The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

The Civil Service Reform Act of l978 (CSRA) was passed amid much publicity as one of the major domestic accomplishments of the Carter administration. It encompassed a wide variety of management reforms, including creation of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). These new agencies replaced the former U.S. Civil Service Commission. In addition, the CSRA accomplished the following:

Although Carter failed to achieve the degree of flexibility he sought for managers to fire incompetent employees and failed to make substantial inroads against veterans' preference, the Civil Service Act was a major accomplishment of his administration and a culmination of efforts of a generation of civil service reformers. Nonetheless, most recent evaluations by practitioners and scholars alike have seen the CSRA as relatively ineffective.

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)

The MSPB was created as a three-person, bipartisan board appointed by the president for seven-year, nonrenewable terms. MSPB members are insulated from postappointment presidential influence by a rule that their removal may be only for reasons of neglect of duty, inefficiency, or malfeasance in office. The president also appoints an MSPB special counsel for a five-year term. As with most other such appointments, the Senate must confirm the president's appointment of the counsel and board members, as well as the president's choice of the MSPB chairperson.

The MSPB was authorized by the l978 act to adjudicate appeals for federal employees or job applicants. The MSPB, through its special counsel, was given the power to subpoena, the power to require agencies to investigate and report on whistle-blowers' allegations of agency malpractice, and the power to refer possible criminal acts to the Attorney General's office for prosecution. The MSPB special counsel will, like ombudspeople, keep a public list of noncriminal matters referred to it by whistle-blowers. The MSPB was also given the following disciplinary powers: removal, grade reduction, suspension, reprimand, up to five years' debarment from federal employment, and up to $l,000 in civil fines. Disciplinary action against presidential appointees, however, will be referred by the counsel to the president rather than to the MSPB.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

The OPM was created as an executive agency headed by a presidentially appointed director serving a four-year term, removable by the president. OPM functions may also be delegated to the heads of executive agencies. The OPM is charged with administration of civil service laws, including the conducting of competitive examinations (a function the OPM cannot delegate). The OPM was also given supervision over the Senior Executive Service. Finally, it was given a major research and demonstration role in personnel work.

The Senior Executive Service (SES) was composed of non-presidentially appointed officials above the GS-l5 level of the general personnel schedule and below Level III of the executive schedule. The FBI, CIA, DIA, NSA, GAO, Foreign Service and government corporations' employees are exempt from the SES. For other agencies, the OPM determines the number of SES positions every two years. SES positions need not be staffed by normal career civil service procedures, though the OPM is required to set criteria for judging SES candidates for career positions. Also,no more than l0 percent of all SES positions may be staffed by noncareer appointees and at least 70 percent of SES positions must be filled by individuals having five or more continuous years of civil service experience just before their SES appointment.

A key feature of the SES is the requirement that each agency set up an annual performance review system for each SES employee, in accord with OPM regulations. These performance reviews were to be the basis for either incentive bonuses or possible removal from the SES. Annually up to 5 percent of SES employees were to be named "meritorious executives" and given incentive bonuses of up to $l0,000. Up to l percent were to be designated "distinguished executives" and receive $20,000 bonuses. Other SES employees were to receive up to 20 percent of their base pay for performance awards, though no more than 50 percent of an agency's SES employees could receive such an award in a given year.

The CSRA after Carter

The CSRA was intended to increase bureaucratic accountability to the executive branch. This "reform" to some quickly was received as "politicization" by others. Demands were soon raised to overthrow the CSRA in favor of the older independent-commission style of civil service organization, attempting to insulate civil servants from politics.

At the same time, a skeptical Congress cut the percentage of SES members eligible for bonuses form 50% to 25%, and the Reagan administration trimmed it further to only 20%. This spread cynicism throughout the senior civil service, a cynicism reinforced by inequities created by certain rulings of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Again, calls arose for reuniting the functions of the OPM, FLRA and MSPB to achieve a coordinated personnel policy.

Overall, the CSRA had far less impact than anticipated. Budget processes and evaluation practices in the departments changed little. Later Reagan administration personnel reforms focused on efficiencies to be achieved in payroll automation and standardization and less on the broader issues raised by the proponents of the CSRA.

Source: D. Garson, by permission.