion on strategic issues related to recruiting, hiring, retaining, and terminating. Verkuil’s experiences with bureaucratic processes while at ACUS inform his description of how strategic managers perform workarounds to avoid onerous processes when staffing agencies. Although the book primarily focuses on dynamics in federal agencies, Verkuil pauses to profile state government failures that contribute to public distrust in government, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to underscore the need for professionalization throughout all levels of government. The book ends with proposed solutions to improve and reprofessionalize government. Verkuil’s tidy prescriptions are primarily adopted from the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), where he is also a fellow. He leverages the NAPA 2016 transition report, which provided 10 administrative proposals for the incoming presidential administration. The report included solutions to modernize the civil service through collaboration, strategic goal-setting, data-driven decision making, transparency, and employee-engagement in performance management. Verkuil builds on the NAPA proposals by specifying priorities to foster innovation, leverage technology, improve coordination, among others. Valuing Bureaucracy is less about providing a full account of issues related to contracting or civil service reform and more about illustrating the breadth of obstacles to effective public service. He addresses tenure, veteran’s preferences, unions, A-76 programs, and in-sourcing inherently governmental functions, among many other topics that influence or are affected by the deprofessionalization of public service. As a result, the book provides an accessible case for civil service reform that is well suited for an introductory course on bureaucracy. Verkuil’s arguments are clear and concise. Valuing Bureaucracy can provide students with an understanding of the relationship between contractors and bureaucrats, the need for professional civil servants, and inform key personnel issues. Although administrative law is Verkuil’s expertise, he acknowledges that research in the fields of public administration and public policy are better positioned to speak to the practice of government, which is the focus of the book. Verkuil relies heavily on accounts from the popular press to substantiate his arguments and seldom utilizes empirical work in public administration to buttress his arguments (e.g., the book has only about a half dozen references from the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Public Administration Review, and Review of Public Personnel Administration). In this regard, the book is more relevant for classroom use than research. For example, Verkuil’s prescriptions for reform speak to motivating and incentivizing civil servants. He could have explored how goal ambiguity and goal misalignment might contribute to motivation and performance challenges (Chun and Rainey 2005). Verkuil also missed an opportunity to explore the research on public service motivation and “new public service” or values-based management, which speak directly to motivation and incentives (Bryson et al. 2014; Perry et al. 2010). Verkuil cites the loss of graduates entering government from Princeton and Harvard, noting more now enter the private sector than the public sector. I also see increasing numbers of students from public affairs programs choosing employment in the private and nonprofit sectors, and there is a growing dialogue on the matter in the Journal of Public Affairs Education. Two important dynamics are in play that are not explored in the book. Public administrators are increasingly contract managers, overseeing service delivery performed by nonprofit and private sector personnel. Thus, students interested in direct service delivery are likely to work on contract, not as public employees. And students of public affairs seldom graduate with the technical training necessary to effectively manage contracts, which exacerbates the problems Verkuil identifies. Overall, Verkuil persuades the reader that the federal workforce infrastructure is in serious need of repair, drawing parallels to the United States’ dilapidated bridges, roads, and physical infrastructure. The metaphor is powerful, illustrating how continued disregard of professionalized public service will further erode public trust in government. References Bryson, J. M., B. C. Crosby, and L. Bloomberg. 2014. Public value governance: Moving beyond traditional public administration and the new public management. Public Administration Review  74: 445– 56. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Chun, Y. H., and H. G. Rainey. 2005. Goal ambiguity and organizational performance in US federal agencies. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory  15: 529– 57. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Perry, J. L., A. Hondeghem, and L. R. Wise. 2010. Revisiting the motivational bases of public service: Twenty years of research and an agenda for the future. Public Administration Review  70: 681– 90. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © The Author(s) 2017, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

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Journal of Public Administration Research and TheoryOxford University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2018

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