This was originally published as an exclusive to Politico.
Congress and President Barack Obama have been treating federal workers like the nation's piggy bank. They have imposed a two-year pay freeze to reduce the budget deficit, raised pension contributions of future civil servants to fund extended unemployment benefits and talked about additional compensation cutbacks that further devalue public service.
These measures may be expedient for achieving budget savings, fixing pressing political problems or giving some lawmakers satisfaction, but there could ultimately be a high price to pay for treating federal employees as an unnecessary cost rather than an asset.
The legislative actions and some 20 pending proposals to cut pay, benefits and the workforce, combined with regular, unchallenged political attacks against the government, are symptomatic of an elected leadership that has lost understanding of and respect for the people working to implement the laws they pass and the programs they create.
The consequences are already evident. Employee morale is in decline, the desirability of public service has diminished and trust in government is at an all-time low.
The "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" rankings, for example, show that employee job satisfaction and commitment are dropping. The number of students planning to work in the public sector dropped more than 40 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers student survey.
In addition, federal retirements last year jumped 24 percent compared with 2010. Many experienced workers, for example, left government because of concern about possible changes in pay and retirement benefits.
If we continue to discourage young Americans from entering public service and experienced employees from staying, we will create a workforce incapable of effectively dealing with our problems.
There are legitimate differences of opinion about what government should do. But there should be agreement about the proposition that we want government to do well -- no matter what it is doing.
It is time for our political leaders to focus on what it will take for government to succeed against a tide of increasing challenges and decreasing resources. More politically motivated quick wins are not the answer.
We need to build a workforce with the advanced skills to serve a knowledge-based economy, including one with a more global and multi-sector perspective. This means creating the conditions that can attract highly educated Americans to government service, providing them with training and leadership development opportunities and holding them accountable for results.
Instead of arguing that federal workers are paid too much and imposing across-the-board freezes, Congress and the Obama administration should revamp the fundamentally flawed civil service compensation system created in 1949. There should be a market-based approach that sets federal pay levels roughly comparable to major private-sector employers.
Federal employee pay should not be higher or significantly lower than the private sector. Government workers should be viewed as part of, not isolated from, the larger labor market.
Last September, Obama called on Congress to establish a Commission on Federal Public Service Reform to recommend personnel system changes that "could include but would not be limited to compensation, staff development and mobility, and personnel performance and motivation." Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) introduced similar legislation in the last Congress.
This is a step in the right direction, and Congress should move forward on this recommendation.
At the same time, the White House must ensure that the political leadership in the departments and agencies focus on operational excellence and be held accountable for it. To do otherwise can only invite missteps and further erosion of the public view of government. As a society, we must take ownership of our government, identify its failings and fix them -- rather than bemoaning the problems, downgrading federal employees and undermining the ability of the nation to meet its collective challenges.
Max Stier is the president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
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